Are You Good Enough to Write Professionally?

Are You Good Enough to Write Professionally?

It’s not a question anyone really wants to ask themselves – but it is the most necessary question in professional writing.

And if the quality of writing around the web is any indication, it’s a question very few writers ask themselves.

Most people starting out as professionals will receive the following advice: write. Just write. Keep writing.

I know. I give that advice myself.

Recently, though, I realized that this advice is only useful after you’ve asked yourself the all-important question: are you good enough to begin? Because if you’re not good enough to write professionally, then the only thing you’ll accomplish by writing and writing more and keeping on writing is –

Well. A lot of bad writing.

The 10,000 Hour Rule

You may have heard of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule. It basically states that you have to put in 10,000 hours actively trying to get better at a skill before you will be considered expert in it.

When new writers receive the advice that they should just keep writing, their advisors are essentially telling them to keep knocking out those 10,000 hours. It’s great advice.

What Gladwell doesn’t mention is that you can’t do your 10,000 hours out of order. Those first 500 hours or so are going to be mastering the very rudiments of the skill. In writing, this means you’re going to learn how to form your letters, how to spell, how to create basic sentence structure.

Theoretically, all of us mastered these skills back in grade school.

Except that clearly many of us didn’t.

I see a lot of people who don’t really know where to place a comma. People who don’t understand that even if two words sound alike, they are not spelled alike (“here” and “hear” come to mind). People who write long, nonsensical run-on sentences because no one ever quite finished teaching them that every subject needs a predicate.

If you haven’t figured out the fundamentals, all the advice to write and keep writing and write more won’t help you.

Because you’re just going to keep repeating the same mistakes.

The First 500 Hours

At a certain age, it’s assumed that you mastered the fundamentals. If you’re 30 years old, no one is going to dream of sitting you down to teach you how to correctly use a comma. It’s not done.

Unfortunately, I recently had to sit a 30-year-old friend of mine down to do just that.

He’s a smart guy and he wants to learn how to be a professional writer. He wants to get good at this. He asked me to help him. And for about two months, I worked with him on creating compelling, pithy paragraphs, great headlines, and interesting content.

He was great at all of that – but somehow, his writing was always just a little . . . off.

You couldn’t quite put your finger on it. It didn’t quite sound right. There were too many basic errors to be typos and yet he didn’t make the same errors consistently. He misspelled certain words – also inconsistently. He couldn’t hear when a sentence was awkward.

I finally sat down with him and asked what the deal was.

And he confessed that he’d never figured out this stuff in school. The way the teachers taught was straight out of a textbook, and if you didn’t understand it the first time, it was too late – they’d already moved on to the next lesson plan. There was no personal attention, no one willing to explain why a red-circled mistake was a mistake.

The reason he made inconsistent mistakes was that he’d gotten good at guessing what was right. But he didn’t really know.

Which meant that he was never going to be good enough to be a professional writer if I just encouraged him to write a lot and corrected his mistakes.

He was missing the first 500 hours. And embarrassing as it was, we had to go back to the beginning and teach him the fundamentals before we could move forward with our lessons in professional copywriting.

So. Are You Good Enough?

If you want to be a professional writer, there’s no reason you can’t be.

But it’s important to ask yourself this question first: are you good enough to be a professional?

If you haven’t figured out the fundamentals, then no, you’re not good enough – yet. You’re going to have to put in that work first. You’re going to have to go through the first 500 hours.

You have to know how to write properly before you can learn to write well.

Does that mean you can’t learn how to be a professional writer? Absolutely not. It just means you can’t skip ahead. You can’t learn how to write amazing headlines before you learn subject-verb agreement. You can’t learn how to craft compelling introductory paragraphs before you learn how to avoid run-on sentences.

Encouragement Brigade

I’m the last person to discourage anyone from dreaming big. If you want to write professionally, I salute you. If you’re willing to put in the hours to become an expert in the field, I take my hat off to you. And if you are willing to ask yourself this one hard question, I will actually drop a deep and deferential curtsy in your direction.

Because it’s a really important question.

And every would-be professional should ask it.

Post by Taylor Lindstrom

Taylor is a freelancer working out of Boulder, CO, and she blogs for people who are too good to fail over at... well, Too Good to Fail. Go check out her beautiful stories and words of encouragement - and remember that while you may not be good enough right now, being great is definitely part of your potential.

