“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”
That quote from Stephen King’s On Writing, but what in practical steps what does that mean? What should I read and write about? When? How?
Being a stay-at-home father has given me some insight because that too is a career I knew very little about when I got started. I learned that if you find the right frequency there are a lot of signals to pick up. My home and family has nuances and a flow that happens each day. I can anticipate how much laundry needs to be done, what food you must have on hand for dinner, and how much time you might have before needing to leave for some activity. These implicit understandings have existed for each career I’ve had, and they must exist for writing too. What are the six steps toward becoming a writer?
Step 1: Continue Reading a lot. My goal is to keep reading about a book a week. I’m starting to view reading as something I must do each day and each time I read I make more connections and my web of ideas grows. Reading has also become more habitual, a primary option for filling grout time.
Step 2: Work each day. For this I’m combining ideas from two writers I admire. Jamie Rubin documents just about everything he does and his consecutive days writing stats are a goal that keeps focus on the act of writing. Cal Newport suggests that opposite, that writing something each day, if you aren’t a full-time writer, sets yourself up for failure because you will inevitably miss. My goal then is to work on a project each day. This could be writing, drafting, outlining, researching, compiling, or organizing. Like Rubin and Newport both do, I’ll keep track of what I spend time on and what work I do during those times.
Step 3: Write in different places. I write here. I write book reviews for The Productivityist. I plan to publish on Amazon. I would like to add one or two more places. Two other inspirations, Gretchen Rubin and Laura Vanderkam write monthly for magazines and newspapers in addition to their blogs and books. Those situations provide more exposure for them as well as practice in a shorter form. Multiple places also provide a queue for work to order itself in so there’s always the right work for the time available.
Step 4: Be ready to fail. An odd thing to do, to be ready for failure but I’ve read and done enough to know that small failures show up on every journey. I’ve already had a few. I had a blog called WTFatherhood where I was trying write like the semi-frustrated mommy-get-me-a-glass-of-wine crowd but it felt unnatural so I quit. I tried to create a daily sports email but quit that too. Just this year I started PeopleSmarterThanMe but stopped writing there too because researching those articles took more time than I could devote to that site.
Step 5: Develop good habits. Not necessarily tautologous to one and two. Rather it’s thinking about the systems in my life that will let me find good time to write, write productively when writing, and make sure writing doesn’t seep into other areas. In my first post I noted that the freedom I have from not being employed is a powerful force in our family and writing can’t divert that. This is planning when is the best time to read, when to write, when to organize.
Step 6: Build my toolkit. My current state of writing is probably a B for amateurs and C for professionals. Like a minor league baseball player that needs to learn to hit curve balls and play better defense, I need to build my writing skills. This means a better vocabulary, studying structure, and the things I don’t even know I should know.
Finally, I’m not only doing this for myself. I want this to be an empirical example for my daughters to look at when they face a challenge. There is nothing in my past suggesting I could be a writer. In high school I was an average writer and in college there was no reason to think I got better.* This is a real experiment to see if I can do something that I don’t know how to do and prove to myself, my kids, and you that hard things can be done.
If you have any writing advice, please let me know in the comments or on Twitter, @MikeDariano.
*A short story about why I believe this
A lot of college requires reading and professors require students to synthesize what they read into a written assignment. This makes sense. In graduate school I was enrolled in a class about teaching reading, and submitting rather detailed papers that were returned with very little feedback. I knew my work wasn’t so good that there was nothing to improve. My guess was that the professor wasn’t actually reading them. In the middle of my next assignment I wrote a recipe for how to cook chocolate chip cookies.
It looked like this, “and the reason was that students were better motivated by intrinsic reasons. First you measure out three cups of flour, and add to that the baking soda, and baking powder. In another bowl you mix… and the teacher can provide intrinsic rewards.”
After handing it in I got a bit worried, was I being too much of a smart ass? Was I pushing the limits too much? There was no reason for concern though, the paper was returned with another high score and no comments.