Friday, December 11, 2009

So…You Want To Be a Writer?

Guest Post by Ken Hertz for Talking Writing

Ken originally wrote this piece in one of my journalism classes at Harvard. It’s such a terrific satire of all the advice flung at writers that I thought it would be a funny follow-on to the posts we’ve been running at TW about style rules. So toss out your Strunk and White for a vicarious moment or three—and relax! Martha

A few years back, I enrolled in journalism school to pursue my long-deferred dream of becoming a writer. From that experience, I can confidently say to others who harbor similar aspirations: you can do it.

Yes—you can become a writer. You just need to follow a few simple guidelines.

I’ve taken to heart my professors’ admonishments on the importance of journalistic values such as honesty, integrity, verification, and so forth—along with some other very important principles that I’m pretty sure I wrote down in my notes during class but can’t seem to locate at the moment.

Fortunately, in my quest to become a writer I’ve acquired some useful rules-of-thumb myself. So, from one aspiring writer to another, I humbly offer these five hard-earned nuggets of wisdom that may help you in your own pursuit of literary stardom:

1. Learn the fine art of procrastination
It’s inevitably part of being a writer, so you might as well embrace the reality. 

For example, when you finally clear your schedule and sit down with great resolve to begin your new life as a writer, don’t become alarmed if you suddenly feel the pressing need to clean out your garage that very moment. Or if you are certain that this is exactly the right time, at long last, to get around to organizing the thousands of digital photos stored somewhere on your old hard drive. 

When you have these urges, immediately discontinue any attempt to produce actual written work and give into them wholeheartedly. They’re a good sign that you’re well on your way to becoming a successful writer.

2. Stay uninformed
Despite what your professors might say, you should avoid reading newspapers at all costs. Too many depressing stories about the imminent demise of the newspaper industry. And since you want to be a writer, you’re likely to be genetically prone to bouts of depression anyway. Why exacerbate the problem?

3. Strive for rejection
According to Wikipedia (pssst…here’s a bonus tip: Wikipedia is awesome, and it’s the only source you’ll ever really need as a journalist—just don’t tell anyone you heard it from me, OK?) it was Albert Einstein who once said “If you want to increase your chances of success, then increase your failure rate.”

I’ve made this my highest priority and am personally trying to accumulate as many rejection letters as possible. I’ve purchased a new file cabinet to hold the thousands I anticipate receiving. You can also make a chart to post on the refrigerator and give yourself a gold star when hitting certain milestones—the 10th, 100th, 1000th.   

(I do admit I may have a slight problem with this one, though. I’ve gotten so addicted to receiving rejections that each time I submit a finished piece, I pray that it won’t be accepted for publication. That would blow my streak of failures, and I’d have to start all over again.)

4. Practice being completely alone
To prepare for life as a writer, spend as much time alone as possible, so you can train yourself for the day when you can finally spend all your time engaged in the solitary pursuit of stringing words together.

Before attempting the actual process of writing, I recommend sitting by yourself for hours at a stretch with nothing other than a desk and chair to see what it’s like. 

(Just be sure it is in a windowless room. You need to cut down on the time that would inevitably be wasted by gazing outside into the distance. Serious writers must constantly guard against the temptation to engage in idle daydreaming, which is the sure mark of an amateur.)

5. Ignore the so-called “experts”
Don’t trouble yourself with those prim little know-it-all books like The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, which was written like a hundred years ago anyway. They’re full of high-minded rules about ensuring that participial phrases are preceded by proper prepositions, and using the “active” rather than the “passive” voice, whatever that means.

(Believe you me, the fact of the matter is that there can be no doubt whatsoever that by learning to ignore these self-proclaimed authorities and instinctively trust your own writerly instincts, that will surely be the most important idea I can convey to you, so to speak, which will allow you to climb through the great wilderness that is the golden highway to becoming a writer, and, as luck would have it, from the very first time that you first hear about this particular piece of advice with your own eyes, that I am telling you, you will just know for sure, without any doubt, that it is exactly the very type of the sort of this kind of information that will not be forgotten by you, without any doubt whatsoever in your mind.)

Speaking of The Elements of Style, have you seen their “Rule 17”? It says: “Omit needless words.”  This makes no sense—don’t they realize that most magazines pay by the word? That Rule 17 is proof Strunk and White had no idea what they were talking about.

Ken Hertz is a Boston-based airline pilot who has written for several aviation magazines. You can read an article he wrote for Flying Magazine here.


  1. Great recommendations. I embrace them all. I also can relate to the seriousness tone of this piece. (Ken was serious, wasn't he?) One can't be too jolly when becoming a writer, especially this time of year.

