How to Approach Becoming a Writer

Note: This article was originally published on April 6, 2016.


False: Writing is a mystical practice, in which the muse strikes like a bolt of lightning from a blue sky and a perfect story flows out of you. True: Writing is a skill, like any other, that is acquired through thousands of hours of practice.

Writing is not about inspiration. Writing is not about ideas. Writing is not about luck.

Not about inspiration: The writers that get published are the writers that write not only when the writing is easy and fun, but also when it is pure drudgery, and every word they type feels stale and worthless. There are three reasons for this:

  1. When the novel is done, it is impossible to distinguish between the pages produced in the two mindsets, because you revise and remove the pretentiousness from the “inspired” writing and you rework the dry, “uninspired” writing until they both feel the same.
  2. If you wait until you are inspired to start writing, you will very rarely feel inspired, whereas if you write every day, you will find yourself looking forward to the task at hand more and more frequently.
  3. The reason to practice writing is that every word you write makes you a better writer, regardless of how you feel while writing it—you improve the same amount, no matter whether you feel brilliant or stupid while doing the work.

In summary: You produce the same quality of writing and improve the same amount whether inspired or uninspired.

Writing is not about ideas: The same school of thought that teaches that writing is about inspiration teaches that the greatest writers have better ideas than the rest of us. Some think that if only they could find the idea for a bestselling novel, they would be set. They think writers should hoard their ideas, waiting for the best one before writing. But the truth is that ideas are cheap, and far less important than the execution.

Ideas are cheap. A great writer can write a compelling, powerful story using a weak idea, and a terrible writer will take the best idea in the world and write a terrible story with it. A certain quality of idea can be important—specifically, an idea that you find interesting and worthwhile, and an idea that excites you—but it is far, far less important than how well you actually write. Your skills in writing sentences, scenes, and chapters, and your skills in portraying emotions, characters, and conflict, are orders of magnitude more important than the ingenuity of your ideas.

The story of Jim Butcher’s rise to fame illustrates this principle. Jim Butcher is a fantasy writer, and author of the Dresden Files and The Codex Alera series. Five years before he was published, he was in a heated argument on a forum with a random stranger. Jim argued that the execution of the story mattered far more than the ideas that made up the story; the other person insisted that the ideas behind
the story mattered more. So Jim said, “Give me the worst two ideas you can come up with, and I will write an amazing story using them.” Other person replies, “Alright—write a story that combines Pokemon and the Lost Roman Legion.” . . . the result was Jim Butcher’s seven-book, #1 New York Times Bestselling series The Codex Alera.

Writing is not about luck: A novel is not a coin-flip. Getting published is not a fluke.

Let’s say you’re listening to a pianist. How long do you have to listen before you can tell the general skill level of the pianist? Thirty seconds? A minute? I would argue that, within as little as five to ten seconds, you can distinguish between a masterful concert pianist, a good-but-not-amazing intermediate pianist, and an I-started-three-months-ago-and-never-practice novice pianist. You can tell them apart immediately even if you don’t play or listen to piano. Similarly, an editor or agent can tell your writing skill from a single page. A literary agent (someone who helps you with book contracts, marketing, foreign rights, and publication in general) can read the first pages of a hundred novel submissions in a day, and will know very quickly whether the writers are experienced and publishable. Similarly, you can probably tell whether you will like a book within the first chapter. All these phenomena rely on a single, underlying principle: You don’t have to have a skill to recognize it in others. You don’t need to be an author to tell whether a book is good, in the same way that you don’t have to be an Olympic sprinter to tell whether an athlete runs quickly and you don’t have to be a painter to tell a Picasso masterpiece from an amateur’s doodle.

If you are persistent, you write every day, and you submit your books to enough editors and agents, you will eventually get published.

Becoming a writer is about none of these things. Instead, becoming a writer is akin to becoming a pianist, baseball player, or Jedi. Writing is a skill that can only be developed through practice.

The number often thrown about since Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers popularized the concept is 10,000 hours. There is nothing magic about hitting exactly ten thousand, but the overall concept is sound: to master any specific craft you have to work at it for two or three hours a day, every day, for a decade (or five hours a day for six years).

There is a caveat: it is not enough to simply write each day. The key is that you have to consistently work hard at improving your writing. You have to deliberately practice the key skills of becoming a writer (doing this is the main purpose of this entire site).

This type of work, in which you concentrate for 1.5-4.5 hours at a time on a difficult task, without distraction, is called deep work (credit to Cal Newport for the term and idea). Deep work is work on a cognitively challenging task that takes place without distraction. (Shallow work, in contrast, is easily replicated half-work that produces no real value.) Deep work has several benefits:

  • A continual improvement in the quality of your writing (an improvement in your skill as a writer).
  • A continual increase in the quantity of your writing (deep work is a skill that is developed like any other: through practice. If you start out doing 1.5 hours of deep work once a week, then move to twice a week, and over a few months to every day, and then to twice a day . . . you will end up producing a far greater volume of work than you would have thought possible).
  • A sense of meaning in your life. When you spend daily time working hard on something of value, you feel that your life is well-lived and worthwhile; when you spend all your time on inconsequential, transient matters, like Facebook, television, and other low-stakes, low-value activities, you yourself start to feel that your life is similarly without worth.

That said, deep work is extraordinarily exhausting if done properly—it requires absolute, absorbing concentration on a single, difficult task, without distractions, and will drain you of a good deal of your mental energy and willpower. This is why it is important to spend several hours a day doing the fun, frivolous, low-stakes and rejuvenating activities mentioned above after you do your deep work. If you do a couple hours of deep work in the morning and then spend the rest of your day doing less intensive, distracted half-work (or more deep work), instead of completely disengaging and relaxing, you will not be able to continue to work the next day. This reflects an important underlying concept in the general philosophy of becoming a great writer: No one day matters; what matters is that you get back on track, and repeatedly spend a majority of your days working on what matters to you.

Because deep work is draining, you should not expect your mind to switch over to it easily. If you want to engage in deep work on a regular basis, you need to do a few things:

Maintain conscious, compelling clarity on the answer to the questions of why you are going to work deeply and what you are going to accomplish in any particular deep work session. E.g., “I am going to work deeply today because becoming a skilled writer (biologist, politician, chef, etc.) is important to me and will result in me having a rewarding and well-rewarded life.” and “I am going to drill down today on my magic system and really nail down all the details, because that is the area in my novel where I am having the most trouble currently.”

Establish a ritual you follow before every deep work session, which gets you in the frame of mind necessary for total concentration. Turn off the internet on your computer and put your phone on airplane mode; pick a quiet, empty place to work.

(One tip I’ve found helpful is to make the ritual require significant physical or financial effort on your part. Climb to the top floor of a skyscraper; go to a building ten minutes’ walk away; rent a hotel room, so you actually have to pay money to do deep work. The reason this works is that your brain has to justify all the effort you just put into preparing to do deep work, and so it becomes much easier to transition into a productive session of difficult work—the only kind of work that truly matters in your quest to become better at any task.)

(If you want more advice and information about deep work, its benefits and how to fit it into your life, check out this article and the book on the subject by the same writer.)

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