Learning to Write vs Becoming a Writer

I know a lot of people who know how to write well but who aren’t writers. For example, a few years ago I met a gentleman who had penned five novels. He’s been a huge mainstream success, hit high on the New York Times Bestseller List, and then gave it all up and went into advertising.

The same happens with people who don’t pursue their dreams. There are skillful authors who choose to wait tables in fancy restaurants, practice law or dentistry, and take any number of other occupations.

As a writing instructor, I find that most of the time when writers teach classes, we focus on teaching people how to write, not how to be a writer.

They’re distinct skill sets. You can know how to write a great chapter and never write one. I know authors who don’t know how to keep themselves motivated. Other authors can’t seem to avoid distraction. Others put things off.

Last year, I was considering this problem. I find that I know a lot of good writers who are “working on a novel” for entirely too long. Does it take a month to write a book, or six months, or six years?

There are a lot of things you need to do to become a writer. Most cases of writer’s block are caused by stupidity. The author sits down to write and doesn’t know what to do next. How do you handle this scene or that character?

The writer might be proficient at a different kind of story, but not know how to handle the one they’re working on. For example, the author might know how to pen a romance but be unsure how to write a mystery.

This problem might be easily fixed if the author read more widely and studied craft for the genre in question. It might be easily solved if the writer could discuss it with someone else with similar interests. Just brainstorming the coming scene with another writer is often the key.

Or what about accountability? Many people who want to write find themselves easily distracted. I’ve known professional writers whose careers were destroyed when they became addicted to videogames, or gardening, or writing to friends on social media.

The answer to that might be to have accountability groups where the authors set goals on a weekly basis, then report back to each other on how they are doing.

Or what about the problem of motivation? Many people find that it is much easier to relax into writing with a group, such as at a writer’s retreat, than it is at home.

With those people, they may need to join a group where they can do daily writer’s sprints, writing for a few hours.

I think you see the problem. There are rare writers who are solitary creatures who manage to go into their attics and pump out manuscript after manuscript, but those are about as rare as unicorns.

So as I considered this problem, it struck me that as a writing instructor, I wanted to begin doing more than just teaching people how to write: I wanted to teach them how to be writers. We’ve been working at it with our Apex Writers Group for about ten months now, and I’m gratified with the success. One of our authors wrote just a couple of weeks ago: “After twelve years, I finally wrote ‘The End’ on my first novel manuscript, thanks to the Daily Sprints on Apex.” Another author finished his first book after 8 years. Others were only two or three.

Of course, finishing a novel is just one step toward success. Other writers have been learning how to publicize their books and are hitting bestseller lists.

Other authors are focusing on upping their game, so that they are winning awards and receiving rave reviews.

In short, instead of just learning how to write, I think that we as authors ought to focus on how to become writers. We need to learn to brainstorm and recognize great ideas. We need to learn how to stay inspired and focused. We need to be constantly reading and studying other great works so we can increase our skills. We need to understand how to sell in the current marketplace.

Learning to write a book is just one step toward becoming a writer.

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David Farland | Story Doctor
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