Burton on the Bay

Vol. 8, No. 18
May 4-10, 2000
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So You Want to Be a Writer?
Here’s My Advice

The only thing I was fit for was to be a writer, and this notion rested solely on my suspicion that I would never be fit for real work, and that writing didn’t require any.

—Growing Up, Russell Baker: 1982

Russell Baker wasn’t alone in such thinking back when he was entering the field that eventually brought him fame and success. But like all who have taken to the pen, typewriter and later the computer, he found there was work, lots of it. It’s the kind of work that brings rewards of more than money and renown — let’s call it satisfaction. Another view on writing:

As writers become more numerous, it is natural for readers to become more indolent, wrote Oliver Goldsmith sometime between 1728 and 1774.

Writers continue to be more numerous — and probably most readers are more indolent than ever. In Goldsmith’s time, most readers read for knowledge and entertainment, which they still do today — though missing then were other diversions such as television, radio, computers, you name it.

To many, watching or listening are easier, more to the fancy of those with tendencies towards indolence. The bottom line is that the written word faces much more competition. So does the writer of the written word. Success comes to the writer who can lure couch potatoes from the boob tube and speakers to books, newspapers, magazines and periodicals, and yes, the written word on computer screens. Which brings us to the topic of this week: The putting down of words of the would-be writer.

What Are You Waiting For?

I hear it more these days. More people are at their computers and find writing fascinating but don’t know where to start, how to start — and whether to start at all.

Within everyone, there are at least several stories to tell, especially among the growing numbers interested in their family trees. They want to document that personal history, make it interesting enough that current and future generations will read it so the information, both facts and personalities, will be preserved.

Many have asked, and my response is go to it. What are you waiting for? Writing is like talking, though the written word is preserved. Don’t plan on getting rich and famous; few do. But the satisfaction is reward enough. Don’t let the story die with you, lost forever.


Where to start? Keep a journal or notes, and if when the time comes to write a story, just start writing. Start with the most interesting aspect of your story to catch the reader’s interest, and tell it as if talking with a friend.

Still have cold feet? Don’t know where to start? Just start writing, get the words flowing. Once that’s accomplished, you can always rewrite, edit and switch words around. Often, even with those who write for a living, there is writer’s block, which can be as temporary as coming up with an attention-getting beginning to a story. The block evaporates once the words appear on paper or the screen.

Never fight yourself. Just start putting words down, describe events, their impact on you, emotions, people, yourself, nature, your pet, anything — all as you see them. We’re all different, and we see things in different ways.

If you don’t tell that story, probably it will never be told. And if it’s written interestingly enough, an editor can bring it to life. And the more you write, whether for publication, the family or just for yourself, the more confident you become — and the more and better words that will flow.

The hardest part is the first word, sentence or paragraph. Get them down. The rest follows, easier and easier. Relax and keep writing. You might be what you eat, but you are also a sum of your experiences and observations — and there’s enough there to make interesting stories. Only the wearer knows where the shoe hurts.

Don’t be discouraged because you lack training or education. Writing is little more than written conversation. If you can talk in an interesting fashion, you probably can do so on paper or computer. The hardest part is relaxing so you can get in a conversation mode and start writing.

Observations and Advice

Here are some observations and advice from this writer and others I have associated with over the years — and keep in mind we weren’t writers until we started writing.

There are no dull subjects, just dull writers. Imagination can make any subject interesting. Look for unusual aspects and write about them. One of Robert Frost’s best poems is about a dull old grindstone.

A live thought, to a writer, is like 10 cups of coffee. Stimulating. Make a note of it before it is lost. Never, never, in writing trust your memory. Don’t risk losing a good story or a good line to lapses of memory. Also in the memory department, double check facts, dates, names, spelling.

An old writer’s adage: If you’re not sure, look it up. If you’re sure, look it up. Never trust memory.

Robert Frost said don’t write unless you have something to say. But he added, if you don’t have something to say, go out and get it, find it, then write it.

“Pre-writing” makes actual writing easier. When driving, gardening, doing housework, walking or whatever, bounce ideas concerning your topic within your head. Soon much, if not all, will come together, and you will be surprised how quickly the written words will flow.

Starting ‘dead’ or ‘cold’ can bring on writer’s block. Hemingway was among the authors who often stopped writing on a given day when in the midst of an interesting part so he could have an easier start the next day. He wouldn’t have to start cold or dead, the toughest of all aspects of writing.

If you don’t pre-write, re-read all your notes on a topic before you write the first word. New ideas and slants will fall into place. Trust me.

As you progress in a particular piece, things may start slowing down. Stop. Then read several previous sentences or paragraphs aloud, even with gestures and expressions, and oftentimes the momentum will continue as it does in conversation.

For the beginner, writing can be as tough as playing scrabble without any vowels, but, once accomplished, satisfaction makes it all worthwhile.

And to boost you’re confidence, remember this: The only difference between a professional writer and you, is you haven’t sold your first story — yet. At some time, the professional was in the same spot. Also, many want to write for considerations beyond money, entering that self-satisfying land where there are no rejection slips.

When I interviewed Frost following a poetry reading at Bennington College in the early ’50s, he said he advised writers, aspiring and accomplished, to keep their noses to the grindstone. Not only meaning to work and keep working, but also to sharpen the nose.

You will be surprised, once you start writing — whether periodically or regularly — how it becomes part of life. It can even be a healthy and satisfying addiction. When a woman once asked Frost, who had read some of her work, whether she should go on writing, he responded:

“Try and stop, and see what happens.” That’s what writing does. It’s like peanuts. Once you start, it’s not easy to quit.

Write those first words. Your story, as Yogi Berra would say, ain’t started until it’s begun. And who knows where it will lead you? Maybe I’ll see your words in Bay Weekly or elsewhere one day — and not just in Letters to the Editor.

Copyright 2000
Bay Weekly