Write It Sideways

My Response to a Letter from an Aspiring Writer

The following is a recent exchange I had with an aspiring writer via email. It’s edited for length and clarity, and to protect the identity of the writer. 

Hi, Suzannah!

This is my first time talking (or rather typing) to an actual writer.

A friend of mine wanted to write for a living. She has a way with words, her best subject is English, all of her essays are at least 50 or a 100 more words than necessary, simply because she loves that feeling of validation, during which your thoughts are Maybe I do have writing talent after all and Maybe I’m actually special.

Anyway, she wrote all of these dead-end stories with special attention to the characters’ physical appearance, background, personality, and about the place the story’s set in. She quickly lost interest in everything else. But now she’s given up on the idea of writing for a living, and is planning to be a psychologist instead, though she still sometimes tells me about her crazy dreams and tries to make them into stories.

So, these are my questions:

Sorry, I think I’ve done the text version of rambling. I hope to hear from you!

A. Spiring



Dear A. Spiring,

Thanks so much for your questions. I’ll try to answer them to the best of my ability!

First, one doesn’t have to decide between being a writer and a psychologist—or any other career, for that matter. You can be a psychologist who writes novels or stories on the side, or after becoming a psychologist and getting some real-life experience, you can become a professional freelance writer who specializes in writing articles about psychology. There are many different ways to combine a love of writing with a career, so try not to see this as an either/or situation.

What does it take to be a writer? Do you simply have to have a good imagination or is it more than that? Can anybody be a writer, or are people just born to be them?

Having a good imagination is definitely not all it takes to be a writer (unless you just want to write for yourself as a hobby).

There are so many attributes that contribute to how successful you will be: creativity, excellent language skills, professionalism, marketing skills, persistence, developing a thick skin for rejection, attention to detail, etc. Some writers naturally have more of these attributes than others, some fewer. However, I believe the most important attribute is a strong desire to write, which then leads you to acquire the other attributes you might not naturally have.

For example, you might have a great imagination and be able to come up with stories on the fly, but you might also continually struggle to edit your stories to the point where they are ready to be read by someone else. A strong, genuine desire to be a writer will eventually lead you to learn and practice and grow, until you are able to do the very thing you struggled with in the first place. You have to be hard on yourself, to look seriously at constructive criticism, to actively work toward supplementing those areas in which you are not particularly gifted.

Not everyone has that stick-to-it-ness, but those who do will find some degree of success. Of course, success is different for everyone. For one person, success is publishing a novel; for another person, success is having a portfolio of published articles in magazines; for yet another person, success means self-publishing a book of poetry or a collection of short stories.

The worst thing I think an aspiring writer can do is focus on publishing or self-publishing a large piece of work right off the bat. This aspiration places publication (and, if you are honest with yourself, the often-erroneous belief that publication will bring you money and prestige) as a goal over good writing. Though there are success stories to the contrary, the majority of people need to write for many years before they become used to the process of writing, revising, gathering feedback, revising again, submitting, getting rejected, and completing the process all over again. It is the repetition of this process that leads to growth, and growth is what takes you closer to your overall goals.

To sum up, I think some people are certainly more naturally talented than others when it comes to writing, but good writing can be learned by those who are willing to put in the hard work.

Are there writing styles that just aren’t as . . . good?

If you mean “Are there some genres of writing that just aren’t as good as others?” the answer is no. What constitutes “good’ depends on the genre in which you are writing, and on what readers expect and want from their reading experience. The style of writing that makes for a “good” literary novel may be much different to the style of writing that makes for a “good” commercial thriller. The best style of writing is one that delivers and exceeds readers’ expectations within that genre. I guess the only bad style of writing is one that doesn’t communicate what it intends to communicate, or one that frustrates your reader rather than compels them to continue.

What are some ideas that make it very difficult to get writer’s block? I know, depends on the writer, but for example, A writer for a comic book series is confronted by the superhero he created. The hero demands to know why he has to fight a new enemy every week while the writer sits safely at home. The hero takes the writer to the dark universe he created, so he can see what it’s like to be in constant danger. You know, something that has so much potential, so hard to mess up.

There is no idea that guarantees you won’t get stuck in writing it, but there’s also no idea that can’t be carried off well if executed properly. There are no good or bad story ideas, only good and bad execution. Some writers are great at intricately plotting a story, and if that’s your forte, feel free to go for a story with plenty of twists and turns. Some writers are horrible at plotting but great with character development, so they’d be better off going that direction. I, personally, would struggle with writer’s block if I tried to write a plot-heavy novel, so I probably won’t attempt that. If you know your strengths and weaknesses, perhaps you’re less likely to choose ideas that aren’t a good fit for you.

What are some ideas to make your writing better? Imagination and reading a lot is key, but not necessarily vocabulary.

Vocabulary is just a tool. Heavily detailed, poetic language might be the best tool to use for a particular piece of writing, while simple language and sentence structure might be the best tool to use for another.

Imagination is great if you’re writing something that requires a lot of it, such as YA fantasy or a children’s picture book or a sci-fi story, but the ability to see and analyze the nuances of life and character, and then put them down on the page in a way that makes your reader think, is far more important to a piece of literary writing.

The best advice I can give to “make your writing better” is to read a lot. Read widely and critically. Don’t just read the story, but really break down its structure, notice its dialogue, note the type of language used, etc. The more you notice these elements, the more you’ll naturally weave them into your own writing.

Hope all of this helps!