The list of things you need to do to become a great writer is a long one.
So long in fact, most people never make it to the end of that list.
This is why most people suck at writing.
They simply give up.
Sure, the new ones are always thrilled — corybantic some may say — as they sharpen their pencils in eager expectation of jumping into those adorable writing exercises such as “Write like you talk” or “Write yourself silly!”
Then there are the entry-level axioms that culminate in “Give yourself permission to write,” a commandment that Trendall Jynweythk, professor of liberation theology at Arizona University, claims originated in a conversation between Jesus and John when the apostle was battling writer’s block after some really bad dreams.
It is all quite overwhelming advice to you, virgin writer, what with your bubbling, flooding, and exploding energy.
You just need to sit down and write!
And when you do, you do it long into the night … running through a score of yellow pencils and six mugs of iced Alabama Sumatra. (But without the guilt an Amish adolescent might feel after a bender in Las Vegas.)
This writing tear goes on for days. Maybe even weeks. And comfortable in your mayhem of “Just writing!” you seek out other exercises to elevate your game because you can feel it in your bones — something good is about to happen.
Over the next couple of months you copy out your favorite songs, change the words in dozens of poems you love (to make new poems!!!), write a really good sentence, mimic a bestselling author’s style in a short story about the embarrassment of body odor, and even follow the inevitable “Write about things you know” commandment.
And that’s when the doubt sets in.
It’s the equivalent of a mid-life crisis.
You look back at what you wrote and you realize either a lunatic has been getting into your journal or you need to lay off the Wild Turkey.
You don’t recognize the words, the style.
A colossal coldness runs through your bowels and you wonder: Who’s the freak writing these things? Is someone — or something — getting into my journal?”
It’s existential as all get out, and according to the Sub Regional Institute of Confessional Writers, approximately 58 percent of people drop out of the writing life at this point.
The other 42 percent continue simply because they have no soul and rather think that the world doesn’t as much NEED what they write as much as they believe it DESERVES what they write. And usually at this point they ask for FEEDBACK.
The timid will email a good friend or spouse and ask them to “review” something they wrote. The bold will join a poetry writing critique group and hand in their 70,000 word novel (all in verse, of course).
But the outcome is the same if the feedback is anything less than glowingly triumphant.
This is where the Converging Brotherhood of Unrelated Sisters and Uncles Against Bad Writing say that 50% of the remaining 42 percent will slam the door on the public and never let another living soul see their work for as long as they live.
(This doesn’t mean they will stop writing. No, they will keep writing. It just stays on the MEMORY STICK. Forever.)
Which leaves roughly 21 percent of the original 100 percent of the “Just writing!” variety seething and cursing under their breath that seemingly educated people could actually miss their genius, leaving them with only one explanation: their critique partners were born in a barn and couldn’t recognize good writing even if it licked them in the face and begged to be milked.
At this point these stalwart writers are now starting to get some recognition. But for reasons you might not expect.
Having discovered and applied just about every writing rule known to man, they now talk relentlessly about GETTING PUBLISHED. They will tell you how to properly write a query letter, which agent to harass with publishing questions, and what publishers really want from an AUTHOR (it’s a platform, Richard!).
“Unfortunately, this is probably the most frightening stage in becoming a writer,” says Ben Ben Vordhosbn, junior supervisor of analog analytics at the Washington Post.
“See, those who don’t overcome this stage will remain the bald guy boring beautiful women at cocktail parties about how he’s about to fix the publishing world … or the llama-sweater wearing woman in the coffee house who pauses and asks everyone with a laptop if they are a writer.”
“It sends shivers down my spine just thinking about it. I need to go,” he added.
Prevail at this point, however, and you enter stratified air: the realm of PUBLISHED WRITER.
Suddenly you are on the other side of the velvet rope with your published short story on THAT online literary zine.
Suddenly you are deleting emails from people asking you how to get published.
And suddenly you are now making up writing rules.
WELCOME TO AUTHORHOOD!
If this sounds like the kind of life you’d like to live, but without enduring the misery I’ve just described, then I’ve got good news for you.
You can skip all that crud that other writers have to go through by learning how to do one simple thing: write a damn good syllable.
You might be under the impression that all the syllables have already been made up. That’s simply not the case.
In fact, my friend Nathan (who used to have a real heavy crush on Anne Lamott in high school) told me that there are literally millions of syllables waiting to see life … waiting to be born … and you are their midwife.
So, how do you write a damn good syllable? Here are three tricks of the trade:
- Weave letters together like you are sewing. The simplest way that I know to write a great syllable is to take two words AND COMBINE THEM. For example, “rankle” and “question” becomes “rqauneksktlieon.” Which is a question that annoys people.
- Take a word and flip it. “Flip” becomes “pilf” and “babysitter” becomes “rettisybab,” which is someone who is too old to have a babysitter but still insists on one when his parents go out.
- Numb your entire mouth. Inject Novocain into the meatiest part of your tongue and all over your cheeks and gums. For the next thirty minutes record everything you say.
There are probably hundreds — if not thousands — of ways to write a damn good syllable, but those three have worked absolute wonders for my career, as you can see in posts like 5 Ways to Write a Damn Good Sentence and 10 Ways to Write Damn Good Copy.
I see no reason why they shouldn’t have the same sort of impact on your career.
I have to confess, though, I didn’t learn how to do this until late in my life. Yes, I went through all the stages.
If that makes you shudder, then start making up syllables today … yes, right now, on the first day of April.
(By the way, I made up several syllables in this post. Two-horned unicorn to the first person who identifies all of them.)