Dan's Advice for Aspiring Writers
The question I get asked the most is: How do you become a writer? I usually give a sarcastic response such as, “Wear more purple.” But as part of Dan Bergstein week here at SparkNotes, the real answer will finally be revealed. How do you become a writer? Follow these rules.
1. Do not follow any rules.
There is no correct way to enter the writing world. Ask ten different writers how they got started, and you’ll get ten different responses. Some may have gone to journalism school, but most have not. I took only two or three writing courses at school, including Business Writing and the mandatory and utterly horrible Composition 101. And yet, without any experience or even a writing degree, at the end of my senior year I was offered a freelance gig at a national magazine with a circulation of 1.2 million. A year later, I was hired as an associate editor. No one told me how to do it. I just sent out silly writing samples that took me a few days to write. Meanwhile, my friends who all slaved away at writing workshops and literature camp hated me because I was getting paid to write despite the fact that I had never used a semicolon correctly. (I use them to replace the letter O. Is that wr;ng?)
2. Go to college.
Contrary to my last statement, college is important. Few, if any, media outlets will even look at writing clips from someone who has only a high school degree. Go to college. But…
3. Major in anything you damn well want to.
I never studied creative writing. You can major in anything and still become a writer. I majored in broadcasting. A writing degree may help, but I wouldn’t recommend it. And my reasons are three.
A. A good editor will identify talent regardless of your education background.
B. Some (not all) writing courses are detrimental to young writers because they are taught by angry, out-of-touch, lifelong losers. No one taught me how to write funny articles. If I handed my stories to an English professor, she would rip them to shreds and shout, “The semicolon is not an O!” And yet, here I am getting paid for my words. Weird, right? [Waves to all angry English teachers in the world.]
C. A book of poetry written by an English major? Yawn. A book of poetry written by a physical education major? Well, now I’m interested.
4. Read everything.
This is a no-brainer, but let me stress the importance of reading a wide variety of books. Sticking with one genre or one author is not allowed! You must branch out. Read the weirdest, stupidest, and worst books you can find. Much can be learned by reading ridiculous literature. To help find dumb books, play Dan’s Used Book Game.
Step One: Visit a used book store with your friends.
Step Two: Each person finds a bizarre and goofy book on the shelves. Use pre-set rules, such as, “The book cover must be green and feature a wolf.”
Step Three: Buy the books.
Step Four: Stand in a circle outside the store. Make everyone trades books by handing the book to the person on their left. That person MUST read the book handed to him, or else he loses.
Step Five: Laugh and eat cheese fries.
Step Six: Write up hilarious book reports to prove that you’ve read the book. You can also set up point values for things you find in the books. (Like murmurs.)
This is a fun game, and I guarantee you will learn more about writing by reading awful books than you will by reading War and Peace eight times.
5. Get Rhino Tough
You’re ugly. You look like a spastic puppet when you run. Your hair is dumb and you smell like sandwiches.
If you are shedding a tear after reading that, you are not ready to be a writer. Writers must build up a tolerance to negative comments and rejection or else they will implode. Never take it personally. (I enjoy negative comments, but I’m also crazy.)
6. Write every day.
There’s no trick to this. Just do it. Every day. Even Christmas.
7. Ask for advice.
Send emails to the places you’d like to work and DON’T ask for a job. Instead, ask for advice. Editors are hounded by writers looking for work, and they tend to ignore the requests, but requests for advice are different. These requests will get their attention, and they are likely to respond. You won’t instantly get a job by doing this, but you will get valuable information about the specific type of writing job that interests you. Bonus tips: Keep the email short! Three sentences are all you get. And don’t you dare try to be funny, because it will always come across as desperate and sad. Be sincere and professional.
8. Be humble.
In New York City, there are 8 million people, and 8.5 million writers. You are not special. Your precious words are not made of treasured silk and whispers. So many writers think they have finally found the best way to say, “Love is strange,” and act as if we should all be thankful that their words exist. PUH-leeeze! You will have plenty of time to build a crazy ego once you’ve been published and are a millionaire. Until then, stop acting like tool box and take off that scarf! It's summer!
9. Be happy!
Do you know Kim Schifino, the drummer of the band Matt and Kim? Watch her drum. She is the happiest drummer of all time. She’s played these songs countless times and yet she’s still having fun. This is how you should feel about writing. When you sit at the keyboard, that same smile should appear on your face. If you don’t feel this enthusiastic, quit and become a chimney sweep.
10. Read this book.
There are 7,000,003 books out there about writing. You only need this one:
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King
11. Wear less purple.
This is our favorite group of words ever published on the internet. That is all.
Related post: How to Write Funny Stories