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Becoming a writer

“How do I get published?”

I am asked this so often that I have a dedicated webpage with resources to answer the question.

The response I really want to give, though, is, “Become a writer.”

But that’s not what the person wants to hear. By the time someone has approached me to ask how to get published, they assume that they are a writer. After all, they can string together coherent sentences into cogent stories and essays, they have received praise for their talent, and they have an Original Idea®. The only thing they need is a magic bullet to publication.

Well. I can build a bookcase using an IKEA kit. I can glue and screw it together. I can go further and sand it, paint it, decorate it, even repurpose it into something other than a bland bookcase. But I am not a carpenter.

Writing is a craft, as much a craft as carpentry. In writing, as in carpentry, you have to understand how things are put together to be able to build something new.

In school we are taught creative writing: teachers introduce us to basic grammar, character development, settings, story arcs and resolutions, all very nicely graphed out. Then we are taught essay writing. We are told the importance of introductions and conclusions, topic sentences and persuasive arguments. A format is drilled into us which will prove useful in high school and college. This does not make us writers.

The writing structures taught in school are like bookcase kits from IKEA: they give a structure to create functional prose. Now functional prose is a useful and necessary skill in a literate society, but if you want to become a professional writer, you need to do more. You must master a story and present it so that readers will want to sink into it and spend time with it.

You don’t have to throw out all the structures you learned in school (although you might decide to), rather you need to learn how to adapt, how to figure out what works and what doesn’t, how to manipulate language so that the ideas are as compelling as possible, how to put things together from scratch. There is no shortcut for this, nor magic: you have to practice.

Writing is a craft. A writer, like a carpenter, learns by doing, and the more a writer writes, the more adept the writer becomes. Just as a master carpenter will use her skills, honed over years, to build a house that is solid, comfortable and beautiful, a writer will master language to build stories that people want to read to the very end.

John McPhee says, “Writing teaches writing.” Jane Yolen says, “Butt in chair.” Paul Auster says, “That’s about as exciting a life as it is for a writer: You write sentences, and you cross out sentences.”

How did I get published? I wrote. A lot.

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