Ever wondered if you’re suited to being a writer? Writing a book or story or poem seems to be a universal desire. Whenever anyone hears I want to be a writer they then come out with the line “I’d love to write a book” or “I’ve a great idea for a book”.
Here are my six key characteristics for writers…and then a big reason at the end why none of them matter.
So it seems obvious that to do anything you need belief. You have to be confident in your own ability and that this is for you. But belief also has to be present when you hit the ‘dark times’ of any project you’re working on. This isn’t ‘writers block’, that can be easily dealt with. Neither is it the moment when you realise that what you wrote on page 13 doesn’t fit in with the plotline you developed on page 70 which leads to a large rewrite and the scrapping of a couple of chapters.
The ‘dark’ moment you’ll get is when you doubt your ability as a writer. You start to wonder if you’re any good. You decide the last paragraph you wrote is rubbish and that any writer worth their salt would never stoop to such a lowly level.
Then you start to doubt the whole story you’re writing. Maybe it’s no good. Who would ever read a book about a killer mattress trying to be stopped a baby duckling detective named Fluffles? It’s during these moments you need to believe and remember that such moments happen to everyone.
As an example I’ll use Neil Gaiman, an internationally acclaimed author who has had success in everything from TV to Comics to Books. When he visited my college last year he told us that even he felt doubt and would ring his agent and say he felt useless and couldn’t believe he made a career out of this. His agent would reply, “Oh, so you’re at that stage in your process?”
It happens everyone. Just believe and you’ll be ok.
Writing a book is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s a long arduous process. I remember saying to someone that I had to do about a months editing. They looked at me and said, “well if I was writing it I’d just get it right first time round so I wouldn’t have to redo it”. Huh? That was one of the most ridiculous statements I have ever heard…and I’ve heard a lot of them (and made a lot of them but let’s not go into that).
The one thing you have to understand when beginning to write is that if you want to finish a manuscript, it takes time. Then if you’re writing with a view to submitting and trying to get published, it takes even more time. A lot more time. For NaNoWriMo, where people try to write a novel in the month of November, apparently only 11% of people start the text they are working on.
But the main thing is not to give up. Every stumbling block, every plotline that doesn’t fit, every struggling scene…they can all be overcome with a good “never say die” attitude.
A thick skin
In writing, as in life, there will always be people who tell you that “you can’t”. There are people who will look for you to fail simply on the basis that they haven’t made it themselves. They’ll tell you there’s no point in writing; it’s so hard to get publish, you have to be really good at it, there’s no money in it, if it doesn’t work you’ve wasted time blah blah blah.
Yeah, great. I’m well aware of all the shortcomings of the career path I’m aiming for. But who cares? If we spent our time worrying what other people thought or getting upset at the smallest amount of criticism or dissension we’d never do anything.
If you are struggling with this and perhaps lack the self belief, then why not try to make it into a competition. When someone says to you that what you’re doing is pointless or tells you it won’t work, make a mental note of it and repeat in your head, “I’m going to prove you wrong”. Like they say, don’t get angry, get even.
Aside from critics, you’re going to get rejections. These will hurt. They will sting. They’ll make you feel bad because they are coming from experts in the industry and not the random fella from down the road.
While there is the chance they’re wrong, it’s a slim one. More likely your writing or your story isn’t good enough. Yet. Keep working at it and you will get better.
It’s a tough industry and having a thick skin is essential.
Writing a book is draining. Editing is draining. You need to be able to analyse what your story is doing and if it’s going wrong, how to fix it. For that you need focus. During your writing schedule, be that half an hour, an hour or seven hours a day, give your total focus to it.
For most things my focus isn’t the best. Whether it’s learning Greek in college, writing essays or just watching TV, my mind wanders. When I’m writing I could do it for hours on end. Whether I write for ten minutes or ten hours, I immerse myself in what I do.
The benefit of this is that you tend to pay more attention to what you’re writing, ensuring that there is less scope for a mistake leading to a major rewrite.
Capacity to be alone
I’m going to rank this above every other characteristic because it is very important. When you write, you have to spend long chunks of time by yourself. It’s quite an intense process because you’re thinking of different scenarios for characters and scenes, some of which are dark and upsetting.
I know people who tell me they can’t be alone. An hour by themselves would be torture. They feel isolated and bored. That’s something you can’t afford to feel with writing. You need to be willing to stay in a room by yourself with nothing but your thoughts and a piece of paper.
And like anything, you discover things about yourself in these moments, some good, some not so good. It’s important to accept and prepare for that before you start.
Funnily enough, for me this isn’t as important as the other five but since no list seems complete without it I’ll discuss the merits of having a creative brain.
If you have the five previous characteristics, you’ll get the job done. If you have the five characteristics and creativity, you will be amazing. But there’s no point in having the greatest ideas if you’re never going to finish any of them. You could be sitting on a goldmine. You could map it out in your head from start to finish. It could be something that will revolutionise the writing industry but ultimately if you don’t have the steadfast dedication to translate it onto the page you’re a wasted talent.
People say there’s no such thing as an original thought nowadays. Everything that can be thought of has been thought of, all that remains is to combine those ideas in new ways. If that’s true then creativity does lose its merit a little.
Personally I’d prefer to see someone who will work hard with little talent to make their dream work than see someone with loads of talent get stunted at a mediocre level because they don’t have dedication to the cause.
Why they don’t matter
If someone reading this made a checklist and decided they had 3/6 of the characteristics, then they might feel hesitant about writing. If someone marked down they had 0/6 they would probably never write. But here’s the thing, there are no criteria. There is no perfect writer. People can wax lyrical about what you have to be like in order to make it to the top but it doesn’t matter because…
The most important thing is to write.
There are a huge number of activities, jobs and pastimes in this world and we can’t be good at them all. Some capture your heart more than others. You’ll work harder at others purely based on interest. You might have none of the above characteristics until you start writing and then realise you actually have all six.
So get some paper, pick up that pen and start with that great idea. It’s a cheap, private process that allows you to take part in the comfort of your own home. You can set the hours, the conditions and you’re not answerable to anyone.
No one knows for sure until they try.