Passion isn’t enough

For beginning writers, some sincere (and slightly cantankerous) tips on connecting heart to brain.

© wisnukrist via Shutterstock

As an editor, there’s a certain kind of email that appears in my inbox time and again, like a recurring dream. It usually goes something like this:

“I really enjoy reading your magazine. Writing has always been a passion of mine, so I was wondering if I could contribute a story for a future issue.”

Then I write back something like this:

“Thanks so much for getting in touch. Please send your best writing samples to see if we can explore contribution opportunities.”

The follow-up to such an email exchange can be bewildering.

For instance, I’ve received event poster copy to serve as a writing sample. (Twice now, in fact, and from different people.) Most often, I get writing samples that are real essays but indicate the writer has a lot to work to do. Maybe the essay has no logical flow, a lack of supporting evidence, extensive subject-verb agreement issues — or all three. And then there are the folks who demand that their bedsheet prose not be touched by human hands but just be funneled directly onto glossy magazine pages.

In each of these cases, despite self-identifying as a passionate writer, the person may not be ready for publishing.

Okay, so what? Maybe these writers are just trying their luck, you say. Or maybe they really are passionate, just inexperienced. Just give them a chance! And why should I be such a curmudgeon, anyway? People want to write something for free. Be happy about it.

But this kind of thinking can pose problems.

To show you what I mean, why don’t we link the above arguments to a different profession, one that clearly requires expertise? Medicine is a good example. Would we accept free operations from someone who claims to be passionate about open-heart surgery but provides no evidence of skill? Of course not. That would endanger lives.

Similarly, whether for free or not, we cannot accept all offers to contribute without endangering the publication.

For the niche magazine that I edit, we recognize our station: We are not The New Yorker. We are not Vogue. It’s an English-language, print magazine based in Thailand. The pool of people who can write for such a magazine is therefore already limited, and for this reason we accept contributions from people who are new to writing. (We then have a rigorous editing process to maintain quality.) However, even a niche magazine has to draw the line somewhere. And I draw the line at people who claim to have passion but cannot show any proof of it.

If you are new to writing and you feel passionate about learning to write, then say that. Say that you feel drawn to writing, and you’re hungry to learn more. But don’t say you’re already passionate when maybe what you mean to say is that you’re curious.

If you’re a budding writer, that is really wonderful. I want to encourage you, just as others have encouraged me. And it is to budding writers, who brim with promise and want to improve, that I devote the rest of this post:

1. Read every single day.

Some years ago, when I worked in a second-hand bookshop, I would stand amongst rows of musky, vanilla-scented books in a cloud of envy. I was jealous of the authors whose books lined the pinewood shelves before me, and I let these negative feelings diminish my joy of reading. Mad and frustrated that I wasn’t already where I wanted to be, I realized I stopped reading as much as I used to before working in that store. It took me a while to come out of this rut. But when I finally did, I read a lot more often, and then my writing began to improve.

So, if you want to be a writer, read every day. And be choosy about what you read. You can’t expect to improve your craft on a literary diet of tabloids, menus and the backs of cereal boxes. You’ll have to read what impresses you and makes you want to strive, even if you have to fight off the gross feelings of envy at the start. Only you know where you are level-wise, and I am sure you can figure out what kind of reading helps you grow as a writer. Read to improve, and do this a lot.

2. Write every single day.

Blog. Put stuff here on Medium. Write in your own journal. Write eloquent letters to distant friends. Review, for your Facebook audience, the latest episode of your favorite TV show. Write what you want. But write. And then write some more.

3. Experience true editing.

It’s hard to believe, but in this age of squeezed media budgets, some people who have worked as professional writers have never experienced their work being edited. You will learn so much from writing a piece and then reading it again after a professional edit. This does not just mean having someone glance over your essay to check for missed grammatical errors. A thorough edit will check for flow, accuracy, supporting evidence, sentence variation, and more. To my mind, there’s no better way to improve your writing than to experience a trusted editor who can elevate your work and show you where and how you can improve. (I can offer you this service, if you like. Please email me at to discuss.)

4. Be humble.

In high school English class, you may have learned from reading Julius Caesar that hubris is a fatal flaw. Well, hubris is fatal to writers, too. You’ll do well by keeping your pride in check, particularly when your work undergoes an editing process by someone else. It’s common and tempting to hold your work above critique. You might want to ignore well-intentioned, reasonable advice — we all feel that way at times. But this kind of mindset will not serve you in the long run. Stay humble and consider feedback from trusted sources. You don’t have to agree with every assessment or edit, but you should be open to constructive criticism. This is the gateway to improvement.

5. Use your passionate heart to motorize your brain.

Especially in the United States, we’re often told that all we need is passion to achieve just about anything. I don’t think that is entirely true. Passion is good; passion is great. But, writers, passion is not enough. You need skill. You need practice. You also need to know that a first draft should never be your final draft.

Just like with romance, we are sometimes blinded by love when it comes to writing. Don’t let your love of writing or your love of telling your story blind you to the inadequacies that appear in your work. You’ll have to incorporate logic and objectivity — especially during the editing process. The best way forward is simple:

Write with your heart.

Edit with your brain.

And seek counsel from those who can help guide the way.

Shannon Frandsen, a writer, photographer and the editor-in-chief of Wanderlust Magazine in Thailand, grew up in Hyannis, Massachusetts. She lives in Bangkok with her husband and two daughters. Follow here on Medium or on Twitter at @shannonfrandsen.

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