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  1. Bonnie Bright says:

    Scores of people have blissfully declared, “You should be a writer.” over the course of fifteen years. The moment a passion hits me writing is the outlet for expression, a medium used for a work of art that draws the reader in. I’m terrified an attempt at professional writing would become too much work and my passion would wane. There’s only one way to find out…

  2. Hi Taylor,
    I don’t know if I agree that you have to learn the fundamentals in a particular order – I don’t even know if I believe that the fundamentals are necessary for someone to become a professional writer – I’ve meet writers who can write grammar perfect sentences, but the writing is dull and lifeless. On the other hand, I’ve met writers who totally ignore writing conventions and yet are able to create a piece that expresses a deep meaningful concept.
    I’m not saying the fundamentals aren’t important – I’m saying that the ideas and the content behind the words are even more important. Anybody can use grammar/spell checking software and anyone can ask a peer to review their work before publishing – but only someone who is capable of thinking clearly and deeply can write in a way that is engaging and meaningful.
    I think your friend has great potential, he just might need to outsource the editing and proofing stages – just my thoughts.

    • I believe – and correct me if I’m wrong – you’re discussing fiction writers, who do often break conventions to create language that is new and compelling. However, I’d argue that even writers who are renowned for breaking the rules – Hemingway, Faulkner, Joyce, Stein – had to know what the rules *were* in order to feel they needed to be broken to create the effect they were looking for. None of those writers broke rules randomly. They understood that the rules exist for a reason and they decided that the effect created by the rules was something their writing wanted to do without.

      The ideas are indeed important, but if you’re going to be a professional writer, you really have to know that the writing you’re placing into the hands of your client doesn’t have errors in it. No client in the world is going to say “Well, you misspelled twelve words, you use commas in weird places, and I’m pretty sure at least three of these sentences don’t even make sense – but I love the idea, so well done.” As for your suggestion of outsourcing the editing and proofing – how is my friend to know that all the errors have been caught if he lacks the ability to check the proofer’s work before sending it off to a client?

      I believe I’m holding fast to my assertion that the fundamentals are essential. However, I do take your point that they are not the end of the game. There are still many hours of figuring out the language and ideas – the rest of the 10,000 hours.

      • Taylor,
        I’m not speaking about fiction writers – and perhaps the people I’ve watched – myself included, are the exception to the rule.

        I can honestly say that over the years, as I’ve continued to write, the fundamentals I acquired were absolutely in no particular order. I believe I gained a lot from reading, but mostly I used an “as needed” approach to writing. If I was unsure about something, I simply used a style manual and looked it up.

        I didn’t wait until I learned it all the rules before I started writing professionally.

        • I’d say you’re one of the people who managed to learn the rules by experience, rather than a formal lesson. I was actually one of these; in high school, the only English test I got anything less than an A on was diagramming sentences. I understood when a sentence wasn’t right and I knew how to fix it, but damned if I could explain it in terms like “the participle is dangling and the predicate doesn’t match the subject.”

          I’ve found that people who read a lot often acquire the basic rules by osmosis, by recognizing that in all their reading, commas were consistently used in a certain way, as was capitalization, and spelling, and so forth. Sounds like you’re one of those. For the more complicated stuff, I think that even the most professional writers would have to haul out the style manual, and I think they should. I still think it’s incredibly difficult, and often damaging, to start a professional career before the basics are under control. That’s not to say you need to know Strunk & White backward and forward, it’s just that you need to be able to avoid noticeable and unprofessional mistakes – which it sounds like you’re more than capable of doing.

          • Kiesha and Taylor,

            I agree that it is possible to write without first learning the rules of good writing, and I agree with the point of this post — too many people think of themselves as professional writers before they master the skills necessary to actually be professional. Writing is a craft that takes time and effort to master, and spending 10,000 hours — if that time is used to learn and improve and not just to put words on paper (or computer screens) — is not a stretch.

        • Taylor:

          As I am writing to you right now, I am a Rwandan journalist. I’m not going to speak about what fiction writers should or shouldn’t, rather I want to talk about how you are honest when you said that t over the years, as you continued to write, you gained a lot from reading the fundamentals you acquired were absolutely in no particular order. This is true. All is about reading, and from there , you can you own writing style. Learning all rules will take you to the hill of professional writers.

          Keep in touch

          Ntarugera François
          +250 788500199

    • I was taught that you have to learn the rules before you can learn to break them creatively and successfully!!

