Three Fundamentals to a Successful Writing Career

What makes one a successful writer? I was forced to contemplate that question yesterday morning while having brunch with friends from out of town. One of their daughters is a freshman at a prestigious liberal-arts college. She has no idea what she wishes to major in, but knows she loves to write. So she asked me, a professional writer for thirty years, what she should do to set herself on that path.

girl-3718526_1280I did not recommend a major. I did recommend that she find a major that allows her to do three things:

  1. Write. A lot. Writing is a craft, like carpentry, I said. The more you write, the better you become. Imagine a carpenter nailing drywall to a series of studs, each nail masterfully hammered at great speed. Ten years as a daily reporter forced me to churn out so many words I’m still spinning from the experience, but my writing really started in college, where almost every course I took involved writing papers and even essays in class (in those classic “blue books”) for final exams. Of course, my major also required me to…
  2. Read. A lot. It’s great if you have a writing mentor–as a journalist I was fortunate to have a great editor who really helped me shape my prose–but published writers are an obvious source of learning. For one, continuous exposure to prose–whether read in print or online or listened to in an audiobook–pounds into your brain osmosis-like an innate sense of vocabulary, sentence structure and storytelling. But, I said, if you read enough you can, like any master carpenter, begin to almost see through the drywall at the hidden studs, analyzing the publication’s structure. (I was fortunate that the restaurant we were in was a funky space featuring exposed beams on the ceiling, allowing me to supplement my words with a visual.) Of course, when actually applying your lessons from reading and your experience writing to your task at hand, it’s critical to…
  3. Be flexible. In my current day job I help attorneys write substantive articles on the law while crafting press releases and marketing brochures. These prose efforts often vary in length, reading level and target audience, but what they all have in common is (1) telling a story, and (2) intending an effect on the reader. This was also true with my news reporting, with my think-tank research papers, with my policy analysis and testimony writing, with my speechwriting for myself and for policymakers, and all of the other odds and ends I’ve done to earn a living as a writer. And it also applies to my creative writing, both my extensive creative nonfiction writing and my current focus on fiction.

post-2232962_1280The Artist’s Road blog contains hundreds of posts that burrow in to the fineries of writing (one place to start is to search for the “MFA Nugget” posts that share lessons from instructors in my MFA program). But I realized yesterday morning, in talking to an eighteen-year-old aspiring professional writer, that it never hurts to start with the fundamentals. I still carry these three truths with me to this day.

2 thoughts on “Three Fundamentals to a Successful Writing Career

  1. pjreece

    Totally! I remember friends’ disparaging looks as I talked of my TV writing… but what they don’t know is that learning different styles of writing helps to develop one’s own voice. I think I discovered my voice while writing for a cheesy show called “Weird Weddings.” I left the show behind but am grateful for the learning experience. Write, Read, be Flexible… great advice, Patrick.

    Liked by 1 person

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