10. Do your own damn research, and do your own damn writing.

Writing involves facts and creation. You are expected to acquire the former and perform the latter; both are part of the job. The act of creation in writing is largely an act of selection, rearrangement, and re-presentation: showing a new way of seeing with not-new things. And don’t forget that it’s all a conversation – you’re making references to other people’s work as well as to well-known cultural elements (such as the twelve days of Christmas). Continue reading

9. You’re probably wrong about how good your writing is.

Sit down. I’m going to tell you something I probably wouldn’t tell you directly in person.

You’re wrong about how good your writing is.

OK, you’re probably wrong. A few of you are right, but damn few. I’ve been working with writers for a long time now, and I have observed two general truisms: Continue reading

8. Write whatever you want. Also write whatever you have to.

I’m sure you’ve heard that it takes 10,000 hours of doing something to become an expert at it. That’s oversimplified, of course; some things take more time to master than others, and some people take more time to master things than others do. Some people practice a thing relentlessly for years and still suck at it. But as a general truism, the more you do something, the better you get at it.

There are several reasons for this. Here are three: Continue reading

7. Read bad writing.

Of course, as a writer, you need to read a lot. But while you obviously should read a lot of exemplary writing, you should also read a lot of bad writing.

Now, in matters of taste, there is no such thing as good or bad. So what in hell do I mean? Three things: Continue reading

6. Good structure is made of desire.

You probably learned in high school how to structure an essay: “Say what you’re going to say, say it, then say you’ve said it.”

For high school students, this is a reasonable instruction. It helps them learn to organize their thoughts instead of just pouring their stream of consciousness onto the paper. It also makes essays easier to grade.

Just in case you missed day one of these gifts for writers: You’re not in high school anymore. You can outgrow the high school rule. Your readers aren’t there to grade you. They’re there because of desire. Continue reading

5. Professional writing is a group activity.

When you’re being paid to write something, you’re not the lone romantic protagonist doing everything yourself, expressing your true vision, et cetera, et cetera. You’re writing a thing that other people are going to read, and you want to make sure that they’ll be glad they’ve read it. I already told you this: It’s not about you, it’s about your readers. Continue reading

4. Don’t write from the heart. Write FOR the heart.

One time a medical editor friend told me about being introduced to someone who was “a writer.” My friend asked what kind of writing she did: technical, medical, magazine articles, fiction? She said, and my friend quoted, “I write from the heart.”

I put my hand over my mouth and said, “Oh noooooooo.” My friend joined in.

I mean, I’m sure she has good feelings about it. But if you’re writing for other people, it’s not your heart that matters. It’s theirs. Continue reading