    • KEISHA:
      Here ,I’m not going to say that the fundamentals aren’t important – I’m only saying the way you did that the ideas and the content behind the words are even more important . That is alright . It is unfortunately that I don’t know if I will ever meet you just to have face to face talk. But I agree with you when you say that you have to learn the fundamentals in a particular order when it comes to write .– I don’t even know if I have met someone who expresses things the way you did it. I do believe that the fundamentals are necessary for someone to become a professional writer too .– I’ve met writers the way you did it who can write grammar perfect sentences, but the writing is dull and lifeless. On the other hand, I’ve met writers who totally ignored writing conventions and yet are able to create a piece that expresses a deep meaningful concept.
      . Anybody can use grammar/spell checking software and anyone can ask a peer to review their work before publishing – but only someone who is capable of thinking clearly and deeply can write in a way that is engaging and meaningful.
      I think we need to have outsource if we want to put in to place the great potential that we do have.
      All is about the editing and proofing stages . I am a Rwandan journalist and writing a book on Rwandan media. I hope the book will be published the end of this year.

  3. Taylor

    The 10,000 Hour rule and writing is interesting – and Gladwell is NOT the source to go to!

    The 10,000 Hour rule was formulated by a guy called Anders Ericsson – and there’s two parts to it. And Gladwell glossed over the second part.

    The first part is – as you say – that it takes 10,000 to become a virtuoso in your subject (the original study was conducted on a class of violin players at the West Berlin Academy of Music in the early 90s).

    The second part of the 10,000 Hour rule is that it’s not just the 10,000 Hours of practice that’s important – but it’s the type of practice that’s important. And Ericsson codified the elements that were needed to constitute this type of practice – which he called Deliberate Practice.

    And from the perspective of Deliberate Practice the second 500 hours, or the fourth 500 Hours, or the tenth 500 hours are equally as important as the first. But it’s true that you need to build your skill sets in a logical manner – for your friend it sounds like he needs to learn the fundamentals before he can build on that.

    One last thing – here’s some encouragement for your friend. The TRUE takeaway from Ericsson’s study was that there was no such thing as ‘natural talent’ – those violinists who were considered the most talented were the ones who had put the most deliberate practice in. So even if he needs to go back and put some work in on the fundamentals, provided he commits to a programme of disciplined and deliberate practice he WILL improve his writing.

    If he does enough deliberate practice there’s nothing to stop him from becoming a professional writer.

    Paul

    • You’re quite right, and I probably should have mentioned that. I was first made aware of the 10,000 hour rule through Gladwell’s book Outliers, but of course Gladwell himself appropriately attributes the source. I wasn’t aware that there was a further breakdown of those hours, and while I would agree that all aspects of learning any skill are equally essential, that doesn’t change the fact that they are *equally essential*. Which is to say, those first 500 hours are just as essential as all the ones that follow. My point was merely that many seem to think the 500 hours of learning the rudiments aren’t essential, and they skip straight to the remainder.

      I was aware of the point that the 10,000 hour rule means anyone can master any skill, which is why we’re working to help him develop those skills. I state many times that everyone who wants to write should learn – can learn – will learn. I found it extraordinarily comforting that the work is the measure of the level of skill.

    • Hear, hear, or is it here, here . . . just kidding. You are right in saying that the “type of practice” is more important than simply logging practice time.

      Unfortunately, people who don’t have the requisite writing skills are oblivious to what they’re doing wrong and won’t improve unless or until they recognize that writing words does not make someone a writer.

  4. Hi Taylor,

    Interesting post. I always say follow your enthusiasm. If you love to write, go for it and hone your craft along the way. I know it’s possible because I did it. Realized I was deficient in grammar so I got out eight grade grammar texts and studied them. Asked friend to read my work.

    Not sure if I’ve reached 10,000 hours but consider myself an excellent writer. Maybe i have? Never counted.

    The most important attribute to be a writer that’s paid for his/her work is to love to write. The rest will fall into place.

    thanks! G.

    • That’s funny; you rather make my point for me. You would have hit a stopping point with your writing had you not had the initiative to hone the essential skills that you needed as a foundation.

      I would agree that loving to write is the most essential quality. But that’s rather like saying love is the most essential component of a marriage. It’s critical to love the person you marry, but marriages don’t break up for want of love – they break up because the couple never considered important lifelong issues like money, jobs, where they want to live, children, etc. Can a marriage survive without love? I rather doubt it. But it also can’t survive without those purely practical considerations.

      Similarly, while a writer would never succeed without loving their craft, I would argue they will not succeed if they refuse to consider the practical aspects of writing well.

  5. I have to agree that the fundamentals are important. If you want to be good, just understanding nouns, verbs and adjectives are not enough. You have to understand the more complex fundamentals – nominative absolutes, passive/active voice, etc. A wise veteran writer once told me you have to understand all the rules before you can decide which ones to break and when.

