If there’s only one thing you do before starting a career as a writer, this is it.
Today, I’m doing a presentation for Wickenburg High School’s Journalism class. I suspect that they’re a bunch of seniors who are interested in journalism or some other branch of writing. Although I’m not a journalist, I feel qualified to speak to them about careers in writing. And since being asked to do this presentation, I’ve been giving the topics I want to discuss a lot of thought.
The best piece of advice I can offer anyone considering a career in writing is to master the basics. I mean that quite literally: master the basics of writing. This includes the following:
- Spelling. Yes, I know that there are spelling checkers in word processors — and even blog offline composition tools like the one I’m using to write this. And no, I’m not saying that you need to know how to spell every word you might ever write absolutely perfectly. But I am saying that you need basic spelling skills. This will help ensure that you don’t misspell a word that spells another word (and, thus, won’t be caught by a spelling checker) or use the wrong word (then instead of than, your instead of you’re, etc.).
Grammar. Again, perfect grammar isn’t an absolute requirement, but a writer’s grammar should certainly be much better than average. Don’t use the grammar checker in a word processor — if you need to rely on that, you may as well give up on any idea of being a writer. The best way to learn grammar is to read and study good writing. I’m not talking about Dickens here. And I’m certainly not talking about blogs. I’m talking about The New York Times, NewsWeek, and other quality publications that are written and edited by professionals. Don’t get the idea that grammar rules are meant to be broken so they don’t matter. You need to learn the rules before you can break them.
- Punctuation. This goes with grammar. Punctuation is pretty easy. If you can’t master it, you’re not going to impress many editors.
- Style. Here’s where things start drifting away from what you can learn in basic English classes. Every writer should be able to develop his or her own style or voice. This is something that comes with practice — I don’t think it can be taught. Style includes vocabulary and word usage, as well as the rhythm of your sentences and paragraphs. I believe that the only way a writer can develop his or her own style is by writing and then rewriting. A lot. Every day. Once you’ve got your own style, you should be able to go the next step, which is to emulate (okay, copy) someone else’s style. In fact, a good writer should be able to write in whatever style he or she is called upon to write in.
Here’s the deal. If you try to start a career as a writer and you haven’t mastered the basics, there isn’t much of a chance of you getting a job as a writer. No editor is going to want to deal with submitted work that is fraught with basic writing errors. It’ll take too long to edit.
And if you expect to be a freelance writer, your chances of getting published are slim if you can’t submit an error-free manuscript.
It doesn’t matter what kind of writing you want to do — newspaper journalist, technical writer, advertising copywriter, short story author, novelist. If you can’t write, you’re not going to get work as a writer. It’s as simple as that.
A Story with a Point
And to finish this piece off, I’ll tell you — and that high school class — a true story. Back in 1978, when I started college, English 101 and 102 were freshman year requirements. These two courses took what we supposedly learned in high school to the next level.
I wasn’t very interested in taking English — I wanted to take a creative writing class instead. Fortunately, my college offered a way out. I could write an essay about a topic of interest to me and submit that for evaluation. if the essay was good enough, I wouldn’t have to take either freshman English class.
I wrote the essay. It was about how high school fails to prepare young people for life. I was 17 at the time — please don’t do the math — and already thinking about these things. The essay was a hit. I was exempted from freshman English.
This story has a point. Before I got to college, I had already developed above average writing skills. This served me well throughout high school and college — I aced almost every report and essay test question, mostly because I already knew how to organize and present my thoughts in writing far better than most other students.
These are the kinds of skills every writer needs to develop before beginning a writing career. If you want to be a writer, master the basics now.