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The Ten Most Important Things Every Writer Needs to Know

Following is a list of useful instructions for writing and life. They are not secrets, mine or anyone else’s, but they are helpful to keep in mind. I suggest printing them out and taping them on your wall.

1. Beware the romantic haze

It’s easy to indulge in a romantic haze and get carried away by the sound of your own words—attractive phrases, the sensuous play of vowels and sibilants, the sly insinuation of disguised intent. These are the tools of what was called in an old song, moonglow. There’s a certain amount of fun to be had behind this curtain, but it doesn’t withstand the daylight. After all, you are on a mission. What comes of this stuff anyway?

2. Ignore, disregard, combat, quash, or by any means at your disposal destroy nagging self-doubts

Nobody wants to hear or read about your self-doubts, qualms or scruples. Just an oblique reference is usually too much, even for your spouse. Readers want to see, smell, feel, hear, and taste your words, but they will put up with a certain amount of failure of language if you can give them a little thrill. I’m talking about myself, but you may have found the same.

3. Nothing but the truth

Personally, I want the truth, spoken clearly and with confidence. Every week through my childhood the hardboiled L.A. detective Sergeant Friday deadpanned on black-and-white television, lips hardly moving, “Just the facts, ma’am,” and audiences salivated waiting for the line. This is what I am after, and what readers want as well. I don’t mean, of course, the facts of your own life, but the truth of human experience.

This is probably harder to get at than it sounds, but between the romantic haze of self-delusion and the harping of doubt lies a narrow path, a fragile bridge. The trick is to listen to the inner voice. The trick is to listen to your heart and write what it speaks, to reinvent yourself every day, every minute, to be fully alive and not just go through the motions. Be here now wrote Ram Dass in the 1960s. It’s still a relevant message. Don’t pull the blinds down or half shut your eyes into a comfortable twilight, and don’t poke at yourself for being imperfect in your efforts. Put your chin up, your chest forward, and step deliberately into the present, into the day. Hup, two, three, four.

4. Don’t take advice

Actually, I’m not sure what I had in mind when I added this to the list. People offer all kinds of helpful criticism and often point out flaws that need fixing. You wouldn’t want to go through life all character-disordered because no one pointed out your narcissism for instance. If you keep taking their advice you will get stronger and stronger, and by the time you die you will be almost perfect.

5. Don’t worry about your mistakes

Somewhere I saw Miles Davis quoted as saying, if you play a wrong note, play it loud and everyone will think you played it on purpose. This probably goes without saying.

6. Know your audience

In my occasional role of marketing consultant, this is my first injunction. Since writing is a business like any other, I can extend this advice to you as well. If you write short stories, poetry, fiction, or anything inspiring, inspired or inspirational, you will be the first, primary, and sometimes total readership. The great thing about this is that knowing your audience is the same thing as knowing yourself, which Socrates made clear is the most important thing anyone can do. So by heeding this crucial directive to know your audience, you kill two birds with one stone, so to speak. And while I have never killed two birds with one stone—I haven’t actually killed any bird with a stone—I can affirm it to be very efficient. Actually, I know there are more efficient ways to kill birds. This is just an old saying.

7. Your family and friends are not your audience

They will either love everything you have written or else pick it to death. What do they know? When I was a child they still sold bound diaries with little locks and keys. There was a reason for this. These days you have a password to protect your computer. Joking aside, if you want feedback, I recommend joining a writers group with smart people who like you, but not too much.

8. Read everything you can

There is wisdom to be found on cereal boxes if you know how to look. Read the acknowledgements in books and find out who the author hangs out with. Often this will substitute for reading the book itself. Read the publisher’s statement in magazines and check out the circulation audit. Read things that no one else does, and you will learn things no one else knows. This won’t make you a better writer, but you will have a wealth of interesting and obscure information. Depending on the kind of parties you go to, you will either be the center of attention or someone to be avoided. Would you rather go to a party where people are dancing and carrying on or one where people are earnestly discussing subjects of import? What kind of dancer are you, anyway?

9. Speak and listen as much as possible

Both enlarge you in different ways, and both can lead to success as a writer. The main thing, although it sometimes takes a long time to realize it, is the words. The more you use words, the more real they become. When they are completely real they become a force that nothing on earth can resist. Of course, many people have said that.

10. Ask yourself, why do I want to write?

This is the key to everything. Many years ago in the middle of a night that went on for a very long time, I found myself on a hallucinogenic drug twirling toward the edge of the universe, and I turned to one of my companions and asked, “Why do people do this?” She looked back at me and said, “When I get into that kind of place, I say to myself, it comes in a little pill, and nobody makes you take it. You swallowed it of your own accord.”

Ever since then, I have tried to share helpful advice with friends. That is why I have written this.