    Now, with that said, I have only one thing to add. Grammar, writing fundamentals, and the like are not a learn-it-once-and-move-on thing. It’s an evolving skill. One that needs periodic review. Just because you learned it in grade school, studied it in high school, and gnashed your teeth over it in college does not mean you’re done. Even the best writers get lazy, forget the rules, or stray too far from their core foundation. Reviewing the fundamentals and looking for your weak spots should be a part of any professional writer’s ongoing routine.

    Becoming an expert is not a destination. It’s not the finish line. It is but one more milestone in your professional career, with more milestones still ahead.

    • I agree. There are many rules of grammar that have changed over time, and conventions that were once considered gospel have completely reversed trend. A good example is the use of the plural pronoun “they” for a hypothetical example, e.g. “If you’re looking for a good doctor, they should not only be talented in their field but also capable of developing a solid doctor-patient relationship.”

      Previously, it was considered taboo to use “they” in that situation; one would have used “he or she,” or, even more archaically, “he” or “she” depending on whether the profession or status in question was only for men or for women (doctors would have been “he”; housewives would have been “she”). As the world evolved and it became more and more awkward to always obey the “he or she” convention, “they” became common usage.

      I think you’re absolutely right that every expert needs to continue to refine their skills over time; I also believe I don’t know any successful person in their field who doesn’t consider education a critical part of their (there it is again) life.

      • Another good example would be that split infinitives used to be considered to be wrong, but now you get phrases like ‘how to correctly use a comma’ in professional articles about grammar 😉

        (During my Classics MA, the evil of split infinitives was drummed into me – because, of course, we all read Latin where a split infinitive is impossible – and now they stick out like a sore thumb to me and sound horrible. I think Classicists are the last group of people left complaining about this now though!)

        • You’re not alone. I avoid them whenever it’s gracefully possible to do so. Rather than say “how to correctly use a comma,” you could say, “how to use a comma correctly.” But when pressed by an editor not to end a sentence with a preposition, Winston Churchill said, “This is nonsense up with which I will not put!” And he was right, there are times when it just doesn’t sound good not to. :)

  6. I got lucky – my Grade 5 teacher was a stickler for grammar, and I’m geeky enough to still be interested in the mechanics.

    People tell me I’m a good writer. I tell myself I’m a competent writer. I know I still need to work on some things. Like someone who’s been driving a long time, I fall into bad habits.

    I’m totally with you about fundamentals. The key, I think, is to find the right teacher or learning materials to suit your learning style. Strunk and White may be absolutely correct with their instruction, but their delivery is painful.

    I think learning should always have an aspect of, “This is cool!” no matter how hard you have to work at it. You may not become a pro, but doing something well is always worth the effort.

    • Strunk & White is amazing. Also, xkcd recently did something hilarious with it: http://xkcd.com/923/

    • Dear Stacy:
      As Paul Kagame the President of Rwanda said while addressing the Rwandan university student from 19 countries on July 22 2011 Gako Military training yard” There are no shortcuts when you want to achiene successfully” I am also with you when you say that you are totally with people about fundamentals when it comes in to writing skills. The same way you see it ; The key, I think, is to find the right teacher or learning materials to suit your learning style. But try always to avoid copy and paste coaching style if you want to write professionally &independately.

      I think learning should always have an atmosphere aspect of, “This is cool!” no matter how hard you have to work at it. You may not become a pro, but doing something well is always worth the effort.

      Keep up

      Ntarugera François
      +250 788500199

  7. Huzzah! Huzzah! Huzzah!

    (That’s one of the words I learned in honors English in high school!!)

    I get so irritated when I’m reading and stumble over a grammatical faux pas that I learned to avoid in third grade! And people just don’t seem to care. And the miniaturization of keyboards isn’t helping any “BTW”!

    Kids should be required to master spelling and grammar before they get to type with their thumbs.

  8. One must practice, but underneath that is the basis of practicing the proper things properly. Ask the golfer with a nasty slice; the course pro helped him cure it, but had to “go back” to some fundamentals and fix them.

    How much technique or Craft must a writer have under control (practiced)? Enough to convey or provide the reader with the powerful emotional experiences he seeks from reading fiction.

    Talent, art, or creativity will do its best only with the basics (Craft) sufficiently in place. Otherwise the reader gets lost and might not get by that rambling first chapter.

    Being a professional is part of the cycle of Being, Doing, and Having which is usually worked backwards from the Have. “I want to have a profound effect on my readers” backs up to “I do sufficient grammar (including spelling, punctuation, etc.), story structure, characterization and other parts of the Craft to enable my writing to produce that effect.”

    The Be of the professional writer is the recognition and wearing of the professional hat. That entails finding out what the fundamentals actually are (edging into the Do) and having the policy of practicing (repetition as needed) and practicing (actual doing) the Craft as a fundamental.

