So You Want to Be a Writer?

I got a letter recently from someone who hopes to be a writer. She says:

I get so frustrated with myself because even as I am typing, I think, "What am I doing?  I can't write!" I would like to get published some day, but I don't even know how to start.

No 7-step list will guarantee a writer is formed out of a non-writer, but here are some suggestions, things that have been helpful for me.

1. Write!

The cliche answer is probably the best one—if you want to write, write. Don't think about publishing at first. And quit examining yourself and your ability. Don't worry about grammar and spelling at first. Just write. Anything. Journal. Letters. Blog. Keep a writing notebook or computer file. In it, write random paragraphs describing something you've seen or imagined. Jot down ideas or connections that have come to your mind when you're reading your Bible.

All of this is good practice and good source material for you. Sometimes I happen across a random piece of paper where in the past I briefly wrote a thought that I'd now completely forgotten. Without the paper it would have been totally lost. Now it slips into something I'm writing as if it were totally fresh today.

2. Immerse yourself in what you admire.

When you find an author you love to read, read everything you can find by that person. Think of authors whose writing grabs you, then soak yourself in their work. For me, there have been all sorts. It would be hard to pick out just a few, but here's a very random sample: George Eliot, Charlotte Bronte, Edith Schaeffer, Elisabeth Eliot, P.D. James, Alexander McCall Smith.

A practical and surprisingly helpful way to get a feel for the quality of another author’s writing is to copy down well-turned phrases of theirs that you find as you read. Then, not only are you passively taking in good writing as a reader, you are also practicing putting it out yourself as a writer.

3. Practice improving other people’s writing.

I think editing other people's work has helped my writing a lot. As an exercise, you might take random paragraphs from other writers or yourself and see how much you can cut out and still leave a good paragraph. Shortest is not always best, but long is often weak. See what other ways you might improve the paragraph.

4. Join a writers’ group.

In college, I should have majored in Lit because I love reading. But Lit required a lot of writing. So I majored in Speech, so I could just talk, because I didn't like to write.

When I was in my late 30's, someone at Bethel College asked me to write a very short piece for the alumni magazine about an Alumna of the Year (or something like that), a person in our church. And I was probably 40 before I started thinking I might enjoy writing and began to do it because I liked it.

About that time I joined the Minnesota Christian Writers Guild. At the monthly meetings, even if the speaker is talking about a kind of writing I'm not interested in, somehow it's still good fertilizer and watering to whatever I am interested in.

Look for a writers' organization near you. Whether or not it should be a Christian group depends on what kind of writing you’re doing. As you look for a group, keep in mind there’s some pretty goofy stuff out there (both Christian and non-Christian), stuff that won't advance your thought or writing or your faith very well.

5. Start a writers’ group.

Later I started getting together monthly with a small group of other aspiring writers. Each of us brings something and we take turns reading to each other. Then we encourage each other and make suggestions. That has been really helpful. And you should recognize that comes from me, who doesn't take criticism easily nor want anybody telling me what to do.

Round up your own group of writers or would-be writers. Needing to have something fresh each month is good motivation to keep writing.

6. Participate in events for writers.

Find conferences you want to attend. American Christian Writers, for example or Christian Writers Guild. These are big conferences and will have tracks for beginners. Look around those websites for other helpful info, too. Another good annual conference is Write to Publish, always in Wheaton, though not associated officially with the college.

Same thought here as above about deciding whether to go to Christian conferences or others.

7. Ask yourself what you want to say and who you want to say it to.

Before moving eventually toward publishing, probably most important is getting past the general idea of writing, and getting down to asking yourself, “What do I have to say? What do I want to say? What are my great burdens that won’t let me be content until I deal with them on paper? Who do I want to write this for?”

Over time this sense will grow, perhaps from your random writing notebook. You’ll start to notice what gets most of your word count, or what raises the strongest emotions in you, or what you've been learning as you've written. Writing is one of the best ways (besides talking to yourself!) to know what you really think . You realize how unfinished your thoughts have been when you try to get them out of your head and into something cogent on paper.

Keep learning!

Really, what we're talking about here is continuing education. I was surprised to discover that my education wasn't finished when I finished college. I realize now that I learned to learn in school. And I've gotten my real education since then.

So, if you want to grow in writing, that means you want to continue your education in writing, and that means WRITE!

Noël Piper (@noelpiper) is wife of John Piper, mother of five, and grandmother of twelve. She is author of Treasuring God in Our Traditions.