‘Yes, but what do you actually do all day?’
I keep hearing this from people, most of whom probably imagine that I spend my days loafing about in an oversized white shirt, drinking coffee and penning the occasional deep & meaningful couplet. While this isn’t 100% incorrect (at least, I do spend most of the day drinking coffee), there’s actually a lot more to writing, and to being a writer.
I’m going to separate those two things out here, because so often they get lumped together, and in my opinion, they’re actually slightly different things. There’s writing. Then there’s being a writer.
So what’s the difference?
Well, writing is the act of sitting at the computer or notebook or even vintage typewriter, and forcing yourself to get those words on the page. Being a writer is all the other stuff that comes along with that, so that your work doesn’t just stay on that computer or typewriter or foolscap paper.
A lot of people who are starting out, who dream of being the next J K Rowling, tend to wish they could skip the ‘writing’ stage and get straight to ‘being a writer’ – though this is often because they believe the oversized-white-shirt-wearing, coffee-drinking, inspirational-loafing myth. The writers who know what’s really involved are the ones who want to push aside all the ‘being a writer’ stuff and get back to the more wholesome business of ‘writing’.
So what does ‘being a writer’ really involve?
The 3 main things a writer needs to do (the ‘essential skills’ on the job description, if you like) are:
This goes without saying, I suppose, but it’s important to remember that you can’t be a writer if you don’t write anything. It’s all very well owning a rack of flouncy white shirts and a feather quill, but it’s the words on the page that are at the forefront of the job. They’re your product.
Imagine a biscuit factory. It’s got a killer marketing campaign, a red-hot accounts department, wonderful managerial staff… In fact, everything it does is first class. Except it never makes any biscuits. Well, no, not quite never. I mean, it made a biscuit once. Or rather, it mixed up the cookie dough, but then never got round to baking it. But still, it loves to talk at parties about how it’s a really really great biscuit factory.
It just doesn’t work, does it? If the biscuit factory doesn’t make biscuits, then it has no product, and nothing else really matters. (If talking about poetry / fiction / any other form of writing as a ‘product’ offends you, then I’m sorry. But this post is about the business of being a writer, and any business needs a product, no matter how soulful and erudite that product may be.)
Following closely behind writing is reading. Though really, I should say that reading comes before writing, rather than after it. Because the reading, as I’m sure we all know, informs the writing. To continue the biscuit factory metaphor: you need to have tasted biscuits before to know what they’re supposed to look like; you need to have seen a biscuit recipe to know what normally goes into them; you need to know what other biscuit factories are making if you want to make something that’s truly your own.
I’ll admit that reading is often the first thing to be sacrificed when I’m struggling for time – something I’m really determined to work on this year. But it’s amazing how many people think they can skip over the reading bit. I was once chatting to a guy before a poetry open mic night, and during the conversation I asked him who his favourite poets were. With a look of greatest derision, he replied that he didn’t read poetry, because it would cramp his writing style and he wanted to remain individual. Needless to say, his poetry was not individual, but instead was universally bad. (This was also the guy who, later that evening, told me my poetry was ‘unfeminine’, and that I should write about ‘nice things like flowers and rabbits instead’ – and then later proceeded to aggressively heckle a poet who was performing a more political piece. But that’s another story.)
This is another absolute must for writers: once you’ve read plenty of books, and you’ve written your own creative work (whether it’s a haiku or a 100,000-word novel), you need to edit it. For some reason, this is another step that people sometimes think they can skip, as if the words they first scribble onto the page or bash away on the keyboard are somehow divine and Must. Not. Be. Tampered. With.
I don’t know whether this is because we’re lazy, and once we’ve written ‘The End’ we just want it to be over. Maybe we’re all just too eager to move onto the next thing. Or perhaps we’ve convinced ourselves into believing in the sacred moment of inspiration as some sort of untouchable perfect truth. Whatever reason, it’s almost always completely and utterly wrong. The work needs editing. Writing is a craft as well as an art, and a piece of writing needs to be crafted.
This doesn’t just mean checking for spelling and punctuation errors, either. It means rewriting. It means reworking, as if the poem/story/whatever is a piece of clay and you have to mould it into the shape it ought to fit. Sometimes it’s like a house that needs tearing down and building back up again, with the same bricks all present, but just a different architecture. Editing is a skill in and of itself – and it doesn’t stop once you hand in the manuscript to your agent / editor and get it accepted. The editing goes on and on, usually for months.