    This way, the beginner can actually be a professional in his approach from the beginning and will minimize the back-tracking of skipped learning/proficiency an amateur approach usually entails.

    All talents are equal but some are a lot more equal than others.

  9. I agree it takes 10,000 hours to be an expert, but we cannot expect someone to log in the hours before endeavoring to write for a living. It’s a learning process that is best learned under fire, IMO. Of course we don’t want to smear our names with nasty prose that sucks buttermilk through a straw (if you’re southern, you get that), but we need to sweat bullets trying to get it right and at least try while we are still struggling with commas. We all know the best way to learn is through our own experiences…and our own mistakes. Some people don’t understand what to learn until they’ve screwed it up.

    Mentors are a must-have, but tell me, seriously, how many people are willing to be true mentors these days? Nobody professes to have the time. So we strike out on our own, two steps forward and one step back. People start recognizing us. Some get on the bandwagon. Before we know it, assuming we are continuing to fight the learning curve, we have a following, then a platform.

    If we don’t have time to mentor, we at least have time to leave posts on blogs – even the blogs that aren’t so famous or expert. Constructive criticism in a pleasant voice. Not only do we help someone build their hours in the right direction, but we leave a footprint of our own.

    • I get where you’re coming from – which is basically if there’s absolute need to write to survive, then trial under fire is probably the route to go for.

      That said, I think people can and *should* expect someone to put in the 10,000 hours. I know I’d like an airplane pilot to practice until expert and not learn on the fly – why should a writer be different?

      True, you could say a pilot has greater responsibility, but a poor writer can destroy a client’s business and reputation and ability to earn income. Nasty stuff, that!

      • I was thinking along the same lines, especially if the client is not a good judge of writing. “Destroy” might be a bit of a stretch, but could an incompetent writer make the business look foolish? Absolutely. Might people not take a business with poorly written copy and blog articles seriously? Yes. Is the owner or manager who hires that writer wasting money and resources? Without a doubt.

    • I agree with Hope and I agree with James, and you know how that makes me crazy.

      Hope, I would absolutely grant you that it’s essential to start making forays into writing for others, putting your work out there, before your 10,000 hours are up. That’s what the latter half of those 10,000 hours are for: feedback, constructive criticism, improvements based on the real-world experience and not the theory taught in the classroom.

      I would still argue that it’s pretty essential to get the rudiments correct before attempting that. To take music as an example, I think it’s critical for kids to get experience performing in front of other people, but I wouldn’t put the poor kid out there if they hadn’t yet mastered how to avoid making every third note a sour one. Showing off to their parents or their peers when they’re still learning is great – in writing, too – but I would never put a new performer in front of a crowd of strangers if they weren’t capable of the basics.

      Same for writing. I think every writer should show their peers and parents and friends as much of their writing as possible. I do think it’s wisest not to tarnish your professional reputation by performing, so to speak, in front of complete strangers who have paid money to see your performance unless you are confident you are capable of delivering a solid piece with no obvious mistakes. Does it have to be virtuoso quality? Absolutely not. You can learn to be great in the public eye. But you can’t – or rather, shouldn’t – learn to be *competent* in the public eye. I can’t think how it would be useful, and I can think of twelve different ways it would be damaging to your aspirations.

    • On the mentoring point – I’ve had the frustration of trying to find a mentor, and here’s my best advice for both being and finding one: offer something in exchange for the mentor’s time. Presumably, you have skills that the mentor would find useful (even if those skills are something like babysitting their kid or cleaning their house), and it’s far easier for the mentor to find the time if they’re working in exchange for a service they find equally helpful in their lives.

      My own mentee is a good friend and he helps me run the back end of my business. I’m essentially paying him in education rather than money. Since we both get something out of my mentorship, I’m not inclined to blow off appointments or consider the time a waste.

      It also helps if the mentee has a specific idea of what they want to be taught. Asking a mentor to simply “show me how to become a better __________” forces the mentor to come up with a class and a lesson plan, and that’s a pretty onerous burden. Asking to be taught a more specific skill (like grammar or accounting or project management) makes it easier for the mentor to simply go step-by-step through a single process, which is easier for them and less difficult to make time for.

  10. I think I asked myself this question instinctively, if not explicitly, when I made the jump to professional SEO copywriting. One of the first things I did was invest in books like Strunk & White, the AP Stylebook, a book on punctuation, and one of my favorites, Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.

    I know I still make mistakes – and spelling has been my kryptonite since grade school – but I believe one of the keys to learning is humility. If you think you already know everything, you can spend 10,000 hours doing something and still be making the same mistakes you did in hour one.

