5 minute read

What It Takes to Be a Writer

The paths writers follow in their careers vary based on what type of writing they do. Most of them attend college and earn a four-year degree. Many study English and other languages and take a number of writing courses. Those who want to pursue careers in newspaper or magazine writing often earn degrees in journalism. Or, some choose to earn degrees in political science, history, law, or geography. This education is valuable because it helps writers broaden their knowledge. However, it is their ability to write well and hold their audience’s interest that determines how successful they will be at a writing career.

Professional writers often say that writing has been a hobby from the time they were very young. As children they wrote stories about their families, friends, and pets. They noticed things that were happening around them and wrote their observations in a journal. Some wrote their own websites, comic books, greeting cards, songs, or neighborhood newspapers.

Clayton Hardiman, a newspaper writer from Muskegon, Michigan, saw writing as a way to escape to new and different places. When he was just six years old, he wrote a poem about his puppy—however, his family had never owned a dog. They were too poor and could not afford to have any pets. Hardiman learned at an early age that writing gave him the ability to imagine whatever he wanted, as he explains: “I discovered that writing was magic. You didn’t need money, you just needed an imagination. Whenever I wrote, I could go places I couldn’t really afford to go.”7

The Importance of Reading

Just as writing swept Hardiman away into an imaginary place, he says that reading did the same: “I fell in love with reading when I was very young. And whenever I finished a good book, I would sit there feeling the excitement over where I’d been… and ache because there was no more.”8 Most all writers agree that a love of reading and writing go hand in hand. Famous poet Maya Angelou believes reading is so important that parents should read to their babies before they are even born. She says children should be taught to love all kinds of books and stories and poetry, as she explains: “I’ll tell you my secret about writing and my encouragement to young men and women: READ. If you want to write, read, and here’s a gem of a hint: read and read aloud. Go into your room and hear how your language sounds in your mouth and in your ear. Let it out because poetry in particular is music written for the human voice.”9 Author Stephen King also says that reading is essential for someone who wants to be a writer. In his book On Writing, he calls reading “the creative center of a writer’s life.”10

Practice Makes Perfect

Most successful writers, like Stephen King, insist that reading is a crucial part of becoming a writer. They also say that the only way someone can become a better writer is by actually writing. Author Natalie Goldberg compares writing with physical exercise such as running. She says that just as people become better runners the more they run, they become better writers the more they write. She explains:

Some days you don’t want to run and you resist every step of the three miles, but you do it anyway. You practice whether you want to or not. You don’t wait around for inspiration and a deep desire to run… You just do it. And in the middle of the run, you love it. When you come to the end, you never want to stop… That’s how writing is, too. Once you’re deep into it, you wonder what took you so long to finally settle down at the desk.[11]

Goldberg’s personal goal is to write every day and fill up a notebook once a month. Like her, many writers record their thoughts in journals. They often carry notebooks with them so they can write things down when they are inspired. Jeff Kosloski, a scriptwriter and advertising copywriter from Denver, says that wherever he goes, he always has one or more notebooks with him, and he explains why:

Who knows when I might get a creative idea? There have been many times when I’ve been driving in my car and this great idea suddenly popped into my head. Obviously when you’re driving you can’t write, so I just called myself on my cell phone and left a detailed message. I have left ten-minute messages before, describing some great idea that’s in my head. Other times I’ve pulled over on the side of the road so I could jot down a thought in a notebook. The key for me is when I get that simple nugget of an idea, that one little inspiration, then I have to find a way to record it right then.[12]

Kosloski says he also keeps a notebook next to his bed because he never knows when he might think of a great idea for a script—even while he is sleeping.

Not Giving Up

People who write for a living have worked very hard to succeed. Along the way, they have learned many things. One of the most important lessons they learn early on is how to accept criticism and rejection. Successful writers know that even the most successful writers are not liked by everyone. Sometimes they are rejected many times—even for years—before they finally become successful.

No one knows more about rejection than people who write books, stories, and screenplays. According to the book Chicken Soup for the Writer’s Soul, many best sellers were rejected when the authors first tried to sell them. For instance, the first children’s book written by Dr. Seuss, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, was rejected by twenty-seven publishers before it was accepted. Later, the book sold 6 million copies. As for movies, the script for Star Wars was rejected by every studio in Hollywood before it was finally accepted by Twentieth Century Fox. The same was true for E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, Forrest Gump, Home Alone, and _Pulp Fiction_—all were rejected at first. Judy Blume offers this advice to aspiring writers: “Don’t let anyone discourage you! Yes, rejection and criticism hurt. Get used to it. Even when you’re published you’ll have to contend with less than glowing reviews. There is no writer who hasn’t suffered.”13

No two professional writers achieve success exactly the same way. Some knew they wanted to become writers from a very young age, and others did not. Some started out writing poetry and then went to work for newspapers. Some worked at other jobs and wrote movie scripts or books—which they hoped to sell—in their free time. Yet even though writers may follow different career paths, most of them share one thing in common: They cannot imagine a life that does not involve writing.

7 Clayton Hardiman, interview by Peggy J. Parks, August 29, 2001. fn8. Hardiman, interview. fn9. Luke A. and Kortney R., “Interview with Writer Dr. Maya Angelou,” Teen Ink: Interviews Written by Teens, September 2001. www.teenink.com. fn10. Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. New York: Scribner, 2000, p. 147. fn11. Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones. Boston: Shambhala, 1986, p. 11. fn12. Jeff Kosloski, interview by Peggy J. Parks, June 2, 2003. fn13. Blume, Judy Blume.

Additional topics

Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesWriter Job Description