Not long ago, I received an email from a young woman (the daughter of a high school friend), asking me for insight on the writing process. It was fun (and instructive) to take a few minutes to reflect on what it takes to do what I do.
I figured that, since I took the time to gather these thoughts, I might as well share them with other young (or not so young) writers who might be out there wondering how to get started.
Without further ado, here is my exchange with Margo:
Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr,
I am doing a research project about Marco Polo at school. For our projects, we are supposed to reach out to an adult in the same professional field as our notable. Marco Polo was also an author, so I found you to be great candidates. The assignment is to ask you about what “soft skills” your job requires. Soft skills are attributes needed to be successful in your career. These skills are more aimed towards things that make a good leader, like participation or focus, not handwriting or geometry. What skills do writers need for every day work?
Thanks you for your help.
Margo T., 6th grade
persistence (and patience) – Writing is something that you learn how to do little by little, over an extremely long period of time. Although you can certainly improve by taking writing classes or read books about writing, the best way to get better as a writer is to write. And write and write and write. Everyone starts out as a terrible writer (just think what awful writers babies are), but anyone who sticks with it gets better. And those who stick with it through frustration and failure are the ones who get a lot better. Robbi and I are always saying how glad we are that we chose professions that we can keep doing and continuing to get better at throughout our entire lives. If we were professional basketball players, we would already be retired because our knees would no longer work properly. Instead, if feels as if we’re just getting started. The bottom line here is that learning to write well takes a really long time. But the more you write, the faster the learning process will be. Without patience and persistence, it’s pretty much impossible to be a great writer. Because it’s one of those things that just doesn’t happen without a lot of hard work.
observation – Whether your story is about the Roman Empire or a family of green bunnies, it won’t be interesting unless it’s actually about real things that happen to actual people. Their hopes and fears and struggles and joys. And the only way to write things that people will care about reading is to pay close attention to what people actually say and do, how they feel and react in a given situation. So much of what happens to people happens below the surface and is only visible in barely perceptible ways. So you have to look and listen carefully to figure out how people work. Which is to say, writers must be good observers and good listeners.
empathy – Beyond figuring out how people work by studying them closely, writers have to do a little extra magic, taking that knowledge and understanding and using it to see and live the world through their characters’ eyes. Empathy is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” If you can’t, at some level, identify with your characters, it’s hard to tell their stories in interesting and authentic ways. Which means that you have to crawl inside the hearts of your villains as well as those of your heroes. You have to open yourself up to a broad range of human experience. You have to be willing to acknowledge the complexity inside yourself. Which many people are not willing to do.
curiosity – The thing that makes one willing do be persistent and observant is an innate curiosity about the world and how it works. You have to be really interested in people and what they think and what they do and WHY they think what they think and do what they do or you probably won’t do the hard work it takes to learn how to write about these things in believable, compelling ways. One of the best ways to sate your curiosity is to read. Not only will you be exposed to people and situations and ideas and happenings that you couldn’t possibly experience in person, but you will learn how great writers perform their craft. Want to be a writer? Read and read and read. Write and write and write.
willingness to accept criticism – I wish there were a single word for this, but if there is, I can’t think of it. The bottom line is, writers don’t work alone. They collaborate with editors (professional or otherwise) to take their ideas and drafts and make them better. No writer EVER sat down and wrote something perfect in one try. That is not how it works. Writers write something, and it is riddled with mistakes (not just spelling and grammatical errors but other kinds of problems, whether with the story or the logic or the characters). Editors read the draft and give feedback, pointing out places where the story isn’t working or where the dialogue is not believable or where the writer has missed an opportunity to add emotional depth to a given exchange. The process of revision proceeds as a conversation between the writer and the editor and it often takes just as much work and time (if not more work and time) than creating the first draft did. Writers have to be willing to accept that they cannot create the best version of their book or blog post or magazine article on their own. And the better they are at listening to constructive criticism without taking it personally, the better their final work will be. I think of my editor as a true partner in the process of writing my books. She always makes them so much better than they would have been had I been working on my own.
And there you have it. Some soft skills I rely upon each day in my life as a writer. Please let me know if you would like me to think of others. And thanks again for giving me this opportunity to reflect on what I do.
I wish you the best of luck with your project. Please let me know how it goes.
This is all so true. Great list, Matthew.
Maybe you might consider adding “not trying to be perfect”. From my perspective that is a quite important one. Reading my own work, two days after finishing mostly makes me wanna cry. I see so many things, i could – no, i have to – rewrite… i could continue this way eternally.
So: Know when it is good enough. That was a lesson i had to learn and that was quite important for me ;)
Greetings from Germany,
Indeed, embracing imperfection is an excellent addition to the list. I have just encountered this as I pressed send on the email sending my response to the copyeditor’s suggested changes to the latest Real McCoys manuscript. Now the die is cast, for better or for worse, and the the book will be what it will be.
Thank you so much for posting!
Greetings from Chestertown!