  11. I love this post. LOVE it. The thing that always baffles me though is, if this guy (or any guy) never mastered writing in school, why in the hell does he WANT to be a professional writer? I see it all the time… People who dream about being writers because they want to work from home or see their name published, but don’t actually like or understand the activity of writing.

    • Mostly, he enjoys it. He’s the first to admit he doesn’t have the training for it, but he’s willing to work hard and he does have an intuitive understanding for how to compel with writing, unfortunately undermined by his lack of the basics.

    • Joseph Marthaler says:

      People discover, sometimes later in life the , that they are compelled to create something beautiful–even if they are late to learn the fundamentals of writing. Guiding a reader and stirring his/her emotions, to move them and have them feel the alusive feeling you have in your heart which has left you isolated is– necessary. Being young with no guidance to direct you is no excuse to not be what, for some people, you were born to be.

  12. Hi Taylor.

    Interesting post – it got under my skin as a teacher and novice writer (all in a good way).

    Firstly there are a generation of writers from the time of “grammar is bad – let free writing reign” and that group of writers are online now. I think it is great that your friend wanted you help and I hope we all can open up our expertise to help potential writers.

    As a novice writer my question is where would you put editing in the equation. I have learnt that editing is much more than just proofreading grammar and punctuation. Professional writers do this intuitively, we do not.

    I am also daughter to a gifted businessman who cannot write a complete sentence correctly. From a young age I wrote his bank loans, letters and emails to others.

    And there are many more people out their who have knowledge and experience that must learn from. Because the world would be a very boring place if the only words we read were from people who could write professionally.

    So if the answer to your question is NO I would ask a new question – Is your message so important that it must be heard?

    And if the answer is Yes we have a duty to hear their voices

    • Hi Ainslie,
      Asking whether or not “your message is so important that it must be heard?” is a very profound question! I think it’s that very premise that I operate from when I’m telling my students not to worry about conventions, but to just write. Many people are paralyzed by the idea of adhering to conventions they are unsure about. I think the message is far more important than the grammar. But how does that translate professionally?

      I think anyone who is willing to write first and then double check their work and maybe even go back and review some grammar rules could step up to the plate.

  13. Taylor, I’m with you on the notion that you have to practice (again and sighing again) your scales before composing any pieces for the symphony. I’ve taken the dubious pleasure of reading some pieces I’d written ages ago, and some of those sentences would make your nose twist like sniffing sour milk.

    Sorting, sifting and stringing words can be such a humbling struggle, but what sweetness when you finally see that you can sometimes use language in a way that lifts, that leavens—where you finally have an entire essay where there are no sentences with Groucho masks or garlic breath. But man, you gotta earn it, it’s true.

    And dammit, sometimes when you’re sure you really CAN do this writing thing, you (that being me) find yourself awash again in some flood tide of mediocre writing, without even a semicolon for an anchor. But at least you can return to the fundamentals you describe, and not have to begin at “A,B,C” all over.

    Speaking of fundamentals though, tell me this: on your site, under the newsletter signup, it says: “You’ll also get site updates when they happy. and many fine free things.”

    Am I crazy, or not getting it, or are we going to have to wait until your updates are happy before we get they? (Oh, man, now she’s going to hate me…)

    • Oh, you’re quite right. My blog designer put that in as filler text and we haven’t changed it yet. It’s been on the to-do list for an age. She doesn’t hate you, but she sighs at how long that list is and when she’ll ever get a chance to finish it.

    • Touché, Tom – typos happen to the best of us. But then again, I like happy newsletters… maybe that typo was intentional 😉

      • James, I’ve spent enough time under writing bridges to be called the Typo Troll (and that’s not the person that expunges typos, but the one that creates them). So, yeah, color me a deep red (pencil) among the crowd that’s miscued a few balls in the game of language billiards.

        Actually, I think the language I quoted from Taylor’s site is quite delightful—happy updates are something we should all receive.

  14. Bill Harper says:

    I understood when a sentence wasn’t right and I knew how to fix it, but damned if I could explain it in terms like “the participle is dangling and the predicate doesn’t match the subject.”

    This is exactly how I am now. I can edit a sentence to within an inch of its life. Just don’t make me explain why I’m making the changes.

    I’m surprised no-one has mentioned the other thing you need to do to become a writer–read. Read novels, read magazines, read newspapers (and not just the sports section or Garfield’s latest antics).

    To quote Stephen King: “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”

    Bill.

