Monday, February 20, 2006

You didn't ask, but...

Recently a curious person called my newspaper and asked how to start a career in writing. I returned the call and told her, basically, this:

1. Write. For publication. Get your stuff printed in any outlet you can think of, because when you do start trying to sell your writing for money, you're going to need clips -- from the neighborhood newsletter, the church bulletin, anything. And what I just said notwithstanding, you don't necessarily need to get your stuff printed. When I applied for one of my first writing jobs, as an entertainment scribe, among the clips I submitted were product reviews I wrote for These got my foot in the door.

2. Assume you don't suck. Emily Dickinson wrote steadily for decades but published just a handful of poems in her lifetime. I'm not sure what the problem was, but my hunch is that she was afraid her writing sucked. As for me, a mistake I made in early adulthood was to conclude -- based partly on the advice of some well-meaning but very blunt professionals I consulted -- that I was not talented enough to write for a living. That was many moons and four careers ago. Note: the blunt professionals didn't tell me I sucked. They only said that writing is a tough business. I inferred the rest.

3. Try not to suck. As a writer of newspaper features, I know my first imperative is to keep readers from turning the page. This means writing lively prose, and here we confront the great mystery: How the hell do we become good writers? I've read lots of advice on this topic, most of it arbitrary, subjective and ideosyncratic -- and all of it useful. Which is to say, one thing you can do is read as many writing manuals as you like, Strunk and White, whatever. Just don't worry if you find yourself violating, to choose an example at random, rule 20a (3) in the Harbrace College Handbook ("Choose the specific and concrete word rather the general and abstract one"). Like any creative endeavor, writing is choices. As long as you're thoughtful and confident in your choices, you'll be fine. (I believe this vocabulary of sucking and not sucking came from a journalism talk I once heard Dan Savage give, which brings to mind another excellent guideline: If you're going to borrow, borrow from the best.)

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