Monday, November 10, 2014

So you wanna a be a writer!

I intended to write about writing this week, but before I even started I looked for an old column that I wrote.  It was in January 2005 and I really don’t have much new advice. I have cut some to fit in my usual 900 or so words; and I have updated a few paragraphs.

If you want to be a writer, you have to write.  If you don’t write, then being a writer will only remain a dream.  That is what I told myself over fifteen years ago.  Then I submitted my “Bear Stories” to the Northland Reader, a month or so later “Tech Staff Shortage”, then “Berlin Wall”, and before I knew it I was writing for almost every bi-weekly issue.  When the Northland Reader went weekly as the Reader Weekly, I soon started writing weekly.  Every so often the muse left me and I didn’t submit a column, but now it is hard not to write a column.

One way to start writing more is to keep a journal or a notebook, not necessarily a “What did I do today” but a collection of your ideas, no matter how fragmentary.  I have a small collection of hard-back blank books in which I jotted ideas about what I did or felt or saw for years.  One of these years I might transcribe them to my computer

You can also use little spiral bound notebooks that fit in pocket or purse.  Don’t forget to carry a pen or pencil.  Or you can use scraps of paper.  The problem with scraps of paper is that they pile up and don’t get organized.  It is fun to unbury them and read what you wrote a month or a year ago.  I posted a few of these on my blog last week. Now you can put your ideas in your smart phone or tablet, but just like the scraps of paper, you may bury them among all your other info.

The really best place to start serious writing, that is writing that other people read, is to write letters or emails to your friends and relatives.  Before putting your letter in an envelope or clicking the send button, reread what you wrote.  Does it give information clearly, does it convey your mood, and does it encourage a response from your reader?

Write in sentences and paragraphs. Each sentence should give a single idea, and a paragraph should give a set of related ideas.  I have a relative who sent emails as one big run-on paragraph; we found his messages very hard to read because we couldn’t focus on his thoughts.

Another good place to do serious writing is letters to the editor.  Why not write a letter to the Reader Weekly about this column?  Or to the News Tribune or the Star Tribune about what you think on an issue.  I must be getting stale because my letters are not published as frequently as a few years ago.  I try to follow the TUT principle; that is, a letter to the editor should be Timely, Unique, and Terse.  If you wait two or three weeks to write, if you write a letter similar to all the others, and you ramble on like this column, you probably won’t get published.  But if you email your letter as soon as you read an article, if you state an idea that is not given in the article, and you write in sentences and paragraphs and keep it to the size the newspaper wants, you greatly increase your chances of having your letter published.

The best basis for writing is lots of reading.  Read newspapers, magazines, and books. Unless you want to write about TV, turn it off and read instead.  Read novels, biographies, and histories.  Read books about writers.  One I particularly enjoyed is “It’s Been a Good Life” about Isaac Asimov.  If you read it you will sense the joy of expressing your thoughts to others.

Every good writer has an editor.  Pick up any book and read the acknowledgments; not only have many people contributed with ideas, but others have read the book and given the author comments, not only the publisher’s editor, but friends and colleagues. Before you dash off that important letter to the editor, ask someone else to read it.  You might be surprised at what familiarity with your letter lets you overlook.  My wife often reads these columns before I email them.  Although I complain that she can be too picky, very often she finds either a blatant error or suggests a better phrasing.  She’s out of town this November 2014 weekend, and so any mistakes are wholly my fault.

If you would like to meet and talk with other writers, contact Lake Superior Writers – or 1301 Rice Lake Road, Suite 129, Duluth MN 55811.

Finally, what do you do about the dreaded writer’s block?  Generally, just go do something else for a while and try again later.  The humor writer James Thurber discussed this at a party with other writers.  One said he typed “The” in his typewriter and then words started coming.  Thurber tried it the next time he had writer’s block. He typed “The” and just stared at it.  After awhile he typed “hell with it” and went back to bed.

Or you rewrite an old article:)

This article was published in the Reader Weekly, 2014-11-06 and can be found at