These are my three absolute essentials to being a writer. The ‘necessary skills’ on the job description. The rest of it sort of depends on what sort of writer you want to be, and how you want to run your business. But here are a few common ‘desirable skills’, which can definitely help you on your way to being a writer:
Emails: Ok, I know it’s obvious, and I know it isn’t particular to writers. But it’s worth mentioning, if only because it takes up so much blooming time. Whatever business you’re running, dealing with emails is an important and time-consuming aspect of the job. It’s just the world we currently live in. And being a writer is no different.
Submissions: If you want people to read your work, you’re going to have to make some sort of effort to get it out there. Of course, one method of doing this is going down the self-publishing route, but I’m going to leave that to one side for this post – partly because it isn’t my field of expertise, but mainly because once you’re self-publishing, you’re not just being a writer: you’re also being an editor, a copyeditor, a proofreader, a designer, a marketing person, a sales rep, and a whole host of other things besides. So looking at the more traditional route: submitting your work. This can be as big and momentous as submitting a novel to agents, or as frequent as submitting poems to journals or competitions. Either way, the skill set is the same: research your options and opportunities; tailor your submission to the recipient; create some sort of system so you know which pieces you’ve sent to whom, and when; try not to get too disheartened if / when it comes back as a no.
Applications: In the next column over to submissions is applications. This is about looking for those other opportunities for you as a writer, which you can apply to – such as funding opportunities, residencies, and any freelance work that might be up your street. (Rather than submitting your new type of biscuit to a ‘biscuit of the year’ competition, you’re looking for a council grant to help you build that new wing of the biscuit factory. That sort of thing.) There’s no rule that says you have to do this, but if you get a grant to buy you time to write, then that’s got to be a good thing. After all, if you’re thinking of your writing as a business, then you need to find a way to make that business pay. (I’ll talk about other ways to earn a living from writing in another post.) But warning: depending on the application, these can be incredibly time-consuming, which means lots of time writing applications, less time writing the real creative stuff.
Marketing: Again, there’s no rule that says you have to do this as a writer, but more and more, it’s expected that writers will assist in marketing their own book. As well as the book, however, writers often find they have to market themselves as people. Luckily, there’s no set way of marketing yourself, or your book, which largely means you can tailor it to what you feel comfortable doing. If you love making YouTube videos, then great, you can start a book vlog. If you hate the idea of filming yourself, but you’d love to go out and run events in local bookshops, then that’s also great.
Blogging & social media: This is probably really a part of the ‘marketing’ point above, but it’s such a major thing that I think it deserves its own subheading. Often with these things, you’re not marketing a specific book (or one particular type of biscuit), but you’re marketing yourself as a whole brand. And you’re doing this not by shouting into the twitter-void in the hope that someone somewhere will hear your echoes. You’re doing this by connecting with people: with your readership, with fellow writers, with other people in the literary industry. All too often I see writers tweeting things like ‘Buy my book!’ followed by a link and 9-10 hashtags. Once or twice this is fine, but when this is the only thing a writer ever seems to tweet, then you have to question why you’re following that person. After all, if you had a choice between eavesdropping on, or even engaging in, an interesting conversation, or standing beside the man in the sandwichboard continuously yelling about some promotion or other, I can guess which one you’re most likely to pick.
Talks / Panels / Readings: Again, the days where writers wrote a book, came out for a signing or two the week it was published, then returned to their garret to work on the sequel are long gone. It’s very common for writers to give readings of their work, or to be expected to talk on subjects related to their book – either individually or as part of a panel discussion. This isn’t just a case of showing up and rattling something off, either. Like anything else, all these appearances require preparation. The ability to prepare for these, and then to perform well in them, is another skill in the writer’s job description.
Writing (again): As well as working on your own creative projects, as a writer you might also be expected to write articles and commissioned pieces. This is much in the same vein as giving talks or appearing on panels, except that it’s written down and published, instead of spoken live.
Workshops / Teaching / Project Management: And lastly, there are all the ways that a writer can make money, which are indirectly related to writing, but not writing itself. Many writers teach, or run workshops, or mentor other writers. Or they manage writing-related projects, or work for literature-based organisations. All these things have their own job descriptions, but I wanted to make a nod to them here, just to illustrate the sheer variety of skills required to ‘be a writer’, beyond just the skill of ‘writing.
Good luck – and keep writing!