How Do You Do It?

Although I am a professional writer (I’ve actually made money at this. I know, surprising), people will on occasion ask me about the profession and how to do it. Today someone asked me how I decide what to write about, and how I overcome the doubts, such as “what’s the point?” and “Why would anyone want to read this?”

My reply was longwinded, but perhaps useful for other people thinking about writing, too.

So I said that I write about stuff that interests me. I figure that I’m a human being and if it’s something I like, then there will be other human beings that will like it too. It’s similar to my attitude about doing anything; I figure if it’s something humans can do, since I’m human, I can probably learn how to do it too.

The other thing I do is tell myself that “sure, this is lousy; I’ve forgotten how to write; I can’t write, this is no good”—but then I tell myself “but I can fix it all in the rewriting.” I just need to keep spewing it out and get it done. It doesn’t matter how bad it is. I can fix it later.

Surprisingly, first drafts are not as hideous as I imagine they are at the time I’m creating them. I’ve found that the key thing is to just keep at it and get it done. I never look back at what I’ve written, I don’t try to fix it, until I have finished it. Rewriting can fix anything, but only if I’ve actually written it. If I keep fiddling with it as I go, I’ll never get anywhere.

How did and do I decide what to write about? I just think about what I like, what I enjoy, what I think is interesting. I read a lot; I pay attention to the news; I watch people around me; I pay attention to my own life. Ideas will come to you once you start wanting ideas. You have ideas all the time, but until you need them, until you want them, you won’t really notice all the ideas that drift into your noggin. If you aren’t a writer desperate for topics and stories, you just don’t really pay attention.

Sometimes you can jog the creative juices just by scrawling out a list of stuff you think is interesting. Look at your bookshelves and see what books you have and what you enjoyed. Then write on that.

A good movie about writing is Finding Forrester. It stars Sean Connery as a J.D. Salinger sort.

A good book on writing is Stephen King’s On Writing. Both things can get you thinking and can be an encouragement. Since writing is such a solitary task with very limited positive feedback, you get encouragement wherever you can snatch it.

Another thing you can do to get yourself writing is to start a blog and tell yourself that you need to write, say, 250 words in it every day, no matter what. Don’t worry about whether it’s any good. Don’t worry about whether anyone will want to read it or care. I tell myself that “You’re doing this for you, for yourself, for your needs, to create the discipline of writing.” And think on this: if you write those 250 words every day, then in a year you will have written the number of words in an average book.

Writing a book is like eating a cow. You do it one hamburger at a time. So focus on today’s words and only on today’s words. Don’t think about tomorrow’s.

And experiment! Try writing in different places. Try writing on your computer; try writing on a legal pad with a pen, or with a pencil, or with a quill. Neal Stephenson, the science fiction writer responsible for Anathem, Snow Crash, and the three book Baroque Cycle which starts with Quicksilver (among others) writes his books with a fountain pen! It’s what works for him. It wouldn’t work for me. But that’s okay. If you want to write, see what works for you.

Whatever you do, try to create a habit. Set a daily goal of what is a reasonable amount of writing for you: whether it’s a single sentence or a certain number of words or a certain number of pages, or even just a certain number of minutes in front of your computer writing instead of playing Farmville.

Try writing at different times of the day. Try a variety of locations: try it alone in a library, alone at home, or at a coffee shop or in a park or on your porch or patio.

Try outlining what you want to write, and try doing it just as you go, by the seat of your pants. There’s no wrong or right way to write. Keep telling yourself “Whatever works for me.” And “Whatever gets words on paper or hard drive.”

If you want to get published, the key thing is perseverance. Those writers who get published are the ones who didn’t give up, who don’t come up with excuses, who don’t blame “the system” or editors. The writers who get published are professional, accept rejection, and keep on going anyhow. A thick skin and the ability to ignore those around you who tell you to quit is also important.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm the interim pastor at Quartz Hill Community Church. I have written several books. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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