What Do You Really Need to Be a Good Writer?

Hello, and please don’t hire me.

You don’t need me nearly as much as you need yourself.

I’ve spent about 15 years observing the absurdity, chaos, and misplaced priorities of online publishing communities. You can find me in a corner, sharing rants with friends who are equally annoyed by the perennial floods of nonsense.

Happily, the likelihood is that you don’t need to hire me.

I can’t tell you how to be a good writer.

Because that’s different for everyone. I just know you don’t need the crazy shit. I’ve been through the crazy shit, because I started out stupid like everyone does. The number one rule I’ve come out of it with is, you can learn business and use that knowledge in publishing, but you can’t learn business by being in publishing.

I’ve seen a crapton of blogs, articles, and e-products — from books to videos to subscriber clubs for “insider advice” — of questionable value for their price.

And the advice. One of the bits of advice is, run a website with free sample information to get people to buy your information product. That’s not bad in itself. But, lo and behold, fifty bazillion websites full of excessively SEO-keyworded, scan-reading-optimized, regurgitated microwave meals in various questionable stages of digestion.

Why is it like this? For the same reason that I once assessed editing to be more sustainable than writing. Go back to 2006, before digital self-publishing tools really evolved, and read Wired editor Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail [affiliate]. Note that subtitle: Why the future of business is selling less of more. 

You, my friends, are the long tail. There is a key idea in Anderson’s writing: “You can’t make money being the long tail, but you can make money off the long tail.” That is why Amazon is rich and authors are poor.* (Here is a less spin-doctored, more human and much better-organized dataset from Jim Hines.)

It’s why editors don’t starve. It’s why there’s a festering cesspool of information products out there asking you to consume them. Selling to the long tail is presuppositional by now.

To get started, you need to turn the tables on that game.

You don’t mostly need information; you mostly need skills.

Information is worth something — if it’s good. Skills are worth more. If they weren’t, I’d edit for free. And books would be free. And so would your next call-out for a plumber.

The minute you separate information from skill, you’re missing most of the picture. The plumber can tell you what caused the problem, but it’s hands-on work, done knowledgeably, that fixes it. That much-less-costly YouTube tutorial didn’t fix it for you either. No matter how much you now regret it, that was your own two hands.

The words in the book don’t come together on their own. And all my best editing assistance won’t help you if you don’t understand what it looks like in action. This is not about my skills. It’s about yours.

This isn’t a “get what you pay for” problem. It’s not because stuff is free. There are lots of good free resources out there.

It’s a problem of priorities. Information sellers want you to buy information. If you listen to them, it sounds like informing yourself is all-important. (And if it says so on the internet, it must be true!)

But there’s that rule of writing: Show, don’t tell. Information is telling about writing. It’s not showing writing.

There’s your first big hint about how this really works.

So. What do you really need to be a good writer?

You need literacy. You need to read fairly widely and interact with ideas and imaginations that aren’t necessarily comfortable. You need to work on understanding them, which is different from accepting them.

You need to take spontaneous photos, paint, knit, play with the dog, or lie there. Do many useless things. Why? You have to stop analyzing in order to switch gears into creative thought.

This video seems to come and go from the internet, but I’ll link it anyway, because it’s one of the best things ever about what it means to be creative: John Cleese on creativity.

And then you need to practice, and practice, and practice.

You may need some technique stuff that’s in a few classic books and workshops, and we’ll distill that down as we go. But mostly you need literacy, taking the writing seriously and yourself not so much, and practice.

There’s a specific time to hire an editor, but it’s specific.

I’ve been queried by a majority of people who don’t understand why they’re querying me.

  • They read online that they should hire an editor.
  • They found my name through a successful client and are hoping I’ll wave a wand that makes them successful too.
  • They haven’t (yet) found beta readers** and lack faith that they’ll be able to attract any.
  • They want to avoid critique groups, for whatever reason — usually because they want it to be about their work, not about theirs and someone else’s.
  • It will make them feel (and, they think, sound) more professional if they can casually say “my editor” in a sentence.
  • They want a fast-track — which an editor can be, just because tailored one-on-one mentoring is hands-on practical work, not generalized abstract theory. But not as a substitute for the work of learning… AKA the work of hands-on practical work.

That’s the part that makes me hate editing. I hate trying to help people who aren’t taking the full time needed to inform themselves. There’s nothing I can do for them. The existential despair is like an ever-spinning, never-ending toilet flush.

Don’t flush your editor down the toilet.

You only learn how to shape words well by shaping a lot of words. Talking about clay doesn’t make a sculpture. Two or three sculptures doesn’t make a sculptor. The information only helps if you’re actually doing the thing. Only if you’re doing it lots, so that when an informational tool comes along, you can see how you might use it.

Stupidity will make you pay in cash, time, tears, anger and burnout. If you don’t find out why to do the things people say you should do, you’re also not going to find out why not to till the hard lessons teach you. Maybe several times over.

Trust me on this. I started out stupid too, like everyone.

So this is a blog about that. Down with the stupidity. Down with the hard lessons, as much as is realistically possible considering the craft we’ve chosen and what that says about us.

Let’s be simple, effective, and tolerate no crazy shit. We’re just gonna write.


*In “these exciting times,” the survey spider captured a skewed dataset that eliminated two-thirds of non-selling books and authors (“captured practically all of the titles selling with any frequency whatsoever, the vast majority of the infrequently selling titles, and many, many [i.e., by their own report, 32%] of the non-selling”). My educated guess is that this eliminated a large swath of self-publishers from considerations.

Of selling authors, only 9,900 authors from the last 100 years (out of approximately 200,000, or 5% of those surveyed) were earning more than $50,000 per year. Elsewhere, this surveyor finds that only 2.8% of visible authors make more than $10,000 per year. A careful read will reveal an excellent example of the long tail concept in action.

**For those who aren’t sure, we’ll talk through jargon terms going forward. Short version: Beta readers are people who will read your pre-published work and give you a reader reaction on it before it’s out there in the world.