So You Want to Be a Writer

This is an essay by Helen Woodward.

The moment you hint at wanting to be a writer, people will tell you that you write fantastic letters and that you should write a book!

Now there’s a thought. How many pages are in a book? Five to six hundred, give or take a couple. Do you write humorous or serious stuff? Maybe a “how to” pocket-sized piece of wonder or just a bloody good yarn.

After all, if you’re going to write with the idea of strangers reading your work, then it has to either teach them something, make them laugh, cry or put them into shock with revelations you think nobody has ever thought of since the first word was chipped into a stone.

Just how do you get started?

Have a look at Henry Schoenheimer’s “Expressive English”: “A great American humorous writer, Stephen Leacock, was once asked whether writing was a difficult art. ‘Oh, no, he replied, writing isn’t difficult at all. You just take a pen and put down whatever occurs to you, of course,’ he added thoughtfully, ‘the occurring, now that can be difficult.” 

After much deliberation, you put something down on paper and you think, “That’s not bad. I might run that past someone.” Family and friends gush all over you expressing how wonderful you are and, even if your work is appalling, you are heavily encouraged to write a novel. And because of that encouragement you actually think this is a possibility.

You begin work without delay on The Novel, the theme of which you feel has to be dramatic and complicated. Maybe a psychopathic degenerate with no morals can be at the core of your gruesome tale. You throw in the odd line of dialogue so people will be under the impression that you know what you are doing and before you can say, “oops dropped my pen” you’ve written ninety pages of surreal narrative, which you believe will knock people’s socks off.

With a sudden lack of genius, your brain won’t function, not another gory thought comes to your overworked mind. You decide to have a break for a few days; six months later all thoughts of The Novel are forgotten.

The next time you feel the urge to be creative you try your hand at poetry. Little rhyming ditties roll forth on the page and you truly believe you have found your forte in the wonderful world of writing. Six months later, with several large drawers full of poems that nobody wants and your head turning all your thoughts into a rhythmic pattern of witticisms, a straight jacket is the obvious next step.

You need an idea or at least a reader-grabbing first line. In “Working With Words,” E.A. Southwell writes, “Just as a film director with his camera-men can be all powerful, making us see what he sees, so you, when you pick up your pen may take shots for your reader to see; but first you must find something that you really like looking at. For instance, on a blazing midsummer day a cool looking spot is a welcome sight.”

You realize that if ever passion and talent are to be turned into a marketable product then immediate assistance is vital. Learning becomes important and necessary. It’s time to do a course. You are put to the test – and how! You find that your skills are not as good as you first imagined, and you become aware of your inept knowledge of the subject and the importance of getting it right.

“Thirty-nine rewrites are several more than most writers will want or be fully able to attempt, but you should count on revising your work up to half a dozen times before you consider it finished.” – from “How To Get Happily Published”

A solid training regime, although sometimes difficult, opens up many possibilities.

Sweating bullets, you do your utmost to impress, handing in assignments on time all the while thinking, it’s a walk in the park. Until through the correction process you are told that some areas of your grammar skills are incompetent. This causes feelings of inadequacy, and you work harder to meet the tutor’s expectations wondering if they will ever see your brilliance shining through the rubble.

Finally you seem to be doing better and, in fact, you are. Words are being strung together and the sentences are logical. Fiction is a low point for you, however, and once again you trudge down the familiar road of doubt.

The learning process becomes a huge challenge, but you’re in there fighting.

Your latest assignment is returned and you have earned yourself a merit. You are humbled to the core and that low confidence gets a much-needed lift, but mostly you have a strong feeling of hope. Someone did like your work. Someone you don’t know personally. Someone who is not worried about upsetting your delicate ego.

This is exactly what you needed but you also realize there are a lot of cracks in this pavement. So you set about filling them in by tackling them one at a time. The longer you study and do astutely reading of other people’s work, the better your own work becomes.

“You will not get far if you ‘skim’ as many people do, through an article in a newspaper or illustrated periodical. Give it all the attention you can muster; from the first word to the last.” – from “Comprehension and Precis”

In addition to your formal studies, you read all you can about writing and indeed writers. Reference books such as “This Business of Writing” by Raymond Flower become as important to you as your dictionary. You research and plan meticulously gathering useful information. Stockpiling is very necessary.

You discover that fiction comes easier to mind when it is colored here and there with a generous helping of fact. Flower said, “Tennessee Williams’ ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ was inspired by his sister’s true-life experience of a lost love, which eventually drove her into mental decline.”

This is the kind of fact that makes the transition to fiction a little easier. When you have written all you can, keep writing and eventually you will see a style emerge that is unmistakably you.


Helen Woodward is an Australian mother of five and has been writing for twenty years. She has a novel in the publishing process and various published articles.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Photosteve