How to Become a Writer

by J.D. Roth

More often than you might expect, I get questions about how to become a writer. Specifically, how to become a writer online. Just this morning, for instance, I spent half an hour on the phone with Kimberlee, who wants to make the move from academic to science writer but doesn’t know where to start.

I don’t feel like an expert on this subject — far from it — but I do have some opinions based on my personal experience. Here’s my advice for folks who want to become writers:

None of this is new, I know. But there’s a reason everyone offers the same advice. It’s because these are the things you need to do to become an effective writer. Like anything else, it takes practices to get good at this job. I often think of Malcolm Gladwell’s point in Outliers. He notes that research indicates that it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to become truly proficient at a skill. That’s five years of full-time work. Over the past decade, I estimate I’ve spent around 15,000 hours writing — maybe more. That’s enough time for me to feel comfortable with my craft, to reach a level where I can confidently say, “Yes, I’m a writer.”

At dinner recently, Kathleen (of Frugal Portland) and I talked about writing. She thinks she might register for a community college writing class to improve her skills.

“That’s a great idea,” I said. “I do that every few years. I know I write well, but there’s always room for improvement. I learn tons every time I take a class. And since one of my goals for 2014 is to write a novel, I feel like I should take a class again soon.”

Kathleen showed me the book she was reading, If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland. “Have you heard of it?” she asked. “It’s awesome. She wrote it in 1938 as a guide to her writing students, but a lot of it isn’t even about writing. For instance, she talks about how you can jump-start the creative process just by going for a walk. She used to walk several miles a day, and she says it helped her write better.”

I smiled. “Yes, I’ve heard of the book,” I said. “It’s one of my favorites.” I opened Kathleen’s copy to the first page and pointed to the title of the first chapter: Everyone is talented, original, and has something important to say. “I’ve incorporated that idea into my personal philosophy. I truly believe it.”

“In fact, this is one of the books I push on people all the time. I always have a few copies on hand to give to aspiring writers. I have three at home write now.” (Actually, it turns out I have four copies here in my office.)

“Would you be interested in a list of my favorite books about writing?” I asked.

“Oh, yes,” Kathleen said.

“Done,” I said.

Here are three of my favorite books about writing:

There are many other books I like, including:

Many people I know like Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott (although, curiously, none of these people are writers). Most folks love Lamott’s style. I don’t. She has some good things to say, but I find her manner twee. It’s grating. I’m in a small minority, though, and you will probably love her, just like everybody else.

Every writer has room for improvement. Most of us write every day, and that’s great — that’s the best way to develop skill — but there are other things we could (and should) do to hone our craft. Take classes. Join writing groups. Read books. And, most of all, occasionally do work that requires an editor.

Updated: 13 December 2013

Do what's right. Do your best. Accept the outcome.
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