‘I want to be a writer, but I can’t write – what can I do?’

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I met a friend of mine for coffee (well, tea actually) yesterday. My friend told me about a friend of hers that has decided to quit their job to become a writer, and my friend was very concerned. Not because this person had quit their job to write, and not because of the oft-repeated maxim that ‘there’s no money to be made in writing’ – but because this person, to put it bluntly, was… crap.

However my friend, being the nice girl that she is, didn’t want to hurt her friend’s feelings by telling them this. She was also worried that, not being a writer herself, she might have misjudged her friend’s ‘talent’. So she showed me two lengthy blog posts her friend had drafted to see what I thought, along with the corrections she’d helpfully put through when her friend had asked for feedback.

‘I’m not wrong about this, am I?’ my friend asked me. ‘My friend can’t write. I think they should stick to something they’re good at. I love my friend, but I don’t think they have any talent and I think they’re wasting their time. You write for a living – what do you think?’

Now, this is a tough one for me. For anyone who works in any form of publishing, there tends to be two schools of thought. One is that if you can’t write, you shouldn’t. Writing, so the story goes, is hard enough to make a living from, with many talented writers struggling to make a living out of it – so if you can’t even write well to begin with, you are even less likely to succeed than the struggling talented ones. Don’t be deluded, they say; it’s so hard to make a career from writing that if your writing is anything less than good, then don’t bother – go and find another job or hobby; find something ‘better’ to do with your life.

Then there is the other school of thought, the one that says: if you can’t write, then it’s OK – you can improve. That talent is not born, it’s made. That if you want to be writer, you can be a writer – just sit down and begin writing, and don’t worry about whether it’s good or not; that will come with practice. If you want to be a writer, they say, then you are a writer – you just need to write.

I usually subscribe to the latter view: I think there are enough people around who will try to discourage you, and I believe aspiring writers do not need any more discouragements. I think there are lots of people who are desperate to be a writer, desperate for their dream of being able to write for a living to come true – but surrounded by various people, magazine articles, and even writing advice books that constantly tell you not to bother, that you may be deluding yourself, that perhaps you should consider that your writing is not good enough, that perhaps you are not good enough and never will be – and I wonder how many dreams have been crushed by these external voices. I wonder how many great writers, great artworks, and great ideas have been lost from the world because of this.

Coupled with this harshly critical inner voice many writer-types already have – the one that yells ‘THIS IS SHIT, THIS IS SHIT’ and ‘WHY THE HELL DO YOU THINK ANYONE CARES WHAT YOU HAVE TO SAY?’ every time you put pen to paper – I’m sure many people are too frightened to even try. I know I was too frightened to start trying to write for a living until I was 27. With those inner and outer voices convincing me for years that I’d fail horribly at being a full-time writer, I was genuinely shocked at how quickly I succeeded. Even with a recession on, within a year I was able to pay the bills and treat myself occasionally; and as I live and work in one of the world’s most expensive cities, I call that a win.

So, given my own experiences, before yesterday I’d have insisted that if someone really wants to write, then they should write and they should not have to listen any further discouragements from doing so. However, there was no denying my friend was right – her friend’s writing was simply awful, and even I doubted they could fulfil their dream of being a full-time writer. As their writing currently stands, there is no way anyone will pay them anything for what they write.

I am not going to give a sample of her friend’s writing here, as I don’t want to cause embarrassment. I will say, though, that most of it made no sense:

  • The sheer number of basic grammatical errors (e.g. switching between past and present tenses within the same sentence or paragraph for no reason), meant I had to constantly re-read what had been written to decipher what the author was trying to say – and even then, after several tries, it still wasn’t clear.
  • The ideas conveyed in each piece were disorganised; both pieces felt less like a re-telling of events or thoughts, and more like an unstructured ‘brain dump’.
  • A more critical person might have dismissed both blog posts as little more than excess navel-gazing; yet despite this, it was very difficult to follow the author’s train of thought.

But quite aside from the technical problems, this person also didn’t seem to understand the most fundamental, important thing about being a writer – you have to write something people want to read.

People read for various reasons, but in my opinion these can all be categorised under three main reasons:

  • to be entertained
  • to be informed / learn something new (or at least feel as if they are learning something new)
  • to corroborate their own (often strong) viewpoints on a subject

…and this person’s writing didn’t fit any of those three criteria.

My friend had a real dilemma. How was she to tell her friend nicely that their writing sucks?

The truth is, I’m not sure how you can tell anyone that nicely… but you have to tell them. Even if it hurts, someone needs to be totally – maybe brutally – honest, otherwise that person won’t know what they’re doing wrong, won’t even get a chance to improve in the first place, and will end up as yet another failed writer. And the world doesn’t need more failed writers.

So, maybe it could be the kindest thing for my friend to discourage her friend from the writing life; to tell them ‘Give up now!’ But it’s also quite possible that my friend’s friend actually really, really, REALLY wants to be a writer, even though they’re clearly not good at it. What should they do?

Let me know what you think in the comments below, but personally, I suggest they, and anyone like them, takes the following steps:

  • read a book about writing techniques and/or English grammar rules
  • read a lot, and read widely, on what makes good writing ‘good’ and bad writing ‘bad’
  • take a writing course
  • …and most important of all, learn to seek out and accept critical feedback of your work – no matter how hurtful it might be – and resolve to improve based on this feedback. None of us has escaped this step, not even me.

No matter how long you’ve been writing for, there is always room for improvement. Writing well is not a skill that is acquired in a short space of time, it involves a continuous process that lasts a lifetime – and the only way you can do this is to keep practising.

Feedback, as mentioned above, is also very important in determining how you are progressing. This feedback can either be: verbal – in the early days of my freelance journalism career, all my critical feedback was from the editors who commissioned me; or, financial i.e. how much people – for me, magazine editors and readers – are prepared to pay for what you have written. (Speaking of feedback, if anyone sees any errors in this post, please do leave a comment below and I’ll correct it. Thanks!)

But improving the technical aspect of your writing is only part of the story. The fact still remains that people will only read what you have written if you have written something they want to read – something that entertains them, something that enlightens and informs, something that confirms their world view, or some combination of these things. No matter how good or how bad your writing is, if you want to write for a living, this is the one rule that you must never forget.

x

3 thoughts on “‘I want to be a writer, but I can’t write – what can I do?’

  1. You suggest “read a lot, and read widely, on what makes good writing ‘good’ and bad writing ‘bad’” but I’d also say just “read a lot”

    Read as much as you can of the sort of thing *you* want to write. If you want to write fantasy read a lot of the most well-received fantasy. If you want to write crime fiction, read that. If you want to write literary fiction, read as much as you can of the great works of literature. The same goes for non-fiction, journalism, whatever it is you want to write.

    And when you read pay attention to what works well and what doesn’t. If you like a certain book, try to figure out what it is about it that you like. Same goes for books you dislike.

    I’m not saying you should just copy what others do, but seeing how others make their writing work well and seeing what they get wrong will help you with your own writing.

    • Aaaaah – damn you, that was the EXACT subject of my next blog post! I actually wrote a good few hundred words on that, and then took it out because this post was getting too long – and queued it up for posting in a few days time! LOL! 😀

      But yes, I agree with exactly what you said. If only because it is pretty much exactly what I’ve got for release next! x

  2. Perhaps I should also have added “if you really, really really want to be a writer but you can’t write” you shouldn’t give up your day job to write all day, like I mentioned my friend’s friend did at the start of this blog post. (Well, don’t give it up *yet*, anyway.) Hopefully that point is obvious though :-)

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