If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you yourself have spent a fair amount of time in your life writing; almost definitely for school, maybe for work, as well as (though we tend to forget about this part) in your personal/social life as well, even if it’s been mostly just text messages and birthday cards. It’s something most of us are at least somewhat acquainted with in one way or another, and yet, it’s also something that I think remains somewhat of an enigma to many of us — including myself. So many of us do it, maybe most often out of necessity, a sense of obligation, out of habit, out of convenience, but perhaps even occasionally, out of genuine interest and passion — all with varying levels of experience, skill, and self-confidence. But very rarely do we take time to think very long about what exactly it is that we’re doing, how we do it, and why.
I certainly don’t claim to be an expert on the subject — in fact, far from it — but after years of dabbling in creative writing, 4 years studying English at university, 3 years working as a writing tutor, and about a year and a half doing marketing-oriented blog writing (for $$, believe it or not), I can’t help but have had a few thoughts about the craft of writing and what it means to be a writer. More specifically, I’ve noticed some things that I think we fail to understand about writing — both writers and “non-writers” alike. Or even if we do understand them in principle — over time, we forget. So let’s learn together — and remind ourselves — what writing is and is not, and about what it means to be someone who does it (which if we’re being real, is almost all of us, in some capacity).
1. Writing is not all about spelling, grammar, punctuation and other “conventions.”
This is not to say that they don’t matter at all, just that ideas matter more — what you have to say and how you say it. Both in the case of novice writers and experienced ones alike, I think we have a tendency to get caught up in the little things like grammar and spelling that we’ve been taught to think separates the bad writers from the good ones, the low-quality writing from the brilliant. Speaking for myself alone, I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent hunting down misplaced commas and spelling errors missed by those convenient but unreliable spell-check tools in an attempt to “perfect” my writing.
But ultimately, I think it’s a mistake to spend too much time obsessing over these little rules and details we learned in school. Grammar, punctuation, and standardized spelling are just tools we use to help other people understand us. But good writing is not made by perfectly placed apostrophes and correctly hyphenated compound words, by en-dashes and em-dashes and singular exclamation marks alone. You can have all of that stuff and more, you can have a technically “perfect” piece of writing, but if you don’t know what you’re trying to say or why you’re even saying it — your writing isn’t going to be worth shit. It sounds harsh, but it’s true, and it’s something I can tell you from my experience as a college writing tutor and an English major myself, a lot of people have to learn the hard way, unfortunately.
It might surprise people who didn’t study English at college to hear this, but I can tell you firsthand that I myself heard several of my professors explicitly instruct us (on multiple occasions) to not spend too much time on proofreading. At first, it was a difficult adjustment for me, to adapt to the idea that these things were really just small potatoes in the vast scope of what writing is and what writing can do. But now, several years later, I get it. The point of writing — good, important, thoughtful writing — is not to prove to anyone that I know when to capitalize and when not to, but to put something interesting and nuanced and worthwhile into the world that wasn’t there before. In the end, it’s all about the ideas. It really is.
2. Writing is a skill.
Practice doesn’t make perfect, but it certainly makes better. Reading helps too. Yes, the latter part of that first sentence is technically grammatically incorrect. But the sentiment is true. No one expects to go into a gym for the first time in their life and be able to lift the heaviest weight, or play golf for the first time and hit a hole-in-one. But for some reason, with writing, a lot of people get frustrated and disappointed with their perceived inability to write well, even if they haven’t had a lot of prior experience and practice, and quickly dismiss themselves as not being any good at it and not having any talent.
However, as I’m fairly sure most other writers and writing teachers will also tell you, writing doesn’t work like that. “Good” writers weren’t just born like “good,” it takes most of them (excusing the extremely rare prodigy, perhaps) a lot of time and effort to get that good. Just like sports, or woodworking, or playing an instrument, writing is a muscle that needs to be used, a skill that needs to be honed and refined, often over years (and years and years), and a lot of shitty first drafts, to be something most people can feel confident in.
Good writers also tend to be, as a rule, people who read a lot too. By observing and analyzing how others do something, you learn how to do it too. This is true of the language arts also. Some people seem to think that when it comes to matters of art and the like, certain individuals just have natural, God-given talent for it. And maybe that’s true sometimes. But if you ask me, success in the arts — and in most things in life — really just comes down to practice, to commitment, to dedication to the craft. The good news? Just because you don’t think you’re a good writer now doesn’t mean that can’t or won’t change. The bad news? You, like me, and like most of us, have a lot of work ahead of you.
