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A letter to beginning writers

Beginning writers are at the start of an exciting journey, and it may be one that lasts a lifetime. With that in mind, here is some advice for writers at the start of it all that they can return to throughout their writing lives.

Beginning writers are at the start of an exciting journey, and it may be one that lasts a lifetime. With that in mind, here is some advice for writers at the start of it all that they can return to throughout their writing lives.

Perseverance and making time
Writing requires a number of skills. Many beginning writers may imagine that one or two of those skills will be the keys to success. A natural way with words or storytelling or perhaps a knack for meeting people and making the right connections while networking will make all the difference.

What may surprise you is that the two things that matter the most are perseverance and making the time to write. If you continue on this path throughout your life, you will meet many talented unpublished writers along the way. You might feel jealous of some of them because they seem so much better than you were when you were starting out. You might be amazed at the fact that some of them are easily as good as any published writer you have read.

However, some of the most talented writers that you meet will not persevere. This can seem like a tragedy, but it isn’t necessarily. Sometimes those talented writers give up because they are discouraged, and that is unfortunate, but others simply find that they have other things they would rather do with their time. Writing can be difficult and lonely, and it is little wonder that some people find other pastimes more appealing.

If you are able to persevere and find time to write, you will have mastered two of the most difficult aspects of writing. Finding time does not mean you have to give up having a family or a social life although it may mean you have to give up a few favourite TV shows or get up an hour earlier each morning to make time for your writing. Throughout your life, you may find yourself needing to make small adjustments to your life to allow room for writing within it, but this can be one of the most valuable gifts you can give to yourself.

Even with this perseverance, there may be stretches where you have to put writing aside to attend to other concerns such as family, career or education. Just because you have to do so for a certain amount of time does not mean that you are not a writer or that you are not cut out to be a writer. The key is to return to it as soon as you can.

Comparing yourself to other writers
drafts2The short version of this section would be to simply say don’t, but it is more complicated than that. One thing that often hampers beginning writers is looking at the work of their favourite writers and becoming discouraged with their own drafts by comparison. However, it is important to keep two points in mind. One is that you are comparing your own early drafts to their polished final products. You have no idea what their own early drafts looked like. The other is that you are comparing yourself at the start of your writing career with experienced professional writers at the height of their talents. Even the very best writers did not start out writing at the level that you see when you read their published novels.
You should also resist the urge to compare yourself to your peers. Every writer brings unique strengths to their work, and there really is enough writing success to go around. If you envy what a writer at your stage can do with character or language or plot, ask yourself what you can learn from that writer. Celebrate the successes of your peers, because they show you what you are capable of.

Classes and workshops
Classes and workshops can be valuable as long as you are prudent about them. Some writers seem to be eternal students, drifting from workshop to workshop as though they are going to happen upon some magical teacher or formula that will give them the key to the writing kingdom, but they never seem to gain the confidence to stretch beyond that point.

Classes can be wonderful for teaching technique, giving you time and space and inspiration to write, and providing the opportunity to meet and share with other writers. But in the long run, it’s not how many classes you attend that make you a writer, and some of the best writers never had any formal instruction. You still have to sit down and consistently put words on the page.

Listening to others
People will give you writing advice throughout your life but never as much as when you are starting out. Unfortunately, at this stage, it can be difficult to know what advice to heed and what to set aside. Here are a few pitfalls to beware of.

  • Watch out for advice that tells you that there is only one way. Advice that insists that you always have to outline, that you always must write a draft straight through without stopping or that you have to write every single day is all well-meant, but it is also advice that does not work for every writer. Keep in mind that there is no right or wrong way to write; there is only the way that works for you.
  • However, because you are a beginner, go ahead and try those things that people advise you to do even if they couch them in absolutist language. It may not be true that every writer needs to write daily, but it may just turn out to be true for you. Most writers really do need to barrel through first drafts without stopping to ensure that they complete them. This is a great time for you to experiment and find out what works best for you.
  • Beware of bitterness. Like all artistic endeavours, writing can be difficult and discouraging, and the extrinsic rewards may be few and far between. Along the way, you will meet bitter writers who have nothing but negative things to say about the path that you are on and will do their best to discourage you. The truth about writing is that few writers become rich or famous from what they do. You must find joy in the work itself.

Trying to do too much
One of the most overwhelming aspects of writing for beginners is the sense that there is just so much to learn. After reading a book about writing or having someone critique your manuscript, you may feel like you are frantically trying to bail out a boat that keeps springing leaks. Tackle character and over here you’ve lost control of your plot, and now they’re telling you that you need to take a look at language and theme and imagery too. Who wouldn’t be frustrated?

It’s normal to feel this way. Writing is hard, and sometimes you feel as though you can’t do anything right. When you feel overwhelmed by all of the elements that you need to pay attention to, stop trying to pay attention to them all. Focus on one thing at a time. Just for now, try to write the best-developed protagonist that you can or work on your narrative drive or just play with sentences. This is not a race. Writing has a big learning curve, but the wonderful thing about it is that it is something you can spend your entire life learning new things about.

Find a communityreading
It used to be that writers generally had to live in large cities to connect with a like-minded community, but the Internet has changed all this. Today, it is possible to form relationships with writers no matter where you live. It’s important to do this not for reasons of networking or promoting your career although those can be side benefits. You need to find a community because writing can be lonely and difficult, and the company of your fellow writers can be one of the best bulwarks against discouragement. Other writers can act as sounding boards, first readers, and advisers and may become lifelong friends. It’s one of the many perks of this journey upon which you are embarking.

Writers start out as passionate readers, and maintaining that passion during the ups and downs of a few years or a lifetime of work can be challenging. Knowing that your passion and energy for the writing life will ebb and flow just as it does for other things in life can help. Even if you have fallow periods when you are not doing much writing, know that a writer’s subconscious is always hard at work storing up details and making connections for when you are ready again. By harnessing perseverance, focus and the support of others, you can look ahead to a challenging but rewarding writing life.

What is one piece of advice that you would give to new writers just embarking on their careers?

Images from here, here and here

By Bridget McNulty

Bridget McNulty is a published author, content strategist, writer, editor and speaker. She is the co-founder of two non-profits: Sweet Life Diabetes Community, South Africa's largest online diabetes community, and the Diabetes Alliance, a coalition of all the organisations working in diabetes in South Africa. She is also the co-founder of Now Novel: an online novel-writing course where she coaches aspiring writers to start - and finish! - their novels. Bridget believes in the power of storytelling to create meaningful change.

5 replies on “A letter to beginning writers”

I read this just as I needed to. Thank you so much!

I particularly like your comment on writers who give out advice in “absolutist” language – that used to give me anxiety attacks! I would hurriedly change my methods and think about how now I could be a “good” writer, even as I felt miserable following through with another writer’s method. Trying out new things is great, but you have to keep an open mind and realize that the other writers mean /this works for me/ rather than, /this is the only way to do it/.

An excellent and well-thought out post. I’ll come back to read it again! 🙂

I’m glad to hear that Sanbai. Absolutely: Treat writing advice with a healthy dose of skepticism until you find out whether it works for you personally.

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