Creative Stuff, For Writers

10 Misconceptions About Writers and Writing

1. Every writer wants to write a book

When people find out I write for a living, they ask: “What kind of writing?” followed by “Why don’t you write a book?”

Because I’m quite happy (and busy!) writing magazine features, internet copy, blog posts, profiles and commentary pieces.

I’ve never subscribed to the idea that everyone has one great book in them. For one thing, writing a novel is extremely difficult. For another, it’s very hard to make any money doing it.

Not everyone is suited to that kind of grind. And even fewer actually feel driven to do it.

2. Writers are all introverts

Ok, so there’s a lot of us. It’s a solitary profession after all, with much of the time spent in your own head.

But the shy, introverted writer is a cliche that needs updating. These days much of the business is about marketing.

With a crowded market and the explosion of online writing, you need to shout to be heard and you need to really yell to get hired.

So I think writers are coming out of their shell. These days we’re part lonely scribbler, part exuberant salesperson.

3. Talent is the most important aspect of writing

Talent is merely one piece of the puzzle for writers. It’s the magic that gets the words flowing, the glue that pulls the sentence together and keeps it there.

But it’s not everything, it’s not even the most important thing.

Because there is no most important thing.

The craft is a complicated alchemy of perseverance, patience, determination, efficiency, organisation and sheer bloody-mindedness.

It’s a job, like any other job. No-one makes a living doing this because they instinctively know how to use an adverb (hint: sparingly).

4. There’s always tension between a writer and their editor

Perhaps I’m an anomaly but I can honestly say that every editor I’ve worked with has been a friend.

Some of them very good friends. Some of them the kind of friends who come and spend two weeks on the floor of your tiny French apartment because you’re lonely.

Some of them the kind of friends who laugh at your music collection and take it upon themselves to ‘educate’ you on the finer points of punk.

The reason I’ve loved my editors is not just because they are fantastic people. It’s also because we had a great working relationship.

I understood that they were there to make my work better and they understood how to adjust the text but keep my voice.

The myth that writers and editors are adversaries is unhelpful and inaccurate.

Done right, it’s a perfect relationship of checks and balances that raises everyone’s game.

5. Writers are book snobs

Every good writer is a good reader.

And by ‘good’, I mean voracious.

To write well, it’s absolutely crucial that you read widely.

So writers aren’t just reading the Classics, or the books that dominate the New York Times Bestseller list.

They’re reading the book they found at the airport, the one their Aunt recommended, this year’s Booker Prize winner, the hated paperback that their sister couldn’t finish.

They are following the golden rule of writing.

Read. Everything.

6. Every writer wrestles with writer’s block

I once read that the wonderful author Ann Patchett doesn’t believe in writer’s block.

No such thing, she explained, the writer isn’t blocked, they just don’t know what to do.

There’s a problem (a lagging plot, an obstinate character, a chunky sentence) and they don’t know how to fix it.

Fixing it may take days, it may take months, but they are not blocked.

I see Patchett’s point. I can’t speak for authors but when I’m temporarily stymied in my writing it’s usually because I haven’t done enough research, or my angle’s not strong enough, or I’ve become tired of the piece.

It’s not some mysterious hex.

It can be easy to buy into the idea of writer’s block but you run the risk of it becoming a crutch.

You can roll your eyes up to heaven, cast down your pen and think: “Well, that’s it. Writer’s block. I can’t manage another word.”

Or you can acknowledge that the words on the page are under your command. Sometimes they come, sometimes they don’t. But it’s always at your beck and call.

7. If you write non-fiction, you’re not creative

As a non-fiction writer, I find this one particularly galling.

We may not create in the sense that novelists do, but us non-fiction writers are still using our creative muscles.

We’re taking facts and weaving them into something readers can recognise, connect with and enjoy.

Fiction or non-fiction, we’re still telling a story.

8. All writers want to be editors

Being in the journalism trade, whenever someone talks about my career they assume the end goal is to become an editor.

The accepted journo career looks a little like this: editorial assistant or intern – writer – senior writer – editor

And that’s usually correct if you look at it purely in terms of salary.

But I’ve known many writers (including myself) who’ve no intention of becoming editors. I’ve also known many editors who were frustrated writers.

Because they are two different jobs, with two different skill sets.

I’m a writer because I love to write. Not because I love to critique other people’s writing.

And not because I love finding grammar mistakes (although I do love that).

9. Writing comes naturally

Here’s something that usually shocks non-writers – sometimes I would rather walk over burning coals than sit down at my desk to write.

I can’t explain it, but I know from other writers that it’s not just me.

This thing that we love and feel compelled to do, is also the thing we hate with a passion.

If you’re struggling to write and thinking: “Why is this so hard? I love writing!” I strongly recommend reading John Steinbeck’s Working Days.

A compilation of diary entries from when Steinbeck was working on Grapes of Wrath, this is a fascinating portrait of a writer who is wrestling with the process.

He moans, he complains, he procrastinates. Proof that even the greats have trouble with their words.

10. The internet is going to kill good writing

In 2005, while I was getting my Masters in Newspaper Journalism, print was still going strong.

For the more prescient among us, the writing was on the wall but most people weren’t reading it. Not then.

Now you can throw a stone and hit an article about declining print revenues. These are usually written with a heavy death-of-civilisation subtext.

Although I built my career in print, I don’t see its demise as a terrible foreshadowing of the death of journalism.

The internet is home to some of the best investigative writing I’ve ever read, and some frighteningly articulate commentary pieces.

There’s a downside of course (the slavish reliance on keywords being the first thing that comes to mind) but that must be balanced against the fact that more good quality writing is now more widely available for readers.

That can only be a good thing.

It’s also encouraging writers to up their game. The sheer volume of content means writers have to stand out.

No matter what the technological revolution brings, I think the basic rule will always apply – good writing will always attract readers.

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