3. Writing is a process.
A process often involving brainstorming, planning, research (even if it’s not “academic,” journalistic, or nonfiction writing), and editing. Lots and lots of editing. Another misconception about writing that I think a lot of people have — especially those who might consider themselves “not a writer” — is that when we “writers” decide to write something, beautiful sentences just jump out of our minds onto the page, fully and perfectly formed like Athena from Zeus’s forehead. The reality could not be further from the truth. Good writing takes lots of time not only writing and practicing writing, but staring at screens thinking about writing, staring into space thinking about writing, going on long walks thinking about whatever you’ve been writing or wanting to write, re-reading what you’ve written, re-writing what you’ve written, researching and reading about things related to your writing, talking with other people about writing, letting other people read your writing, and even scarier, letting them offer feedback on your writing. But like anything that takes time and a lot of hard work, if you have the patience to keep with it, when you finally get to witness something come into being that you’ve made or done — and it makes you proud of yourself and your abilities, it’s so so worth it. Maybe — in fact, most likely — it won’t even be the whole of something you’ve written, maybe just a scene, or a page, or a paragraph, or even (as it often is for me), a single line. And it usually takes a lot of edits to get there. But every now and again, you’ll get to live that magical moment where you re-read something you’ve written and think, “Shit! That’s actually really good.” And even better, it was me! I wrote that!
4. You are a writer when you decide you are.
Do you write? Congratulations, you’re a writer. I don’t care if you’re paid, published, or even — by most people’s standards — any good. If you write (and ideally, enjoy it, and want to do more of it), you’re a writer. This is probably one of the simplest yet perhaps one of the most controversial statements I’ll make here. Though I think I should clarify that mostly who I’m speaking to when I say this is other people I’ve encountered who are afraid to call themselves writers or will only use the term “aspiring writer” because they think they need to be validated by others — teachers, mentors, other writers, the publishing industry — or by money, prizes, and awards to be able to call themselves a “real writer.” Apologies to anyone who thinks differently, but that’s bullshit.
I’ve been guilty of it myself, but it’s bullshit nonetheless. I have no idea what “aspiring writer” even means. To me, that’s like saying “aspiring bird-watcher.” Well, do you bird-watch or don’t you? It doesn’t make any sense. We don’t say that people aren’t runners just because they’ve never won a race, or don’t “run for a living,” and we don’t tell musicians they aren’t musicians because they never went to school for it, or because they haven’t made much money at it yet. As far as I’m concerned, if you run, you’re a runner. If you can play guitar, you’re a musician. And if you write, you’re a writer. If you want to be, of course. That’s key. You just need to do it, and hopefully, do it often — whatever that means to you.
I don’t know exactly where this comes from, this fear or aversion to defining ourselves as something until we feel we’re “legitimate” enough to be allowed the term or title. In the case of writing, I can only theorize that it might have something to do with society’s tendency toward defining people first and foremost by how they earn a living, as opposed to the thousands of other things they also do in their everyday lives and the thousands of ways in which they are already inherently contributing something of value to the world. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m more than ready to do away with this nonsense — all of it. Let’s start by allowing ourselves to call ourselves writers, artists, actors, dancers — by all the things that we “do,” not just what we do to pay the bills. So if no one’s ever told you’re a writer, and you want to be one, let me be the first one to say it: Congrats, you’re already are.
5. Writing is a worthwhile endeavor even if it’s unpaid, unpublished, or even unread (by others).
I kind of already touched on this in the previous point, but I’d like to expand upon and emphasize a benefit of writing that I don’t think people talk about nearly enough. Being creative, even if for no other purpose than for fun, is really good for you, and creativity can be practiced and expressed in a lot of different ways, including (but certainly not limited to) writing. Sure, we could also talk about the many industries and segments of modern life which benefit from, and unfortunately often take advantage of, the unpaid labor of artists and creatives who are willing to make and share their work without expecting (or receiving) monetary compensation, and how shitty and unfair that is (and maybe I will in another blog, another time).
However, for now, I just want to point out that it’s also perfectly okay to write and create and make stuff just because you like it, to write for the sake of writing, and for no other greater, grander, more ambitious reason or goal — like getting a degree or making money or being famous. If you have the time and the opportunity to do it, and you enjoy doing it, just go for it, and don’t let yourself get caught up in the idea that everything you do or work hard on needs be monetized or utilized for a greater purpose or long-term goal. I recognize that it’s a privilege to have the time and energy available to be able to pursue a passion that likely won’t land you a better job or a fatter wallet or pay your bills. But I worry that there are a lot of people in the world who have the opportunity to pursue such passions but seem to think it’s meaningless to write or create or make art unless it leads to J.K. Rowling level success somewhere down the line. That’s just not true. Lots of people already know this, especially for people with less “artistic” hobbies like rock-climbing or skiing. Plenty of people do these things knowing they’ll never end up in the Olympics or win a trophy, but they don’t care, because they love doing it anyway.
So if you’re one of those people, that’s great. But for many others, especially those who consider themselves to be “creative,” I think it can be easy to feel like all that hard work you’re putting into your creative endeavors is silly and pointless if you’re not making any money from it — or at least being praised and told by others that what you’re doing good and meaningful, which is something money also does. And just to be clear — yes, being a writer can be a “real job,” too. Thousands of people around the world know that to be true, so don’t let anyone tell you differently. Every word you’ve ever read, whether on an advertisement or in a Netflix show description or on the back of a pill bottle had to be written by someone. And yes, let’s work on paying them better and treating their work with the respect and dignity it deserves. But you can also be a writer who writes just because they like it, and for no other reason. Just because it’s not your job — or even if it never will be — doesn’t mean it’s a waste of time.