I’ve been in the process of becoming a writer for a while now. That’s right. I’m becoming it!
You see, there are several stages to one’s becoming something. Sometimes the process is so subtle that it feels as though you’ve always been “it”.
To give you an example, when I was in college, I was working towards becoming an engineer. And while I continue to improve my skills every day and learn new skills to add to my toolbox, I don’t think of myself as “becoming” it anymore. I’m already “it”.
Then there’s photography. I have no trouble calling myself a photographer because regardless of what you may think of my art, I like what I make most of the time. They’re never perfect and there’s always room for improvement, but such is the nature of any creative process. Even so, I’m able to tell when my photographs are “good enough”. So in that regard, I’m a photographer. I don’t even recall a time when I was in the process of becoming a photographer, I simply did it. I always had it in me. My growth in this area came naturally, with such subtlety that I couldn’t even tell how and when the changes took place in my artform.
And then there’s writing. By far this has been one of the most complicated processes of my life. I feel a whole lot braver diving into learning a brand new programming language or designing a particularly nasty diplexer. But the task of writing an article fills me with complex emotions.
On one hand, the idea of writing something that will be read by others excites me, but on the other hand, the inevitability of not being able to string words like Jessica Wildfire, or Noah Berlatsky, or ThunderPuff fills me with angst. To put it in simple terms, I have yet to finish a piece and think, “OK, this is good enough.” Most days before I hit the “Publish” button, I’m like, “Yikes, but it has to do because I don’t know how else I can make this any better.”
But at the end of the day, my excitement wins over my angst, and so I continue on my journey to becoming the kind of writer that I can be content with.
There were a few times, however, when I considered putting writing aside and moving on. I’d see people publish multiple articles a day, and there I was, struggling to publish one article a week. And so I thought it was time to let go. You cannot say ‘yes’ to everything after all.
On one such occasion, as I was spiraling deeper into the abyss that is YouTube, I came across a video from The Hollywood Report — Writers Roundtable. One of the writers in this particular episode happened to be Aaron Sorkin.
And in this, he said,
I really struggle with writing. People ask if I have writers’ block, that’s my default position. So, most days I go to bed not having done anything except kind of climb the walls because I don’t have an idea or I’m stuck where I am.
— Aaron Sorkin on The Hollywood Reporter
This hit me hard.
Here was a writer with multiple mega-hit films and an Oscar under his belt, saying that his default state is writers’ block and most days he goes to bed without having done anything.
So, who the heck am I to complain without even really trying to climb the wall? I know for a fact that I can never be like the Sorkins of the world, but if I keep trying, I should be able to do something, right?
And true, I still struggle and I still have a hard time finishing a piece, but I can proudly say that I have an audience out there. People who like what I write and benefit from it.
I don’t write anything sexy, mostly just how-to and list-type articles, but there’s an audience who appreciates me for writing them. They click on my articles, read them, leave comments, and I have made a legitimate side-income stream from writing.
If that’s not a success, then I don’t know what is.
So, if any of you out there is wondering if you should continue writing or not, I have this to say to you: if you want to do it, then give it a good try. You may not write seven stories a week, but even if you write only one, it may be worth it! And if it’s you, then I have a few (10 to be specific) tips for you — things that have helped me and will likely help you too if you practice them.
1. Find something you already know well to write about.
One of my biggest mistakes early on when I first started writing was that I wanted to write about things I thought were sexy, and not necessarily what I knew well enough to write about.
For example, I thought it’d be cool to write about politics, or conflicts in the Middle East, or the history of colonization. Now there’s a difference between being aware, and having an educated opinion. It wasn’t for me to write about these issues, at least not at that time when formulating one coherent sentence was difficult for me.
Now, good writers with expertise can take a topic — any topic, research the heck out of it and then write something provocative enough for it to trigger an intellectual curiosity or a dialogue. But if you’re a struggling writer, my advice to you is that do not force it. Not while you’re still trying to find your rhythm and flow. Instead, write something that you already know about. Allow yourself the time and energy it takes to get into the habit of writing before you start taking on complicated projects requiring extensive research.
2. Write about what makes you feel comfortable.
I enjoy reading super personal essays. I’ve written a couple of those myself. But at the end of the day, I could never feel comfortable writing about them.
Often I’d read advice from other writers about how important it is to be vulnerable as writers and bare ourselves open in our writing.
Now, my mistake was to confuse vulnerability with exposing one’s private affairs.
Well, it doesn’t have to. There are no such rules for writing or for being a good writer. If you want to be vulnerable, go for it. But if you do not want to, know that it is not a pre-requisite to being a good writer.
And also, one can be vulnerable in many ways. It doesn’t have to be by sharing one’s deepest, darkest secrets.
You’re in charge of how much you share and how you share it. There are plenty of writing genres out there that you can choose from. Or choose no genre at all. Again, there are no rules. So take it easy, and while you’re still trying to establish a healthy writing habit, do not make things more difficult than they have to be. Feel free to stay within your comfort zone if that makes writing a little easier.
3. Do not write for money.
Don’t grill me for saying this. I know a lot of you are trying to make a living with writing. But this article is for those who have a hard time writing anything at all. And if you’re that person, the fastest way to burnout land is by measuring your writing quality against how much money you’re making from it.
Your job, as you’re struggling to write, is to get to a point where you can constantly churn out content. That’s what it takes to make money from writing. So, if you’re someone who has a hard time writing 1000 words in a week, how can you even begin to think about writing several thousand words a day? Which is what it usually takes for a writer to make a living from it.
