21 ways to tell when you’re a writer
You’re a writer when:
1. you write
Don’t dream of being a writer or plan to be one one day. As Jeff Goins says:
Believe you are what you want to be. And then start acting like it.
You don’t need permission. Be it and do it.
2. you start a project and work at it
It’s so easy to get stuck on what you should be writing. We all have abortive projects and failed experiments. That’s fine. It’s how we learn. But if the problem is that you can never commit to any project that’s not so fine. If every time you think of something to write, you decide it’s not good enough to begin or follow through with, that’s paralysing.
Don’t let fear whisper in your ear that you need a better idea, that you have to walk the dog first, that you need to do the laundry before you sit down to write… Nabokov has it right:
Just when the author sits down to write the monster of grim common sense will lumber up the steps to whine that the book is not for the general public, that the book will never, never — and right then, just before it blurts out the words, common sense must be shot dead.
Don’t let fear whisper in your ear that you need a better idea, that you have to walk the dog first, that you need to do the laundry before you sit down to write…
3. you write every day
Of course we have off-days. Emergencies happen. We’re travelling … But you need a writing practice. You need to build habits that support your writing. You need a time when you can carve out head space and a place to write. You need to do it. Persist.
4. you put aside distractions to focus
Forget about what’s trending. Don’t check social media five times in an hour set aside for writing. Don’t have your phone three inches from you, ready to react to every text or message straight away.
Put the phone in another room or turn off notifications. Shut down the wifi connection on your laptop while you’re writing or write by hand.
You can’t be creative at the same time.
5. you take yourself seriously as the first audience of your writing
If you don’t love it no one else will. This doesn’t mean you only write for yourself, but it does mean that the first impulse has to be brave, honest and passionate.
6. you write rubbish first drafts
Have you ever stayed in a cottage where the taps haven’t turned on for a while? You start the water running out and it comes out a muddy brown colour. As the water flows the colour clears until you have fresh water.
Writing is like that. It can pour out of us. Then we read it and wonder what we were thinking. Don’t worry. Let the first draft flow. There’s plenty of time to craft it, but the creative first flow is essential and if you let your internal editor have a say at this stage, it will stall.
Let it gush, rust and all.
7. you take a break
Creativity can be most active when you are not thinking about it — walking, taking a bath, chopping vegetables …
In The Foundations of Science, Henri Poincaré says:
Often when one works at a hard question, nothing good is accomplished at the first attack.
Then one takes a rest, longer or shorter, and sits down anew to the work. It might be said that the conscious work has been more fruitful because it has been interrupted and the rest has given back to the mind its force and freshness.
Incubating ideas is at the heart of creativity — we begin to think about a problem or project, focus on it, but then need to consciously desist from thinking about it in order for insight to come . Good writing needs gestation.
8. you edit, edit and edit
Once you have your ideas and you’ve let them gestate, you write — no internal editor, let it flow. Then you edit. And then you leave it a while and edit again. And then you repeat. Your first draft can be rubbish and full of tic words that you overuse, repititions that clunk, too much telling and not enough showing. You can fill it with cliches and adverbs and qualifiers. You can overuse adjectives and the pace can drag and the order can be a mess.
You can’t hone and perfect a blank page. The rubbish first draft is gold dust, but it’s raw. Now you have to be patient and meticulous and ruthless. And you have to keep doing it. Being objective about your own work is hard. You will miss things on one reading or two or …
9. you value feedback
Feedback has to be timely. If you solicit it too early, you’ll lose your way. It also has to be trusted. If you take every single word on board when it comes from ten people with ten different opinions, you’ll derail your process.
Choose your mentors wisely. Listen carefully and sift the advice. A great deal of it will be good. Some of it will make you pause and resist. Ask yourself where that resistance is coming from? Is it because the advice would change your distinctive voice or sacrifice something significant? Or is it ego holding on to something that’s not working for irrational reasons? If so, let go.
10. you make every word count
Once you’ve got your draft and have edited it, over and over, and then put it in front of a trusted mentor or reader, and worked through the feedback, it’s time to put it away for a while. More incubation so you can see it with fresh eyes.
Now you are ready to hone it again. Question every word. Does that phrase add something to the narrative or to one of your characters? Does that sentence add a sense of place or atmosphere? Every phrase should be doing something vital. Every word has to earn its keep.
Writing is about space. It’s about what’s not said. About showing rather than telling.
11. you kill unnecessary words
Yes, this is another way of saying you have to make every word count. It’s important. Be hard on:
Be merciless with
- qualifiers (very, sometimes, possibly, probably, quite…)
12. you persevere
Writing takes huge energy. If you don’t love it you’re unlikely to maintain the intrinsic motivation to see you through. But if you craft your work and raise your skills, you will love it more and more and the ideas will flow.