  2. This is a great piece of work Ken, congrats. Couple of points that work for me, as I too am an aspiring writer: 1) never do a spell check and 2)never check for grammatical errors. These two get you noticed- always. Looking forward to more advise. Regards

  3. What I find particularly heart-warming is the idea that magazines pay writers anything for any words anymore. What a ray of contradictory sunshine!*

    Good job of bucking the conventional wisdom, Ken.

    *Another rule: "Throw around as many awful metaphors as possible"

  4. ken: you feel my pain!!! did i mention how clean i keep my house and my closets are really beckoning me not to mention my basement that oh yeah is so in need of my immediate attention and then there is the dog..she needs to walk how many, 4? times a day at least and my son has a playdate and i have to think about can never start preparing for dinner too early and i know i need to call my father, he's 85, and you know how things can happen at any minute.

    and did i mention i am working on a paper that is due..EEEEEK!

  5. Thanks, Ken, for giving me something to read while 'working' on my next blog post.

  6. Couple more things: First, make sure you tell extended family and friends the hours you'll be writing each day so they'll be certain to call you and derail your thought train the moment you're finally on a roll. Second, keep your workroom door open at all times so the kids, animals, and spouse can wander in and interrupt your progress at will. Be aware that they'll only do so when you've quit procrastinating and have at last gotten down to serious business.

    Fun article, Ken! Query a hardcopy publisher such as THE WRITER. Bet they'll take it.

  7. Hi Ken,
    Great article! I find the only time I can get any creative writing done after a hard week of work is on Friday nights , sitting outside on the deck with a glass of scotch and good cigar. As I start to unwind and relax I can feel some creativity eeking its way back into my soul. Then after an hour or so, it's time to go back inside to my beautiful but screaming kid, the phone ringing, emials to answer, etc. (you get the picture). But let's be honest the cigar and scotch take up more of the hour than the writing, but I'll keep working at it.

  8. Ken -

    Way to go dude! Keep up the good work. I enjoy reading your stuff so keep sending it to me. Hope all is well.

    Steve O.

  9. Wow--you all have a lot of great suggestions!

    I think we should all get together on a regular (daily?) basis and talk about all the ways we could be more productive in our writing.

    Stu-can you bring the scotch and cigars?

    Alex--well said, I'm trying to keep my chin down through all of this.

    Leena--great advise, thanks!

    Martha--how about a contest for creating the most cringe-inducing metaphor? It'd be a welcome breath of warm air.

    Fran--one other thing: don't you remember we're all coming over tonight for the dinner party you agreed to host?

    Judith--looking forward to your next post too; I consider reading to be an essential part of preparing to become a writer (even more so than writing itself)

    Paula--your observation is spot on! In my case, the inevitable interruption occurs right BEFORE I was just about to get down to the actual writing...

    Steve-O--thanks for the comment!

    Thanks everyone for your feedback--


  10. Your segment on procrastination made me laugh. As somebody who actually gets paid to write, I can vouch that procrastination is the single biggest obstacle to creativity... unless of course it's inherently part of it.

    That would be nice, certainly, though I'm not sure how true it is. I've done some of my best work only after forcing myself to do it.

    Writing is less an art than a science, it often feels. It's physical, mechanical, trial-and-error stuff. There's a certain mathematics to the way sentences sound and fit together.


  11. Another pearl:
    Make sure your partner/spouse is, at most, only minimally supportive of your little "hobby".

    Take it from me, this has worked wonders for Ken! His writing continues to improve exponentially because of it. Remember, behind every good writer...

    (Great article, sweetheart! But, when you're done with all this blogging nonsense, could you get back to the "honey-do" list...)

  12. Dearest Ken,

    Wonderful piece, still chuckling here ... HOWEVER, there is one glaring omission, a rule that is, if you are indeed truly honest, near-and-dear ... how could you forget? ... and so I propose ... (no, it is not the excessive use of ellipses) ... but:

    "Rule 6: Snack incessantly. Forget Hemingway's advice about hunger as inspiration -- how quaint. You've got to feed the brain! So, you've just cleaned out the pantry of all things salty and crunchy. Your wife and kids have tipped on out the door, unable to withstand the cacophonous munching. The crumbs are piling up like sawdust at the feet of a carpenter's saw. You might even begin to feel sated. Tune out these alarm bells, and head straight back to Trader Joe's!"

    - Yo Bro

  13. Procrastination - should have been your middle name. You do your best work after days, weeks and months of it. Writers need to get it right, you're putting your soul, identity, ideology, and all that good stuff on the line, that is enough to scare anyone into procrastination, but perhaps there is a method to you madness. Something is stirring while all that crunching is going on. And don't forget that guitar, handy little instrument, seems to glare out at you as you head for the computer.

    End result- seems to come out alright. I'm satisfied.

    Mom Hertz


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