Unsolicited Advice for Aspiring Writers

If you clicked on this article because you want to be a better blogger, solve the publishing code, or want tips on growing your traffic, then let me save you some time. This is probably the wrong post for you. 

If, however, you want a few nuggets on writing, the non-fiction book proposal, and a thought or two on the writing life, then read on my friend. 

I Want To Be A Writer

I don't read many books on writing. A few sit on my shelf. But those few are my favorites. I hold to Stephen King's line of thinking: don't read books about writing, just read good writing, and then, get writing.

King's book is one of my favorites: On WritingA Memoir of the Craft. He's blunt, funny, and masterful. 

King describes four major groups of writers

1. Bad Writers - Do I need to explain this one? 

2. Competent Writers - Just above the bad writer, the competent writer might be on the staff of your local newspaper, on the shelves at your local bookstore or library, at the nearest poetry slam, or a popular blogger (I added the last one).

3. Really Good Writers - Again, I don't think I need to explain this one. 

4. Geniuses - Once in a generation freaks of nature, according to King. Shakespeare and Faulkner types. Today we throw this word around too much I think. 

I've listed King's groupings to put it out there; to "note well." Today, everyone is a writer, it seems. Is that bad? Good? I don't know. But it's healthy to understand that just because a person starts a blog, and it gets popular, or just because someone's column gains popularity does not mean that he or she is a good writer.

Our culture is good at drowning out good things due to the noise of the bad. 

As King helps us see, competent writers inhabit every corner of culture. But King believes it's possible to make a competent writer into a really good writer. And that takes hard work, discipline, commitment, and mastering the right tools. 

William Zinsser wrote On Writing Well. Another one of the few books on my shelf. He shows us that writers come in all shapes and sizes. What inspires one writer, may not work for another. What is hard work for one writer might come easy for another. That's okay.

Our writing diversity is what makes the world interesting, beautiful. 

Zinsser tells us what makes a writer write. 

"They are driven by a compulsion to put some sort of themselves on paper, and yet they don't just write what comes naturally. They sit down to commit to an act of literature, and the self who emerges on paper is far stiffer than the person who sat down to write. ... Ultimately the product that any writer has to sell is not the subject written about, but who he or she is."

So, you want to be a writer. Great. What does that mean? Do you want to be paid for writing? Do you want to be recognized as a writer? Do you want the mythical romantic life of a writer? 

I always tell folks who ask me for advice about being a writer: A writer writes

It's a loaded statement. Inside of it lies the tension of learning the craft, the time staying up till all hours working on something that may never see the light of day, the realization that I have to go mow lawns in the morning and not trot into my study to do more writing. 

In high school and college I would have told you I was a writer. Not a good one, mind you, but a writer nonetheless. Being a writer has nothing to do with a paycheck. It's your wiredness. You could be a mom who homeschools, a soccer coach, a used car salesman and still be writer.

Where you rank on King's measuring stick, I don't know. The measuring stick is there to encourage you to do the work, and become better. If you cannot shake the compulsion to write, if it drives you, if it gives you joy, then it's there. You're a writer. Now, get to work. 

Zinsser says good writing is where a writer's passion and calling intersect with their ability: 

Good writing has an aliveness that keeps the reader reading from one paragraph to the next, and it's not a question of gimmicks to "personalize" the author. It's a question of using the English language in a way that will achieve the greatest clarity and strength. 

The Tricky Nature of Style

We all want to write like someone else. Early on I wanted to be Frederich Buechner. (Didn't we all?) For years I thought I was William Wordsworth, then T.S. Eliot, then James Joyce. 

Mimicking a master's style is normal. All art begins in mimesis. I found great freedom in Zinsser's words when he admitted to mimicking writers well into his forties. It wasn't until he wrote On Writing Well, in his fifties, that he felt like he finally found is own voice, his style. 

I thought about style for a while. Here are a couple of things that came to mind: 

1. You are not Ann Voskamp or David Brooks. 

Ann is gifted. She's been writing for years and years. It's in her DNA. Let yourself off the hook right now and stop trying to be her. I know I said it's okay to mimic other writers. But remember, mimesis is the beginning point. We will never develop our own style if we're afraid to be ourselves.

I think certain popular tropes established by the great writers get mimicked and employed ad nauseam and without regret all over the blogosphere and throughout the publishing world. It is, after all, a copycat world.  

We tend to gravitate towards the writing styles of the authors who sell millions of books. Again, that's natural. The important thing is to learn from Ann, and move on and into your own voice. I think Ann would "Amen" this point. 

What is that voice? Are you a teacher at heart? A poet? A prophet? 

Begin by following the masters. But do the work. Tighten your writing by spending time in your language and grammar toolbox. As you do, you'll find the pathway to the authentic you. 

2. Read Dead People

I once asked a writer (who gets paid) what he was reading. He said, "Well, I don't read much these days." Don't be that person. It's been said, if you can't think of anything to write, then you haven't read enough. 