Instead of focusing on money, focus on the content you’re creating instead. Focus on finding your rhythm. Focus on recognizing your flow states. Focus on writing a little more every day and writing a little better every day.
4. Make a point to finish a piece.
Not every story or every essay gets finished.
And that’s OK.
But you have to finish something! Otherwise, no amount of writing will mean anything at all!
I’m not going to tell you to finish everything you start. However, do make a point of finishing something within a set time. Set a goal for yourself. One article a week, or two a week, the frequency isn’t so important at this stage as sticking to the goal. Whatever frequency you’ve set for yourself, do your best to stick to it and even if it turns out to be a crappy piece, finish it.
You can always go back and fix things further, but it’s important to get into the habit of finishing.
5. Keep it simple.
I made the most rookie mistake when I first started writing.
I tried to act cool.
I would look up synonyms of words to make myself sound smarter, even though I knew better.
Just don’t. One of the easier ways to stand out in the world of blogging is to let your personality shine. You’ll kill that if you try to sound like somebody else.
Now, it’s not like I don’t look up synonyms anymore. I do! But I’m getting better at doing it in a way that preserves my personality. Using Shakespearean words wouldn’t do that for sure.
Keep things simple and easy. The game of pretend won’t take you far as a struggling writer.
6. Spend time planning and outlining.
Different people have different strategies and rituals for getting in their flow state when writing.
I have yet to find that state. Writing is a constant struggle for me. However, I’ve found that planning my posts makes the writing process easier. And faster.
You see, I’m not much of a planner. My “day-job” requires a significant amount of planning. So, early on, I decided that I’d do as much planning as necessary when it comes to my job, but everything else will need to be on the fly.
I didn’t even consider planning for my blog posts.
That was a big mistake.
Turns out, writing requires just as much planning as designing and testing circuits.
As soon as I started planning out my content, instead of spending tens of hours, sometimes up to a few days on my first draft, I could finish it in a couple of hours!
It’s simple. I jot down a few possible titles for post ideas I have. And then I start writing down the main points. That’s all I do for the outline, and that’s all I need. Having that outline means I don’t have to fumble around wondering which points to touch on and the sequencing of the main points while I’m writing.
Sure, I almost always end up making changes during the editing process but having that initial outline makes the whole process go a lot smoother than when I tried doing it without a plan or an outline.
7. Learn to walk before you run.
I’m an impatient person. When I was interning at a semi-prestigious tech company during my senior year, my mentor and team-lead told me this: you have to walk before you run.
We all know this, but hearing my mentor say this to me made me aware of my surroundings and my shortcomings at that time. I was trying to do work that I wasn’t capable of at that time. Instead of learning what I could, I was instead dreaming of making a splash and stand out as some kind of genius up and coming engineer. That just wasn’t me.
My mentor’s kind but firm reminder grounded me.
Years later, as I was trying to make writing a part of my life, I made the same mistake again. I was comparing myself to the writers I love, and every step of the way I was falling short. Way, way short!
But that was a given! These writers I was comparing myself to had years of practice over me. Not only that I was a complete novice, but I also had certain handicaps. I’m not a native English speaker, and I was never very good at linguistics. The fact that I speak two languages as well as I do is a major accomplishment in and of itself. I’m not like our presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg who can go and learn Norwegian just so he can read a book…
Anyhow, given all that, of course, I wouldn’t be able to write the way my favorite writers do. By comparing myself to them I was only suffocating myself.
Just work on getting better little by little. At the initial stage, your priority should be to start writing and then finish writing. Focus on that alone. Start, and then finish. Then start again, and then finish. And repeat until it becomes second nature.
Everything else will follow on their own.
8. Editing is a crucial process.
I suck at this stage. I’m an impatient person… I think I’ve said this already… but once I finish a piece I hate to have to go back to it and fix little things. Punctuations and spellings are one thing, but so much more goes into editing. Figuring out what to keep and what to snip, moving things around to make the reading experience seamless, in short, it’s a pain in the rear end.
But it is also necessary. Editing is really how a writer grows. If you cannot look at your writing objectively and analyze it and work to make it better, you’ll never improve.
Don’t skip it. Use tools like Grammarly or Hemingway as much as you want, but do make the effort to read a piece over a few times and be intentional about making a piece better.
9. Don’t aim for perfection, “good enough” is good enough.
I talked about editing. But make sure you know when to stop.
Chasing perfection can often have a paralyzing effect. Just remember that there are always ways to make things better. You have to know when to stop.
I also talked about finishing a piece. You have to balance editing and making things better with actually finishing an article or a blog post or whatever it is that you’re working on. Try your best to meet your deadlines. If you don’t have an official deadline, make up one for yourself, and then stick to it.
Edit and improve as much as you can, but then stop when it’s time to publish.
10. Never stop reading.
I’ve noticed a trend recently. A lot of writers are saying things like, “stop reading”. Please pay no mind to it. Read away as much as you want. It’s our lifeblood after all. Where would we be if we didn’t read?
Reading gives your life meaning. It makes you empathize with others. It makes you look at the world and question its ways. It can also give you the answers you seek.
Whether you write fiction or non-fiction, whether you write short essays or novels, reading is the one thing that will make you a better writer. And a lot of practice, but mostly reading.
But more importantly, reading will make you a better human being, so please do not compromise that for anything!
These are ten things that have helped me be a better writer, or at least, they have helped me be a consistent writer. If you’re struggling with your writing, try out a few of these and see if they’ll make a difference. Good luck!