Friday, October 28, 2011

Taking the Mental Leap: Thinking of Yourself as a Writer

Like most writers, I was an avid reader as a child. It amazed me that a person could weave together a story, keep a reader engaged, and have the imagination to make a story come alive. I dreamt of writing my own book, even though it seemed to be an incredibly daunting task.

Dick Preston, radio, film-maker, April 1951 from Lincoln Coffee Lounge & Cafe, Rowe Street, Sydney / photographed by Brian Bird

It seemed nearly impossible to write a book in part because writers appear to have magical gifts that enable them to create enthralling prose. I have since learned that this is not the case. Writers are not people who are born with natural gifts. Beautiful streams of words do not simply flow from writers fingertips. Instead, writers are people who write. Good writers are those who write a lot. Great writers are those who write a lot, revise often, and consistently push themselves to improve their prose.

Anne Barrett from Lincoln Coffee Lounge & Cafe, Rowe Street, Sydney / photographed by Brian Bird c. 1948-1951

Ernest Hemingway, considered one of the best American writers, famously once said:
“The first draft of anything is shit.” 
He also reportedly said:
“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” 
Being a writer, then, simply involves letting your fingers loose on a keyboard.

Because we mystify writers and the writing process, it is often hard to think of ourselves as writers. Those of us who are academics rarely think of ourselves as writers, even though writing is a major part of our jobs. The reality is that, if you can make that conceptual leap and begin to think of yourself as a writer, as Robert Boice suggests professors should do in Professors as Writers: A Self-Help Guide to Productive Writing, you will write more and become a more successful academic. If you focus on becoming a better writing, your prose will improve and your readers will thank you.

In a recent post, academic blogger, Jonathan Mayhew, wrote:
“One way you know you are a writer is if you are reading other writers for the pure pleasure of style, if you take lessons from the great novelists and essayists of the language in which you are writing.”

As Jonathan implies, thinking of yourself as a writer involves focusing on becoming a better writer. For many academics, thinking of yourself as a writer involves a great mental leap. It is a mental leap well worth taking.

What Does It Take to Be a Writer?

Here’s the deal:

  • You don’t have to look like a writer to be a writer.
  • You don’t have to enjoy writing to be a writer.
  • You don’t have to have been born with a magical gift to be a writer.
  • You don’t have to be an eloquent speaker to be a writer.
  • You don’t have to have the biggest vocabulary in town to be a writer.
  • You don’t have to live in New York or San Francisco or anywhere else in particular to be a writer.
  • You don’t have to smoke cigarettes, drink coffee, have unkempt hair, or wear skinny jeans to be a writer.
  • You don’t have to have already finished a book to be a writer.

To be a writer, you do have to read. And, you have to write.

To be a great writer, you have to write often, persevere through hard times, withstand rejection, revise consistently, and keep on writing.

What about you? Do you think of yourself as a writer? Would you like to become a better writer? What are you doing to become a better writer?


  1. I like this post because it doesn't say "stop being a perfectionist." I believe in enjoying your work. Rushing through it, putting timers on the way people do nowadays, or being intentionally slipshod on the theory that this is just a draft and you have to "get it all out now," actually slows me way down.

    Rushing like that and not stopping to figure things out also tends to make me bog down and meet dead ends 2/3 of the way through, because in trying to be efficient and "not perfectionist" I push the ideas into the wrong knots, which then take some time to unravel. Before I started feeling guilty about (a) not speed writing and (b) having really good first drafts, I produced a lot faster than I do now.

  2. I find that I think through my arguments by writing. On two recent occasions, I figured something out myself by writing an email to ask someone else a question about it.

    I do think it is true that we each have our own process and that we each have to figure out our own process to see what works for us.

  3. I disagree about the coffee. You do need that to be a real writer. Other than that, brilliant post.

  4. wait, you dont have to own skinny jeans? great post

  5. Nice post - I would add too: I'm interested in writing fiction, but I find that all my favorite authors bios say that they have been writing stories since they were five. This is my personal stumbling block, because I keep thinking if I was meant to be a writer, I wouldn't be able to keep myself from writing. Instead, I haven't completed a story in years. But I think if I really made an effort and sat down and WROTE, I could certainly become better and better at it.

  6. Goyland: I should've added skinny jeans to that list!

    Kellen: One of the reasons Mozart was so amazing is he started composing as a toddler. That just means that he was an expert by the age of 13. For the rest of us late-starters, we will reach a peak later in life! Better late than never.