    • Quite honestly, I don’t even know what a dangling participle or predicate means. All I know is that when I see something that isn’t right, I know it, and know how to fix it. :)

      I’m with you on the reading, too. The other day, a huge discussion cropped up when someone asked me, “So where did you learn to write the way you do?” I could’ve given the glib, canned answers, but I sat back and really thought about it.

      And everything – *everything* – about how I learned to be a great writer pointed back to the vast amounts of reading I did.

      • I agree 100%. I can directly attribute my passion and knack for writing from the ridiculous amount of reading I have done in my lifetime. I have even started listening to audio books so I can pick out the tone of an author more easily. It has really helped my writing!

      • I used to teach college creative writing courses. You would be amazed at the number of people who want to be writers but who don’t read books. And a couple of years ago, I substitute taught a senior high school English class, and none of them had ever had to read a book. They didn’t realize that Beowulf is actually much longer than the three or four page excerpt in their textbook. As for writing, what’s that? They took multiple choice tests. When I assigned one paragraph of writing, they threw a fit, and when I insisted, one girl ran from the classroom crying. She went to the vice principal and told on me! And this was a “good” school.

        It’s a sad state of affairs.

  15. In response to @BillHarper’s comment, I’m curious myself about what exactly one would include in the 10,000 hours.

    Is that 10,000 hours of pure writing? Writing and editing? Does pre-writing research count? And what about studying writing, be that attending lectures, or reading writing books? How about just general reading?

    I’ve been a boo editor for about three years, and I think I’m quite good at it, but just breaking down the 10,000 hours, I would need to have been working seven hours a day, every day, for five years to become an expert. I have figured out that I work 227 days a year, so I would need to have worked 6.3 years to become an expert book editor.

    So, basically, 6.3 years of full time work makes you an expert. Obviously, as writing is a hobby for most, it could potentially be a lot longer. I’m possibly over-analysing this. But I think this is a great guideline to give to new writers, in order to teach them a bit of patience, and some realistic expectations too. Thanks very much for the article!

    • Depending on what type of expert you’d like to be would determine what you’d practice and improve in the hours you put into it.

      Someone whose job it is to catch typos would certainly be an expert typo-catcher if that’s all he or she did for 5 years (assuming, of course, she/he had continuing education on how to be a *better* typo-catcher.)

      Same as an Olympic hurdle jumper. 5 years of jumping hurdles and nothing but tends to make you pretty good at it. :)

      But of course, that’s not the same as the hurdle jumper who also wants to be an expert in long sprint, short sprint, relay, etc.

      The wider you spread your net of expertise (ie, editor; writer) *without* specifics or niching, the more practice and hours you’ll need. So 6.3 years might actually be more like 10 to 15, make sense?

  16. I somehow disagree with you when you say that having 30 year old could be to late for someone to be a good writer. It is never to late for someone to do something especially during this period of modern world. Once you know how to figure out the fundamentals, then there you are you can be good enough . I do not think you need to take 500 Hours to write well.

    Ntarugera François

  17. I regard myself as a competent writer, competent enough to write professionally, but like many other writers I look back at what I’ve written sometimes and wonder how I get away with it.

    • Sue:

      As a journalist I always regard myself as professional journalist just the way you regard yourself as a competent writer, even more competent enough to write professionally, but like many other journalists , there are times that I look back in my articles and wonder how I managed to succeed while others fail just the same way you I look back at what you have written sometimes and wonder how I got away with it.

      Grammar, comas , punctuations, focus and angles etc….

      Good luck and keep in touch

  18. Michelle says:

    Great piece and lots to consider when you want to start out as I am just starting myself. It is really hard to start and the “confidence thing” is a killer…. I do have a mentor and we do exchange so I hope to become a better writer every time I write. I enjoyed your piece – thank you!

  19. Hi Taylor,

    First, I love writing. :)

    Second, I really like your post! In fact, I have been really thinking about this. I also often ask this question to myself and to be honest, I’m not totally confident enough to say and give the answer. All I know is that I still have big room for improvement. I always look forward to learning/reviewing the fundamentals of English writing.

    English is not my native language but it has become the second or third language used in our country. But writing is somehow different when speaking, I’d say it’s really a skill to learn. I’m finding valuable ways to gain more knowledge on this, liking taking short courses or something. So I’m hoping and praying I would be able to grow in learning this skill.

    Anyway, thank you Taylor for the words of encouragement! I appreciate it a lot.

    Cheers,
    Floricel

  20. Hi Taylor,

    This post really resonates with me. I have always given myself the “just keep writing” advice that I have heard from so many writers. In fact, I think just about every popular author I can think of says the exact same thing in interviews. Just write xxxx words per day and go back and edit them later.

