I've lost count of the number of times I've had this conversation:
Other Person: "So, what do you do?"
Me: "I'm a programmer and a professional writer."
Other Person: "Oh, cool, I'm a writer too!"
Me: "Really? What do you write?"
Other Person: "Oh, it's this awesome book about
<insert plot or subject here>. I've only written three chapters, but..."
Naturally, I encourage them to keep at it, but truth be told, very few people who dream of becoming a professional author actually will. Why? There is more to being an author than just putting clever words on a page.
I've been exposed to the world of writing and publishing most of my life. I'm the son of a mother who moved in literary circles as an author and editor, and I showed interest at an early age. I've been active in professional critique groups and writing communities since childhood.
I've been developing these ten skills in myself for nearly two decades, and I'm only just seeing the fruits of my labors! I've published two fiction novels, and am working under contract with No Starch Press on my first programming book.
Becoming a professional author is a long journey, but if it's your passion, it's worth every moment.
Whether you want to write fiction or non-fiction, and regardless of how you want to publish your work, these are the ten skills you need to succeed as a writer!
No matter what your target genre is, you should read a wide spectrum of books! The more you read, the more you learn, and the more you strengthen and reinforce the principles of effective communication. Whether you want to write fiction or non-fiction, you should read from both.
I strongly recommend making time for the classics, in addition to contemporary writers. Old masters, like Charles Dickens, C.S. Lewis, Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, and L.M. Montgomery, demonstrate superb plot and narrative structure. While it's popular to say "classic authors couldn't get published now," truth is, they almost certainly could have. Their mastery of language was unparalleled; adapting to the style of the day would be a trivial matter.
Children's authors, like E.B. White, Beverley Cleary, Helen Lester, and Betsy Byers, and Betty G. Birney, are often masters of brevity. They have to be able to express complex ideas in a very short span. Reading children's literature helps familiarize you with these techniques.
Contemporary masters, like Tony Hillerman, Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchitt, and Stephen Bly, help keep us grounded in modern voice and style.
In terms of non-fiction, I benefit greatly from biographies (high recommendations for Wole Soyinka!), historical non-fiction, and books exploring various aspects of culture and human behavior (such as "Dreaming in Code" by Scott Rosenberg). Non-fiction does not need to be dry...in fact, it should be!
No matter what trendy studies and internet memes tell you, grammar and spelling are important! They allow us to express ideas clearly, unambiguously, and succinctly. Poor grammar results in ambiguous and difficult-to-parse statements that mislead or confuse the reader.
There's no shortcut here. Proofread your own work. Do not rely on your spelling and grammar checker for everything. Automatic checkers are helpful, but are prone to errors and oversight; there is no replacement for human proofreading.
The internet has many fantastic references, but it can quickly become a distraction. Reliance on internet resources means that, if you're offline, you're stranded.) Thus, I recommend investing in a few physical books for your desk.
"Elements of Style" by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, Macmillian Publishing (If you get no other book on grammar, make it this one!)
"Grammar Desk Reference" by Lutz & Stevenson, Writer's Digest Books
"Webster's Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language" (or another good, unabridged dictionary)
"Roget's Super Thesaurus" by Marc McCutcheon, Writer's Digest Books (or another good, thorough dictionary)
By the way, if you can get your hands on "The New Webster's Library of Practical Information" box set, get it. Despite its age, it's an unbelievable handy for quick lookups. (The "Grammar Guide" in that set alone makes it worth it.)
You're going to spend a large part of your life typing. Improved speed means you can keep up with your own thoughts and get more done. Improved accuracy reduces the risk that errors will slip past the proofreading and editing phases.
There's only one way to improve your typing skills: practice! In the past two decades, I've gone from a typing speed of roughly 40 WPM and poor accuracy, to a searing 95-110 WPM with 98-100% accuracy. I owe that entirely to dedicated practice.
Typing prose is very different from typing code; it has a different "bounce" and feel to it. Your goal should be to have good speed and accuracy without autocorrect and autocomplete tools.
typing.com is an excellent, free website for improving your typing skills. Even at my skill level, I still use it almost weekly to stay sharp.
Accuracy is important in writing. You don't want your technical book to contradict the official documentation. If a college doesn't exist yet, how did the protagonist graduate from it? A character in a high medieval fantasy cannot say "Hold the phone" (actual manuscript error!)
