How I learned to write

I'm officially a writer.

No, really. My business cards have "Senior Writer" as my job title. I do some freelancing, and get to see my name on a byline a couple of times a week. Every penny of income I make now comes from writing.

This is a little amazing to me.

Oh, sure, I still feel like I have to justify myself when the inevitable follow-up question to "What do you do?" is "What have you written?" Somehow, people are never quite satisfied with "I write for Humber College and freelance for" They want novels. They want poetry. They want made-up stuff. So be it. I don't write fiction, at least not right now.

The fact is, though, that I spend the majority of my days writing, researching, and writing some more. So I figure, even without a novel under my belt, I get to call myself a writer now.

I found myself thinking about how I learned to write, and I thought I'd share some of the steps. It is truly amazing what shapes the craft.

I read a lot as a little kid. I read a lot now.

That, probably more than anything, is the reason I'm a decent writer now. Writing and reading are inextricably linked -- and just as you can't learn a language without hearing how it sounds, you can't learn to write if you don't know how good words sound in your head. And just as immersion is the best way to learn a language, so it is with writing. Immerse yourself in other people's words, and your own will be better. I'm a non-fiction gal, myself, and I have an enduring, passionate love affair with the writing in Esquire, especially Tom Junod's stuff. His profile of Fred Rogers is still my favourite article ever.

I listen to a lot of music.

Having an ear for music is a lot more important in a writer than you might think. The rhythm of words, the cadence of sentences, and the patterns of language are all more musical than they are verbal. You can have a stunning vocabulary and great ideas, but that won't help if your sentences go THUMP on your reader's ear. Listening to music -- and really listening, and figuring out what you're responding to in your favourite songs -- is vital if you want your text to sing. And don't bother listening to high-brow stuff if that's not your thing. The underpinnings of music are the same whether you're listening to La Boheme or Beastie Boys.

I worked my way through the slush pile at Key Porter.

Reading good writing is important, but reading a shit pile of bad writing is pretty educational, too. A lot of the slush pile was tragic -- seriously tragic, in that some people spent, like, YEARS putting together 1,500-page manuscripts that were simply terrible. I definitely admired the dedication -- I haven't written a 1,500 page novel, after all -- but good god, they would have been better served by learning to write less and better. (One guy actually replied to my rejection letter by commanding me to shred his manuscript so no-one would steal it. I restrained myself from firing back that no one in their right mind would want to claim credit for his bloated, gassy, Tolkien-spinning-in-his-grave pile of hackneyed neo-Medievalisms.)

I worked as a copywriter.

Back when Living Social still had an army of freelancers across North America (we all got laid off at the end of 2012), I spent a year writing one or two alliterative, quippy 150-word ads for them every single weekday. I got paid $20 per ad -- a pittance -- but boy, that regular practice of HAVING to turn out something decent every single day was a fantastic training ground for laying aside any existential angst and just writing. My editor was quick to flag lazy prose and tired cliches, so I learned to make anything -- and I do mean anything -- sound good. I won a couple of copywriting awards from them during my time there, so obviously something was working.

I'm still learning to be a good writer. As I write this, I realize I've completely abandoned my own work -- that is, stuff that isn't written with an audience in mind, stuff that doesn't conform to a series of key messages or tweaked to guarantee a record number of click-throughs. 

Maybe it's time to start. I guess the first blog post in a year is a pretty good beginning.


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