    This might work if you are John Grisham or Stephen King, but not someone who needs to master the fundamentals.

    In fact, the NaNoWriMo movement even propagates this concept. Write as much as possible within one month, and at the end you will have a novel. I believe it is a great tool for goal setting and helping you stay focused and encouraged, but not good at all for a writer who cannot control his basic sentence structure. He will end up with 50,000 words and neither a hope nor a prayer of ever getting anywhere with them.

    • Hey Strongside!

      You sure won’t hear any “just keep writing” advice here at MwP. Taylor advocates improvement through practice on specific techniques, and I’ve already written about how simply writing and writing means ingraining bad habits: http://menwithpens.ca/dont-write-often/

      I’m not at all a fan of NaNo either… but that’s another topic of conversation :)

  21. Joseoh Marthaler says:

    I missed those first 500 hours. Got through college with a BA in English and I’m sure, with that experience, I’ve about 100 hours to go, maybe. You don’t know what you don’t know if you don’t know what you don’t know. I’m new to blogging. I’ve never done it, really. I’ll probably be out of sync with blogging etiquette–how many initial hours do you need to be conformed blogger?

  22. Great article Taylor. I wrote, ok ranted, about this topic a year ago when taking applications for writers. Such as hard balance between hitting them with a Simon Cowell sized dose of reality or encouraging them to keep trying! Tweeting the heck out of this link in the hopes at least one or two dreamers will buck up 😉

  23. Writing is one of those things that lots of people think that they do well because they did it in school, or because they are perceived as a good storyteller. More than once I’ve gotten a response along the lines of, “Well, I have a degree in ______ and I’m a pretty good writer.” Or, even worse, “Everyone tells me I should write a book, so I think my writing is good.” Usually when someone says something like that to me I am staring at a glaring mistake in the copy on their web site. Maybe I should start telling them that to be considered an expert they need at least 10,000 hours of practice?

    I love the fact that you were willing to have the honest conversation that led your friend to admit he needed help with the basics. It couldn’t have been comfortable. Good for him for be willing to learn. Even if it does take 5, 10 or 15 years to reach the level of expert, it’s never too late to get started.

  24. Yep, I’ve heard about the 10,000 hour rule when I was learning Chinese. The feeling of “passing the barrier” is akin to opening a new pair of eyes. Or ears.

    These days, as I log hour after hour on my way to the English writing “professionalism”, I cheat: I use good editors to tear my writing piece apart, and help me rebuild it, before releasing it into the wild.

    So to your question on being good enough… no, not yet. But I know how to compensate.

  25. My observation has been that writing is easier for people who have a good foundation in grammar, and that when combined with practice they’re able to consistently produce with more skill & speed than someone like me who writes by the seat of my pants.

    Writing has been a key function in my earning a living for 3 decades but I’m a hack and know it. There’s never been time to learn the fundamentals, too busy trying to keep a roof over my head. Used to think, “I’m writing, I’m writing, as fast as I can, and I’ll learn how to write just as soon as I’m done writing.”

    Over the years I’ve worked with what I think of as “real” writers, the ones who know what they’re doing, and I’ve marveled at what a difference it makes. The extra time it takes me just to assemble words that communicate is time that real writers have for refining, entertaining and persuasion. I urge any young person who expects to write, whether for fun or professionally, not to do what I did. However difficult or boring, invest the time in learning the rules and how to apply them.

    I wasted $ on brush-up grammar booklets in the 80s, hoping to learn all those things I didn’t learn K-12 (when passed through during the the pre-testing days in an era when it was commonly felt that scatter brained little girls didn’t need an education). If the booklets had been written in Martian they wouldn’t have been any more impenetrable for me. Some day I’ll visit the library to find books I can understand. Just as soon as I’m done writing :)

    • Here are two very good resources: Grammargirl.com does a good job explaining the whys and whats in lay language. Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab (OWL) is also a very good resource. You can look up anything form commas to how to write a poem. Don’t worry about learning everything — you’ve obviously internalized the language, and you probably know much of what you think you don’t know. But if you have trouble with something here and there, say — commas, try these two resources.

  26. I just wanted to thank you for your simple statement through your sentence which encourage people to write: If you want to be a professional writer, there’s no reason you can’t be.

    Thanks so much

    Ntarugera François

    +2580788500199- Rwanda

  27. You’re very sweet for not only encouraging but actually helping others to write professionally. It’s far too grueling for me to read tripe, having done my time in grad school. I found myself recently eating crow, though, this time editing a book written by a photojournalist, definitely NOT a writer. It’s far easier for me to encourage and assist artists, designers, and architects than writers.
    Kudos to you!

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