Get very comfortable not only with using DuckDuckGo (or whatever your favorite search engine is), but with verifying and cross-checking sources, browsing archives, and using your local library. In both fiction and non-fiction writing, I spend about as much time researching as I do actually writing!
There are two types of writers: "planners" and "seat-of-the-pants". The former loves plotting and outlining every detail of the book before they write, while the latter prefers to make it up as they go along.
However, all writers have to create a plan! Your brain simply cannot hold all the details in available memory. You should be comfortable with outlining, whether you create and modify it as you go, or put it all together up front.
Additionally, if you're writing fiction, you should also keep canonical references for character and place descriptions, lest a character's eye color change halfway through the book (another true story), or the kitchen suddenly move from the front of the house to the back. In non-fiction, you should keep track of things like what terminology you're using.
In addition to outlines, mind mapping, timelines, and graphs can all be excellent tools. Don't rely too heavily on the computer for these, either. Get comfortable with pencil-and-paper!
Make this your mantra: my words are not sacred.
This is the sticking point for many writers. They are too in love with their own words. It can be especially hard if you have a line that you can totally imagine being the defining quote in the movie adaptation, or the
memorable quip that will quoted in literature classes for decades to come.
I'll say it again: your words are not sacred. Let it go. If it doesn't move the book forward, no matter how brilliant you think it is, drop the line. It isn't as important as you think.
I like to keep a "fragments" file on my computer for storing all those memorable lines I think are worth using. Some of them work out in different contexts, but most prove themselves to not be as special as I first thought.
A good editor or critique partner will pretty much shred your manuscript, in pursuit of making it better. It's a fact of life. Liz, my fantastic editor at No Starch Press, will often tell me in an email how much she loves my latest chapter, and then will attach a densely red-lined version. That's her job! All those edits, however painful some of them seem at the time for me as a writer, only exist to improve the book.
What's my response to all those edits? Revise, revise, revise! As I've said twice already, my words are not sacred. (Seriously, I can't drive that point home enough!) I easily spend more time rewriting than I do writing.
Despite having a number of excellent editors, proofreaders, and test readers, I am actually my own toughest editor! I've learned to read everything I write with a critical eye. I've been known to retool a scene or explanation a dozen times over.
In fact, I have one manuscript that I have been rewriting for no less than TEN years! I'm rewriting the entire book from scratch, using the last version (itself the second complete rewrite) as a sort of rough roadmap. Every time I rewrite it, I like it better. This book won't see the light of day until I am happy with it.
And yes, books do get to that point. I've published two.
It's all well and good to write a book on letter-size paper. In fact, that's where most books start. Composition is hard enough without having to deal with margins, am I right?
But at some point, you should start thinking about your format. Because I'm also the production editor (read "book designer + typesetter") for my own publishing company, I'm the one responsible for putting every book we publish into its final form for print, so I think about this a LOT. And I wish I'd thought about it sooner.
You will save tremendous time if you start thinking about this aspect of your book early in the revision phase! I actually like changing the page size and margins on my word processor to be roughly that of the final book. That way, I get an idea of how long each chapter and section actually is. I also do all my revision work with the manuscript in justified alignment, which is how it will be published.
It additionally allows me to catch and pre-empt "widows" (the last word of a paragraph on a line by itself) and "orphans" (a line that's by itself at the top of a page). Dealing with these typographical issues sometimes requires rewriting entire paragraphs.
Those initial steps save me and the typesetters (sometimes also me) hours of effort down the road.
We write for people. So to be an effective author, I need to stay plugged into the real world.
I have conversations with actual people. I foster relationships with other writers and editors, with readers, and with many other personal and professional contacts. These contacts allow me to learn new things, gather feedback on ideas, and generally improve my communication skills.
As a bonus, many of these same people get excited when I have a book coming out, and word-of-mouth is the most effective form of marketing. Win-win!
Writing gets frustrating. I get stuck on a scene or section, get bogged down in a round of confusing research, or get a discouragingly vast set of revisions from an editor.
When you get discouraged, all you can do is maybe pitch a crumpled page over your shoulder, go for a walk to clear your mind, and then dive back in.
Liquid error: internal
If you stick with it, you'll finish that book. It may take months, even years, but you'll get there if you keep going!
In the end, that's all that separates the aspiring writer from the successful one: the successful writer never gave up.