The Three Commandments of Writing

If you asked my writing teachers for three words of advice on how to write well, most of them would give you the same three words.

“READ.”

A fair amount of people I knew in graduate school admitted, ashamed, that they didn’t have time to read fiction. I wouldn’t have just been ashamed – I would have dropped out of school immediately and pursued another path. Do any art students not look at art? Do any film critics not watch films? Without reading fiction, you cannot know the structure and feel of it. You cannot write without reading.

“WRITE.”

Okay, not exactly groundbreaking stuff here, but the levels of delusion are high in many potential writers. Case in point: me. Since I was young, I’ve wanted to be an author. And yet, I didn’t actually start writing a novel until the summer after my freshman year of college. If you don’t read or don’t write, don’t fancy yourself a potential author.

It’s amazing how bad a writer’s copy can be without him realizing it (I speak from experience). When you are a delusional novice, you write terribly but think you are groundbreaking – mainly because you just know you are the “exception” in the world. Other writers might have to slog through dozens of drafts to attain polished copy. You, on the other hand, only require one or two.

But then someone tells you your writing is terrible.

That’s when most people give up on writing.

If you do continue writing, your writing eventually becomes okay. But you still have no confidence. Then someone reads your writing and tells you it isn’t too bad. Your confidence increases, so you write more. The more you write, the better your writing gets, for two reasons: you’re discovering new things to improve on, and you’re practicing.

If writing is important to you, do not go into it. Go into business or sales. You’ll make more money that way. If writing is EVERYTHING to you, well then, I can’t convince you NOT to write, can I?

“LIVE.”

Yes, live!

Moving to NYC helped me with this. That’s not required, of course, but I certainly wouldn’t advise against it! A lot has changed with me. I used to think I was 100% introverted. I hoped to snag a telecommuting job. My idea of a fun night was reading a book alone or maybe playing a board game with a few friends.

When a world of opportunity is opened to you, you have more chances to discover what really brings you to life. You face your fears and, as you gain in skill, you become more sure of yourself. You might be different from the person you’ve told yourself you are.

IN CONCLUSION

Read.

Write.

Live.

No one ever got better at something by not doing it. So, go! Do it!

39 thoughts on “The Three Commandments of Writing

  1. As a writer/editor for many, many years, you have hit all the points spot-on and in just the right order! Writers are readers, and many readers could be writers if they’re willing to study, work at honing their craft, trust their editor, and remain open to suggestions without emotional involvement. Being a writer is a calling and a way of life, like breathing, growing, and evolving. It is also the toughest career to which you can aspire.

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  2. > You might be different from the person you’ve told yourself you are.

    🙂 I like this, smiling at the thought of how the process of discovering what really brings you to life went for you

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  3. Tom, I think you have not only captured the key to writing, but to human nature. We do need to put in the time to practice, learn, and increase our abilities, but we are also greatly impacted by those who take the time to give feedback. Positive feedback energizes us, negative feedback makes us want to quit. I fairly new to writing anything other than technical documents, but so far, I’m enjoying the blogging experience and am learning from other writers like yourself.

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  4. “No one ever got better at something by not doing it.”
    Examine the critiques, evaluate, and write again. My husband put 20 years into learning to golf. Writing is, at least, as difficult 🙂

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  5. Glad you’ve started writing when you are young. I did some tech writing until I retired, then had to unlearn all the jargon to start real writing. At one writer’s conference the speaker said, “read poetry. It will teach you how to use words.” When I read it, I often have to memorize it to understand it, but I can’t write it.”

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  6. What a fantastic article. I find writing so addictive and how I enjoy bringing my characters to life! I totally agree with all that was written here. My problem for quite a while I was searching for perfection when I needed to simply strive for excellence. How grateful I am to have found your blog!!! Blessings back,

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  7. Yes! So easy and simple, but this is exactly it. I can’t imagine NOT reading, that’s what inspired me to write myself! And of course life provides the inspiration of what to write about. Great post!

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  8. So simple and so true. I think many forget these key elements that are absolutely crucial to the process of writing. I think we can all benefit from ‘remembering’ once in a while 🙂

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  9. Those are three commandments I try to live by. I read every chance I get, which is why I always have several ebooks pulled up on my phone at any given moments. I’m still working on the writing part, though I’m at least writing every day, even if it isn’t something that can be published.

    Live. That’s always the hard one to work on.

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