If you read a healthy diet of contemporary books, you're writing will show it. C.S. Lewis said that for every two modern books you should read a classic. Good advice. Reading broadly will shape the contours of your style with elegance and kick. 

3. Read this Letter from C.S. Lewis to a Seventh Grader. 

Some insider baseball here, the first part of this letter became an important portion of my doctoral thesis (which I'm sure you were dying to know!). Though both parts are useful, the second is especially so with regard to our discussion here. 

The Non-Fiction Book Proposal

I've been blessed to work with many inspiring authors. I collaborate, edit, coach, and assist in writing book proposals. I've written many proposals, with all but one finding a publishing home. 

I talk to aspiring writers and authors (and yes, there is a difference) who want to "write a book." In the non-fiction world, you must first write a proposal. This is no meaningless document. It's the very heart and soul of your book. 

The proposal performs heavy lifting for your book writing. The proposal: 

- provides you with a guiding thesis

- paints the big picture for your book concept

- provides you with a working outline (that will most likely change several times during the writing of the book)

I am developing an online course (webinar?) to expand on all the points listed in this post, as well as others not listed here. In the course I will commit a healthy portion to the discussion of the book proposal.

For now, I wish only to encourage you to spend time on the proposal in order to make it great. It communicates the essence of your book. It will reveal the depth of your idea, or the need for more development.

It will also reveal the strength of your writing. 

Which leads me to this point.

A book deal does not magically imbue you with personal significance. In many cases, it can be the very demise of personal worth. Remember, a writer writes. You don't need a backlist of publications to be a writer. You just need to write.  

The Writing Life 

This section is not what you think. I'm not going to paint a romantic vignette of stained coffee cups, empty wine bottles, and tobacco infused writing sessions. 

The writing life, to me, echoes into eternity just like the carpenter's life, or the homeschooling mother's life. I write because I have to. It's in me. It screams to get out. There may or may not be a pay check waiting. It doesn't matter. I still write. 

It is vocatio; my calling, vocation, wiredness. As a child of God, then, this calling possesses certain divine echoes.

My Father is Eternal Magnificence. He is Love, Goodness, Truth, Beauty. 

When I participate with this thing He's put into me, it rumbles out worship. I partake in Him by employing the analogs of his character to do their work, on the paper, in books, or on computer screen. 

When I write, it is like taking the Eucharist; the grace, thanksgiving, and joy of the Eternal One. It is a sacramental act in which I surrender and confess my soul, through the path provided by the cross: the Path of the Empty One, the Humble One. 

When I write, it is like prayer. A cruciform act of listening, waiting, obeying. I am lifting you, the reader up, showing you what I see if, indeed, I can see anything of His glory. For I can only take and show you as far as I am.

Do you see that? There, in the distance. Beyond the story's ending? It is The Magnificent One. 

When I write, it is like slaughtering the spotless lamb: an act of worship. It is precise, barbarous, it smells. It brings beauty, it reveals pain, it covers. I sing in the slaughtering; with wails of laughter and heart song.

In my passion I scribble. In my contemplation I edit. 

When I write, it is like rhythm. I undulate in the holy cadence of numbers, words, language, burned into the hearts of men.

The Eternal One did this. He burned us with language so that we could tell one another, through metaphors and symbols, what we see beyond this world. 

The vehicle of story (muthos) contains this burning tongue and inscribes truth, teaching, and passion upon our hearts. Language captures us, for it conveys the pulse of the Eternal to us, the finite ones, and this creates an event of beauty.

When I write, I am alone. I am like the Christ, stealing away from the crowds. Walking into wilderness beyond their shouts of acclamation.

I yearn for the quiet, so that I can hear, not my own mind, but the mind of The Spirit Wind.

In the halls of the wilderness I am beaten upon the anvil of silence, so that the barbarian in me relents enough to learn how to use my strength. The hammer of solitude molds me into a better person, which helps me become a better writer. In these quiet halls I find the terror of holiness, the wonder of grace, and the beauty of death.

I am the ragged one, the unshaven locust-eating one, the boy made into poet made into man. I am forged in the uncomfortable solitary places. I write things no one will read not to some day be ready for stardom. Rather, to be with my Father.

My friend Sara explains writing as communion with God. I say, yes. And I am breaking bread every day, not to draw more traffic to my site. But to draw closer to The Magnificent One.

This is my lede, my climax, my falling action.  

I'm working on expanding this content into an online webinar. Sign up below and I'll email you when it's ready. 

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Timothy Willard is the author of three books, including Longing For More: Daily Reflections on Finding God in the Rhythms of Life. He has collaborated on over 20 books and has written, consulted and served as spiritual director for organizations such as Chick-fil-A, Catalyst, Q Ideas and Praxis Labs. He lived in Oxford, England for two years studying beauty in the works of C.S. Lewis. He earned his PhD in Theology under the supervision of world-renowned theologian Alister McGrath. When he’s not riding the trails in the Appalachian mountains you can find him by the fire with his three daughters and his wife making up stories about Tom the back yard badger. He lives somewhere in the south Charlotte woods.