How to be a Good Writer

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Photo by Radu Florin on Unsplash

Can a change of weather cause creative constipation?

Writers have a bad rap as fragile egos bundled into layers of nerves likely to fray at the mere atmospheric disturbance. Some even speak of writer’s block with a mixture of awe, reverence, and fear, as if it were a constant threat they must do battle with, day in, day out.

And yet, writer’s block is nothing but the oldest excuse in the world, a way to justify to yourself and others why you’re not doing the work. Words may elude you but it isn’t because of some supernatural force ruling creativity. Perhaps you don’t trust yourself to articulate your ideas, perhaps you’re tired, or perhaps motivation is in short supply.

Alas, because capitalism loves to manufacture a problem and offer solutions, writer’s block is also a way to market innumerable writing aids no one needs.

In the same vein, writer’s block is the preferred topic of those whose only editorial achievement is to write about being writers who write about writing and whose stock-in-trade is peddling false hope. And expounding at length about “process”, yet another construct designed to infuse writing with an aura of mystery it does not have.

If you’re already beset by self-doubt, read one of too many of those pieces and you’ll probably give up before you’ve even started.

But there’s nothing esoteric about putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, millions of people around the world do it every single day. To those of us for whom writing has been an actual job for years, the mere mention of writer’s block is a pet peeve.

For example, I don’t know a single journalist who would dare tell their editor that, no, they’re not going to be able to file a piece today because they’re suffering from a bad case of writer’s block.

In an industry ruled by deadlines and unpredictability, you just get on with writing regardless of whether you feel like it or not. Writer’s block is a running joke because journalism is a profession calling for accountability and reliability. News break at the most inconvenient times, in the most inconvenient ways.

Which isn’t to say professionals don’t frequently struggle with a piece of writing, everyone does. Applying language to thoughts, ideas, and facts requires clarity of mind and skills; execution varies a little from one piece to the next, even with style guides.

This happens in any profession.

Even the most skilled of chefs see their soufflé collapse sometimes.

Invoking writer’s block when experiencing creative difficulties is a cop out.

It implies creativity is contingent on setting the scene with nebulous rituals and perfect conditions. If this were what good writing depended on, journalism wouldn’t exist.

Newsrooms are never quiet places and you have to deal with constant interruptions while under pressure to get something written and filed, ideally yesterday. And yet, newspapers and magazines manage to make it happen, as do websites.

If a piece of writing isn’t coming along as you hoped, it either needs more work, a different approach, or scrapping altogether. Not everything you write deserves publishing and there’ll always be some amount of editorial “shrink”, i.e. copy that goes to waste because it doesn’t pass muster.

In the often murky realm of creative nonfiction — under which personal essays fall — writing starts with having something to say because you can’t rely on existing material as you do in news. And you need to find an engaging, relatable way to say it. One way to achieve this with to go from the personal — by setting the scene with an anecdote for example — and then showing how universal the topic is and thus relevant to all humans.

However, sticking yourself in front of the screen and typing on the internet just to feed the algorithm isn’t called writing. Not only does it do little to advance your craft but when you put out filler content that has no message or structure, it can also alienate readers.

When you’re serious about writing, maintaining a certain quality baseline that will allow you to build a reputation matters far, far more than being prolific.

If you do want to increase your editorial output, you must be prepared to put in the hours and get to grips with editing. Editing means weeding out typos, applying punctuation, and using grammar as well as picking one register and using it consistently throughout the piece.

Engagement is everything; there can be no conversation without it.

Publishing online is all about interconnectedness. Readers will interact, agree, disagree, push back, and offer different perspectives that will almost always enrich your piece and turn it into an immersive experience with their comments and feedback.

Strive to keep your copy accessible and free of jargon — any kind of jargon — including three-letter abbreviations most commonly found in texting that read like obscure airport codes as not everyone will be familiar with them.

When specialized terms are essential to the piece, use hyperlinks that provide background information or, better still, unpack the concept in as few words as possible. You do not want to send your readers on a wild goose chase any more than you want them to stop reading halfway through.

Writing is a radical act of communication about what it means to be a human in the world. When you write, you lend readers your eyes for a few minutes. More often than not, you also let them into your head and heart.

And no matter extraordinary and original you think your idea is, there’s no substitute for doing the work; no idea has ever written itself.

Writer’s block doesn’t exist but fear of the blank page, resistance to effort, and reluctance to stretch oneself do.

The word “writer” isn’t a magical incantation that confers sudden editorial superpowers upon anyone who uses it. And calling yourself a writer won’t make you acquire them by osmosis any more than hiding behind writer’s block will grant you instant credibility.

A chef cooks, a writer writes, a full stack engineer codes; same idea, different source material.

Despite what self-styled productivity gurus who call the extraordinary act of getting out of bed “entrepreneurship” might tell you in their clickbaity listicles, there are no creativity quick fixes, no productivity shortcuts, and no secrets to raking in the dollars.

Not even if you give them your email address. But the good news is that all humans are creative by default otherwise our species would have gone extinct a long time ago.

Editorial skills, creative flair, and a decent paycheck all have one thing in common: labor.

They are something you earn, not something you deserve nor are entitled to just by virtue of calling yourself a writer. So instead of clicking on yet more filler content from an internet typist promising to turn you into a real writer in ten steps, focus your eyeballs and your time on the page in front of you.

Take some time to think about what you want to say, find a way to say it, and commit it to paper or screen. And if it doesn’t quite work out, find another way of saying the same thing. With a little effort, a little humility, and a little heart, you’ll get there. And the more you do it, the easier it becomes to write down that first word.

This is all you have to do.

If you can think, you can most definitely write.

Ignore that little voice in your head and just get started: Action cures fear.

Then keep going and watch your ideas blossom on the page.

I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.

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