But how do I start writing? — part one

- by Jennifer Stevenson

This post is for about twelve hundred friends and acquaintances who have said to me, over the past thirty years, “I’d like to write, but how do I start?”  Three new ones this week.  One enterprising and hard-working woman has even gone so far as to take grammar and rhetoric classes.  (Wow!  She’s learning craft, not just taking a memoir class!  This is impressive.)

What I started to say to her, and then stopped myself, was that when one reaches a certain age it may not be possible to train your brain to write with good grammar.  But with the power of positive thinking (and maybe a glass of wine) you can train your brain to let your true voice come out.

I’m not talking here about “how to get published” or “how to get an agent” or “how to write a good book as opposed to a sucky or lame or merely adequate story.”

I simply want to address crossing that line in the sand, a line that so many people perceive as a huge brick wall, between seeing yourself as “not a writer” and seeing yourself as a “writer.”

The simplest answer is, You’re a writer if you write.

My mother once said “How do I become a writer?” to a cub reporter at the Chicago City News Bureau.  He told her, “Put the seat of your pants in the seat of the chair.”  The cub reporter’s name was Kurt Vonnegut.

I know a whole lot of writers, already published in book form, who talk, talk, talk, but who do not write very much.

By contrast, the amateur who has never even submitted so much as a joke to Reader’s Digest may write hundreds of pages a year.  That gal is a writer.

So rule number one is, Write.

The second rule is, Stop worrying about your grammar, your market, your story structure, what your mother/your kids will say if they find out, and “whether you have anything valuable to say.”  Especially the last one.  Good gravy, if we all worried about the worthiness of our message, we’d have ulcers but no royalties.  And you’d have nothing to read but Chicken Soup.

This is where arrogance becomes your friend.  All professional writers have some, though if they’re smart, they mask it.  It’s hard to survive a life of rejection and worse, waiting for rejection, without arrogance.  If you think arrogance is too much to ask of yourself, call it something else.  Faith.  Self-confidence.  “I can do better than that.”  Many a first novel has sprung from the thwack of a paperback hitting the wall, followed by, “I can do better than that.”

It really doesn’t matter why you choose to write.  Raging to set the record straight?  Bored?  Dying to become famous?  Fed up with the last bad book you read?  Want to get rich?

Put the seat of your pants to the seat of the chair.

Jennifer Stevenson writes blue-collar romantic comedies and sexy paranormal romance.  Look for her stuff here.   Right now you can read Fools Paradise, one of her Backstage Boys stagehand romances, serialized for free, one chapter every Friday. 

Find Jennifer on Facebook.


  1. I’m a writer, but I am a slow writer. I don’t churn out thousands of words a day. Most days, I’m lucky to get 1200-1500. But you’re right. Talking about writing doesn’t make you a writer. WRITING does :)

  2. I agree with the writing-is-what-makes-you-a-writer sentiment, I really do, because, logically, you can’t be a writer without writing but…

    I was not able to call myself a writer until I got paid for writing. And I wrote reams before I got paid. I produced boxes and drawers full of stuff, and spent lots of time with the seat of my pants in the seat of the chair.

    But when anyone asked me what I did (i.e. what I was), during those years I said I was a secretary or receptionist or whatever job I happened to be working at when asked. When pressed, I might admit I wrote on the side, as a hobby. I did not (could not?) claim the title of writer until someone else (in the form of an advance) said I was.

    This is undoubtedly a hold-over from my blue-collar upbringing that pretty much decreed anything you didn’t get paid for was a hobby.

    Anyone else struggle with that?

  3. When I get asked this question, I’ll refer people to the reference section in the bookstore with “How To” books on fiction, suggest they start reading mags like Writers Digest, join professional writing orgs even if they’re just starting out, and attend writing workshops or get into a creative writing group at the library. In other words, they need to do their homework. And it’s more than just writing. It’s also learning the business end of the career. As to how to develop plot and character, etc., that can be learned if they’re willing to put in the time and study, and yes, the hours at the keyboard.