How to Start Writing

February 22, 2008

A reader asks: How did you get your start writing? I would love to do some of that, but have no confidence in my ability to express myself in print.

I didn’t plan to grow up and become a writer. In my twenties, I did some editing and writing for some small journals. (Full disclosure: I’m sure it helped that both my parents were writers and editors.) Probably 95 percent of my “writing” career has been editing other people’s writing. It’s a great way to learn how to use the language.

So is writing marketing copy, web site copy, and any other sort of writing where there is a compelling practical reason it has to be clear and effective.

These days, I think one of the best ways to get started is through blogging: you’re basically publishing tiny essays, about whatever you like, and to whatever standards you set. (Present paragraph being case in point.) And the risk factor is virtually nil.

Of course, the goal would be to write a blog that people actually read. (You’ll find good tips in Seth Godin’s ebook on the topic, which I’ll get to in a second.)

My advice for any would-be writers today would be:

1) Read a lot. You can’t write without reading. It’s like breathing in and breathing out.

2) Start a blog. And maintain a pace of posting to it at least twice a week, and no more than once a day.

3) Stay hungry. Hungry to learn, to experiment, and to improve.

4) Repeat point #1.

Two of my favorite readings on writing are: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King, and Seth Godin’s ebook on how to write great blogs, Who’s There? I recommend both to one and all.

And I cannot too strongly recommend the Barnes & Noble podcast, “Meet the Writers.” I’ve never heard or read anything so fascinating, informative and inspiring on the craft of writing. Each podcast segment is short enough to be manageable (fifteen minutes or so); the host, Steve Bertrand, is an excellent interviewer; and he interviews writers from way all across the spectrum, from Joan Didion to Madeleine Albright to Jackie Collins, Ken Follet to Augusten Burroughs to Anthony Bourdain. And every one of them answers a question like “What’s your writing routine like?” or “When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?” completely differently. Whenever I fly anywhere, this is what I listen to on my iPod.

And if you have no confidence in your ability to write? Pretend you do, and see what comes out. (This is a strategy I follow regularly.)

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