The Secret Sauce to Being a Good Writer

Image: someone hold a book open on bedclothes in a darkened room. On the open pages of the book is a jumble of tiny illuminated L.E.D. lights.
Photo by Nong V on Unsplash

Today’s post is by author and editor Michael Mohr.

Honestly, the No. 1 thing is: Ignore 99.999% of the industry fluff you hear about online. (Yes, I’m aware of the irony I am demonstrating here.) It’s not that people online are trying to fool you on purpose, necessarily, but rather that they all have their own agenda. (And, frankly, bottom lines.)

Here’s a controversial opinion: Writers are born, not made. You heard me right. Let me unpack that.

If you’re a natural-born writer, then you’ll write your ass off either way. If you’re not, no amount of classes or workshops will change that in a fundamental way. To be clear: Sometimes it takes “real” writers years, even decades, to succeed.

A great example is my good writer-friend Allison Landa, whose memoir, Bearded Lady: When You’re a Woman with a Beard, Your Secret Is Written All Over Your Face was finally just published by Woodhall Press after a 17-year (yep!) journey to publication, which had begun while she was still in the MFA program at St. Mary’s.

This doesn’t mean that because you have the internal drive to write but haven’t pumped out profound prose that you “aren’t a writer.” It probably means that you simply have to try harder or in more efficient ways. But sometimes, sadly, yes, there are people who wish they were writers, who enjoy writing sometimes or even often, but alas are not writers for one simple reason: They don’t have that deep, driving force which animates their lust for communication with other human beings via words on the page.

There’s nothing wrong with this. Not everyone is meant to be a teacher or a doctor or a lawyer. Not everyone, ergo, is a writer. In our contemporary culture of constant uplift and positivity, I think what sometimes gets lost is the torn, ragged flag of reality. Because some people are writers and others aren’t doesn’t make this statement pretentious; on the contrary (as Dostoevsky would quip), it makes it honest. (Of course, just my humble opinion.)

The second thing about being a writer is: My God, read a LOT. I mean A LOT. And in multiple genres.

Here’s a gold quote from Stephen King’s classic memoir/writing instruction manual, On Writing: “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut. If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

This is a tough one, isn’t it? Especially in the frenetic, busy landscape of contemporary life. Besides your day job, you have kids, a mortgage, or rent, student loans, podcasts, TV shows, friends, enemies, and of course the insipid omnipresence of everything ONLINE, from Facebook to Twitter to LinkedIn, etc. Choose your poison, really.

My point is: We are blanketed in and constantly pounded at by distractions. It’s incessant. The crucial key here is: Find the time to read. (And to write, of course; you’ve got to write as often as you can.)

I read all the time. In the morning after I get up and before doing my freelance editing work. While dog-walking (my side-gig) via listening to Audible on my earbuds, and at night before bed. I read everything from a history of the Civil War (just finished, Battle Cry of Freedom by James M. McPherson) to collected essays (Feel Free by Zadie Smith, 2018) to novels (Lost Souls by Balzac) to collected letters (Vincent van Gogh: A Life in Letters) to short story collections (Homesick for Another World: Stories by Ottessa Moshfegh) to memoirs (Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates) to controversial books on race such as John McWhorter’s Woke Racism (2021).

The point is to absorb literature and good writing. A process of literary osmosis. You won’t suddenly become Kafka, but you will start to feel more fluid in your ability to put words down on the page and in feeling filled with glorious, precise language which starts to feel more and more accessible where it wasn’t before. Many have said that great writers are great readers with ambition. (And ego.) I think this is absolutely true.

I remember seeing Jennifer Egan speak just after Manhattan Beach came out, at Mrs. Dalloway’s in Berkeley. She said something lovely, and I’m paraphrasing but it was something like this: The writing process for her involves intensive research and reading on the subject for a long, long time until she “feels pregnant with the prose” and dumps it all out onto a rough draft. I love this and feel similarly. Reading inspires you; it makes you jealous and want to write your own work, enter your own imagination, set your own linguistic cadence and rhythm, locate your own voice. If you want to write, a certain portal of entry is to start with reading.

When I read, I use half a dozen different color highlighters and a black “precise V7 Rolling ball pen” to circle and underline and mark and create marginalia which I often return to later. I read both lazily and for pleasure but also with my writing and editing brain on, looking to see what a writer did here or there or anywhere. I want to open the hood and take the engine apart. That’s the editor inside of me. That’s why I not only write but edit books.

The third thing writers need is a thick skin. Yes, we’re mostly all sensitive, smart, independent people and our writing is our “baby.” (To keep the Egan example going.) But, being sensitive, and writing largely in isolation, writers can sometimes be deeply and profoundly offended by an editor’s comments. To be sure not all editors are of equal quality. And you should slowly and scrupulously choose which editor to hire for your work. (And make sure you check their qualifications, experience, testimonials, etc.)

That said, once you find the right editor: You have to trust them. You’re often not going to accept every single suggestion, and that’s fine and good and normal; at the end of the day, you’re the author and it’s your work.

However, most of the time the editor knows best. Mainly because (a) they do this for a living, and (b) they are an objective, non-emotionally invested pair of eyes. This is a problem I see often as a book editor. Newer writers too often want things done fast, cheap, and all at once. But that’s not how editing works. Not good, serious, professional editing anyway. You’re going to pay some money for quality editing. Some of the suggestions will probably make you angry, frustrated, hurt, feeling rejected.

My advice: Take some deep breaths, get your bearings, pause for a while, honestly consider the feedback, and then proceed.

Remember: Besides your friends and family, when a book comes out it’s mostly going to be consumed by non-emotionally attached, objective readers. They don’t care about your sensitivities or feelings. They want depth and entertainment. You don’t hire an editor to hold your hand and tell you you’re a genius. You hire an editor to tell you the truth. Yes, they should always do it kindly, respectfully, without animus or judgment. This isn’t a moral exercise. This is the preparation of the writer for The Real World of Books. This is going to involve some surgery (sometimes a lot of it) on your manuscript.

In 2013 I interned for a literary agent for nine months—about a year before I’d started finally getting my writing published and was making a little money. I learned a lot from that agency. Eventually I began publishing a blog about it and then started my freelance editing career, which was slow-going until I got a fairly famous client (Christian Picciolini) at which point I more or less took off.

I have a degree in writing. My mother is an author and used to write for a national magazine. My uncle is a novelist, and two cousins are writers, one for a video game company and one as a travel writer. So, you might say it’s in my blood, my DNA.

But not everyone shares this familial background. Some are judged and mocked for even just the desire to write. Many are told they have better things to do with their time and that writing isn’t capitalistically feasible (aka: You won’t make any money).

But this brings us back full circle to the start of my essay: True writers will find a way to write. I know mothers who get up at 4:30 a.m. and write for an hour before waking their kids, then go to a 12-hour shift as a nurse. I know CEOs who write in the middle of the night. I know lawyers and doctors who have somehow found the time to do what they love. Because if you honestly love something (or someone), you make the time. We all know that. We all have a zillion excuses for why we can’t do A, B or C. But if you fall in love, you create the time. You find it, magically. You expand your ability to work.

So, what are you waiting for, writers? Get out there and WRITE!

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