Why We Write

Well, it’s happened. People are now asking me for advice on getting their nephews and nieces and friends-in-law’s butlers started in a writing career. Honestly, my best advice is, “do for something else.” The writing life is harder than you think. It’s harder by roughly the amount that building a nuclear reactor out of beer cans and Quick-Crete is exactly as hard as you think. Except that you can definitely build the reactor given enough care, study, time, and disregard for international law and your own best interests. To become a writer, all that’s not enough. You also need talent and luck.

But you don’t want to hear that, oh youthful aspirant, oh denizen of dreams and fancies made manifest. You have something to say. Or the neurons linked to your typing fingers get all fancy-dancy when you use a gerund just right. Or you need something to do with the endless observations and semantic putterings that pour from your noggin forming an impenetrable socio-repulsive cloud at parties. Good. That’s why we write.

Just don’t think you can become the next J K Rowing. You will never become the next J K Rowling. J K Rowling will never become the next J K Rowling. No, you have to become the next you, whoever you are going to be as an artist. And while that’s a thrilling walk through the undiscovered country, chances are good that it’s a country of broken dreams and empty cabinets. So get a day job, a good one that provides the sort of isolation and free time that drives normal people to drink whiskey and run with scissors. Crewing a containerized shipping freighter is ideal. Take an electronics course so you can fix things and learn to clean an assault weapon so you can handle pirates. Stock the MP3 collection with Vangelis and Paganini. But no Wagner. If you can write while listening to Wagner, something is broke in you that no advice can correct.

So okay. Good. Rock that prose. Maybe, one day, you’ll be able to retire from the sailor’s life and swim in Hemingway’s pool. Maybe not. Either way, you can pay for wifi and coffee, and that’s all a writer really needs anyway, right?.

So now you can concentrate on writing, and that’s a wonderful thing, because in this age of special effects and infinite distraction, we need good writers like never before–both to provide quality stories and to make textbooks and documentation clear so that we can work well together.

It’s easy to write, hard to write well, and damn near impossible to write well enough that anyone will pay to see your work. I went back to college to study craft before I had any real success. Fortunately, though, there’s a lot of good information available to you for free.

My own advice is, start by knowing your goal. If you’re writing technical documents, you have a certain understanding in mind that you want to reproduce exactly in your reader’s head. That may call for very precise, dry wording, tables, and even pictures. When you’re writing a story, though, you have to let the reader fill in the details of the world you have in mind. No two readers will see the same world, and your imagination will never seem as real to a reader as her own. That’s why people who love novels are often disappointed by the movie–no matter how good the effects. If you are writing plays, you have to leave most of the scenery details up to others, so it’s all the more important that you focus on what you want the characters to say and do.

This leads to the single biggest key to good writing, in my opinion, be a guide, not a lecturer. Carefully choose “telling details” that give your story life and leave the rest to the reader. From that one idea comes (one way or another) almost every other bit of good writing advice.

What? Still here? Well good. You must have your priorities straight. Or you may be trapped under something with a tablet opened nearby, and in that event you are probably wishing I would add a link to YouTube right here. Instead, here are some Internet resources you may find helpful on you journey:

First – critique: The single best resource for any writer is feedback from other readers and writers. I highly recommend http://www.critiquecircle.com or http://www.Critters.org. Both are good, provide plenty of opportunities for feedback, and I don’t believe either has an age limit. It’s helpful to start by reading and then posting in the “newbie queue.” And remember, no gift is more precious that constructive criticism. Even if you disagree with a critique; remember that at least one reader saw it that way. That’s gold. Rhodium, even.

Writing Advice and general resources:

On the business of writing:


Never let a computer to fix your writing–only you can do that–but these can help you see your work from a fresh perspective and are free at least to try:


  • The OED – THE definitive English dictionary: http://oxforddictionaries.com/?region=us
  • List of cliches: http://clichesite.com
  • Get hold of “Zen Comma.” It’s cheap, and it’s the best single reference in existence for what is arguably the most-misused element of punctuation in the English language.

A writer must work hard, take rejection in stride, and be energized by every tiny, incremental achievement. She must sacrifice to her craft, but balance its demands against those of the rest of her life. Write if you love it and have something to say. Write if you love it so much that no amount of failure or rejection can dilute its joy. Write seriously only if you can find that joy in no easier, healthier way. If these things are true, then write. Be the very writer best you can be. We need you.

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