There is no substitute. Start small, write a good sentence, then a good paragraph, and don’t be dreaming of writing the great American novel. That’s not what writing’s all about and it’s not how you get there from here. The road to great writing is made of words and not all of them are great, well-arranged words.
- Writing is not typing.
Writing is thinking, researching, contemplating, outlining, maybe with some typing, then revisions, deletions, additions, and setting the project aside and returning afresh; typing is just a minor transaction in between two vast thought processes.
- Read. And Don’t Read.
Read good writing and don’t restrict yourself to the present. Literature is not high school and it isn’t necessary to know what everyone else around you is doing. Worse, being greatly influenced by people who are currently being published can make you look just like them, which isn’t often a good thing. Originality is your gold standard. Write from the universal human experience. Write a true human story and write it well; it won’t matter what genre it may take place it.
- Find a Vocation.
Talent is overrated and is often mistaken for style. Passion, vocation, vision, and dedication are much more rare, and they will smooth out the rough spots when your talent will not give you a reason to get out of bed and stare at that problem manuscript for the hundredth day in a row. If you aren’t passionate about writing and the world and the things you’re writing about, why bother? It begins with passion even before it begins with words.
It takes time. This means you have to find the time in your life. Don’t be too social. Live below your means. You probably have to do something else for living, but don’t let your job (or your bills) grow so much that they squeeze out time for your writing.
Always get them right. No one will trust you if you get them wrong and any author is doomed if the reading public can trust him. No matter what you’re writing about, whether it’s nonfiction, fiction, or poetry, you have an obligation to get it right, for the characters you’re writing about, for the readers, and for the record.
Writing is facing your deepest fears and all your failures, including how hard it is to write a lot of the time and how much you detest what you’ve just written and that you’re the person who just created all those flawed sentences. When it totally sucks (and it will), pause, look out the window, and tell yourself you’re doing exactly what you want to be doing. You are hanging out with the language. I am following in the footsteps of Shakespeare and Flaubert. Find pleasure and joy. Find joy in the work, just as a master carpenter does theirs. Enjoy the process.
- Success is very nice and comes with lovely byproducts (like money), but success is not love.
At best, it is the love of the work, not love of you. The process of making art is the process of becoming a person with agency, with independent thought, a producer of meaning, rather than a consumer of meanings. And, if you are writing to gain the acclaim of a fickle public, you run the risk of pandering to what you think will be popular. That will often end up seeming shallow and artificial. Instead, write truth. As Ernest Hemingway said: “Write one true sentence. Then write another.” If you write the truth of the human condition, the rest will take care of itself.