7 Tips for being a Great Writer

(This is another literature network post that has been offline since the site disappeared. It's my favourite of the pieces and received some very mixed responses, which I quite liked. Some people thought I was joking, others thought I was serious. I'm still not certain either way)

More non-fiction books are sold about writing than any other subject, except for cooking and relationships. Most of these guides say the same thing – page after page of level-headed advice like ‘show don’t tell’, ‘write what you know’ and ‘find your voice’. They’re all encouraging, suggesting you can’t make yourself a literary genius but anyone can become a decent writer.

No how-to-write book would ever claim that you’ve got it or you haven’t. People are more interested in supportive encouragement. The appetite for guides like The Artist’s Way is massive. You see the same thing on the web, with thousands upon thousands of pages listing numbered tips on how to write. Follow all these guides and anyone can become a competent writer.

But I’m bored. I’m tired of stories with perfect point-of-view, clever use of theme and anorexic pared-down prose. I crave more. I want people to strive for greatness, even if ninety-nine-in-a-hundred fail. I want to read great books, not good ones, and there aren’t enough great books.

Nobody has written the how-to-write guide I want to see (although one friend used Ted Morgan’s Literary Outlaw as a template, with disastrous but compelling results). Life is too short for me to write my ideal writing guide, but here are the top seven tips I’d like aspiring writers to follow.

  1. Don’t write every day – write when inspired: there’s a macho cult about writing every day, grinding out work whether you want to or not. Instead you should only write when inspired. If you’re not inspired, don’t chain yourself to a keyboard: get into the world and get inspired.
  2. Read narrowly: most how-to books say writers should be voracious readers. It’s far better to read carefully. Get under the skin of great books. Hunter S. Thompson retyped A Farewell to Arms to learn how it worked. You’re better off reading a few books well than piling through thousands of books that have nothing to say to you.
  3. Write what you know: Imagination is a wonderful thing, but admit it – you too get a frisson from someone like Hemingway, Conrad or Burroughs, who lived one step away from what they were writing. However, writing what you know is boring if you work in an office, so make sure you’re living a life worth writing about. Your literary biographers will thank you.
  4. Shun writing workshops. Writing workshops are about consensus, about removing the difficult bits from potential works of genius. Imagine William S. Burroughs submitting to years of workshops and removing the strangeness and obscenity from Naked Lunch. Another reason to avoid workshops is that other writers will be less impressed by your creativity than civilians. It’s more fun to stand out from the crowd rather than hide in the midst of one.
  5. Quit your job: Most writing books warn against quitting your job. Dream all you like, they say, but writing won’t make you rich. Your aspirations for greatness should override such petty caution. You may end up in poverty, but you’re not going to make a work of genius wasting your days in an office.
  6. Drink. Alcohol is a killer and nobody wants to end their days like Hancock in Sydney. But think of all the exciting writers who liked a tipple (Fleming, Hunter S. Thompson, Hemingway). There are probably lots of writers who don’t drink, but the fact I can’t name any shows you how unexciting sobriety is. As a bonus, if you’re having trouble with tip 5 then week-night drinking will help you leave your job.
  7. Be extreme. I don’t suggest being precious about your writing (as Chesterton said, “the artistic temperament is a disease that afflicts amateurs”) but you must slip loose the chains of modern life. Eccentricity and genius may be two different things, but non-geniuses can fool some people with cultivated eccentricity. Adopt peculiar restrictions on clothes or food; develop obscure phobias or hatreds, whatever it takes to make yourself memorable. People love to retell stories about Burroughs and the Beats – and Chesterton certainly wasn’t above courting attention.

These tips aren’t an easy way out. Following them will likely lead to years of poverty and hangovers. But greatness has its price, and you owe it to the world.

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