This business of being a writer is ultimately about asking yourself ‘How alive am I willing to be?’
13. you have a voice
- How do you see writing?
- What is your style?
- How would you sum up what most interests you?
- What values do you want to live and communicate?
- What unites your favourite pieces of art? (books, films, music, visual art…)
- How would you imagine your ideal reader?
Your answers to these questions will tell you about the voice you have, the facets of yourself that are essential to your writing. This is how you begin to evolve and grow a distinctive voice.
14. you make yourself memorable
Writing helps people. Distinctive writing is a gift to the world, whether it’s a brilliant ‘how to’ book or novel. You need a distinctive voice and you need to put your work into the world, be willing to be vulnerable.
But we resist writers who do nothing but try to sell to us. That’s not to say we should never try to sell, but no one likes to be sold to constantly. When writers are more ‘brand’ than ‘person’ then they become both unattractive and counterproductive. But if you love what you are writing, care about what it stands for, write well and communicate well, the passion will shine through.
At its simplest, promoting writing demands a transparency to the work that is infectious. Good writing makes a promise to those who read it.
15. you make yourself vulnerable
Putting your work out is terrifying. You put everything into your writing and the idea of others not getting it can be painful. There will be rejection, but the only way to learn is to get feedback and keep honing those skills. And then put more of yourself out into the world again.
This is not about promoting ego. If your writing has narrative or beauty or something vital to say, the world needs it. You need to have the courage to find your audience. Whether you are a truth-teller or a questioner or someone who paints other possibilities for the world, you need to reach out and find readers. It will make you vulnerable, but writing is art as well as work.
And when we practice in front of an audience our skill levels rocket.
16. you connect
E.M. Forster’s dictum
is good advice in every sphere of life and certainly in writing.
- Your writing should make connections for readers — between people, between ideas and theories …
- You should connect with your readers. This is your tribe, but don’t assume they will follow. Be inviting, be open.
- You should connect with other writers — these are your peers and you have a lot to learn from one another.
- You should connect with influencers — those who’ve gone ahead of you who will offer various kinds of support and encouragement if you are genuinely interested in them
17. you listen to the editor
I know — I work as an editor, but editing is a gift to your work. Editors are as invested in your work as you are and they see things with more distance. That’s what they’re there for.
There are lots of ways of getting feedback — trusted readers, mentors and audience all give vital feedback. But the editor is your lifeline not only to this article or book, but to future writing.
18. you finish
Having twenty unfinished pieces is a sign of fear. You need to take time. A blog post might need to go through ideas, gestation, draft, editing, final editing. A novel will demand much more time and editing and significant periods listening to Kafka’s advice (the one word he had over his desk):
But jumping from project to project and finishing none is as futile as never starting. Not everything you write has to be for the public domain, but if you are a writer, some of it should get finished.
19. you know you can always get better
I recently heard a writer telling a group that she didn’t need to change anything about her poetry. She had ‘arrived’, was confident of her voice and intended to stay in this glorious position. The same writer didn’t get her next contract with her publisher, the editor explaining that the work had stagnated. In the words of Ernest Hemingway:
We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.
Once you feel you have nothing to learn, you have nothing to write.
20. you read
The Portuguese Nobel prize winner Jose Saramago’s writing routine is this:
I write two pages. And then I read and read and read.
Writers are in love with words, not only there own words but launguage itself. They are in love with sound, story, convincing argument. If you don’t read then your sources of inspiration will either dry up or become dull repititions of ego. Great chefs love food, not only food they cook. They are borrowing and building on the tradition all the time. The same is true for writers. As Jeff Goins notes:
As a writer, you’ll find yourself hitting plateaus and roadblocks when you aren’t reading. You’ll run out of words, if you’re not regularly being challenged through books and other material.
21. you write because you can’t not write
A writer starts a project, writes daily, gets the draft done, edits and hones, incubates ideas, edits some more, gets feedback and makes every word count.
A writer develops a distinctive voice, is memorable, vulnerable and makes connections.
A writer listens, waits, works, finishes.
A writer lives to write. In the words of Toni Morrison:
There’s a difference between writing for a living and writing for life. If you write for a living, you make enormous compromises… If you write for life, you’ll work hard; you’ll do what’s honest, not what pays.
You know you are a writer when you write because you are compelled, driven and unable to to do otherwise. As Joan Didion notes:
The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it,
Above all, a writer writes. To end with words from the colossal writer, Ursula Le Guin, who died recently:
When people say, Did you always want to be a writer? I have to say, No! I always was a writer.
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