What you have to (un)learn to be a writer

Writing isn't just about finding the time and motivation to sit down and write. Your writing has to be good; other people have to want to read it and like it – that's the difference between 'writing' and 'being a writer'. The first is just writing, the second requires readers.

That wasn't obvious to me when I first started. It never crossed my mind that my writing wouldn't be any good once I actually got round to doing it, or that other people wouldn't be desperate to read it and pay me good money for doing so. Harsh lessons were learnt, assumptions reconstructed, and some lessons unlearned. Here's what I would have told my younger self.


Every word you write is precious

A lie. Most likely every word you write is rubbish. It's probably safest to assume that. Writing isn't just about producing words, it's about reworking them, rewriting them, and a lot of the time just plain cutting them. Sometimes a blank page makes more sense than the drivel you've just typed out. Believe it.

Sometimes you have to write 'off the page' to make a character or a story or a world more convincing. You have to write details around the edges – stuff that the reader (if you ever hope to get any) will never see, but will add authenticity and depth to the words they do see. In fact, get over this words thing – they are just the medium to convey the world, story and characters you create. If you want to be a poet, fair enough, but for fiction writing words are the last resort.

A good answer now is better than a perfect one later

So grab the first idea you have and quickly bash it into an argument. Start by telling them what you're going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you've just told them. Right? No. So very wrong.

It's understandable that after decades of schooling you'll be surprised to have any ideas at all, but that doesn't mean every one is worthy of a full manuscript. Stop thinking of everything you write as some kind of essay crisis, and start giving yourself space to have ideas – bad as well as good. Illogical thinking is more productive than logical thinking when generating ideas.

Being cool is being critical

"Hey, look at that dweeb – he stayed in all summer working on his lame-ass fantasy vampire trilogy while we played Sonic the Hedgehog and ate cheeseburgers. What a dork!"

So that dork spent his early years working on his dream while you fucked about. Who's laughing now?

Life is about consumption

Don't confuse pleasure and happiness. Pleasure is an iPad, happiness is a netbook. Anything without a keyboard is designed to suck your money and time away from you. As a rule of thumb – no keyboard equals evil. You want to be a writer, stop consuming and start creating – all the time.


The craft

You think you're a rebel? You think you're a free-spirit unbound from the trappings of decades of form and craft? You think you're avant-garde? Or are you just someone who can't be arsed to learn? You need to know the rules before you can break them. You need to understand why something works and works well before you can presume to do it better.

Don't waste time discovering you're not a genius. Save it and stand on the shoulders of the giants who've gone before you – read, learn and understand. Master the form and then you'll be free to be as rebelish or avant-garde as you like.

A lot of people like different stuff to you

Believe it or not you are not the centre of the universe – what you think is not what everybody else thinks. The fact that you found it entertaining to produce ten-thousand pages of turgid prose regarding a little-known historical character does not mean anyone will find it entertaining reading it. You want to be a writer then you have to realise it's mostly about them, your readers, not you, the turgid prose writer.

Love the act of writing

Because that's what you'll be doing mostly, and you may spend your whole life doing it without recognition or reward. Do it for love not money and you may be starving but at least you'll be happy. Concentrate on writing well and who knows, someone might end up paying you for it.

Maybe I'm glad I didn't know all that before I started because if I had, I might never have done.


  1. All so true! I don't know if anyone knew exactly how the journey plays out they'd do it. But once invested, once hooked, it's near impossible to go back!

  2. Holy smokes, I'm in trouble! After reading this post, I realized that I pretty much have 100% unlearning and 100% learning to do. I've only been writing fiction for two years now; I have a ways to go, for sure.

    Thanks for this, James!

  3. A great post James, and I'm really glad I ran across your blog. There looks to be plenty I can learn here.

    The lie that everyword you write is precious is truth. I've learned that the hard way, and I really wish I could instill that idea into the minds of my own students.

    Thanks for taking the time to do this...now get back to your own writing.

  4. Yes. This. All of it. Exactly.

  5. @Laura Hey Laura, how's things? I totally agree with your comment - there's no turning back now!

    @Anonymous - pleasure - glad you liked.

    @ray - thanks Ray - have visited your own blog many times before. Keep up the good work.

    @Jo - glad you agree, Jo - thanks for posting and nice to meet you

  6. Good advice! Maybe I won't buy that iPad I've been eyeing. ;)

  7. LOLOL
    "So that dork spent his early years working on his dream while you fucked about. Who's laughing now?"

    Ah, my high school years. I love any post that carries a healthy dose of bitterness. It's sexy on a blog.

  8. @Jennifer - yeah, I keep inventing reasons why I just have to have an iPad, but so far I've remained disciplined. Thanks for your comment and welcome to the blog.

    @Sophia - really? you think? (Note to self - more bitterness on blog) Thanks for comment and nice to meet you - hope you find other stuff you like here.


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