Unsolicited Advice for Aspiring Writer-Types

OK, technically speaking, this advice was solicited. The estimable Charlie Hopper—Principal and Writer at Young & Laramore, and author of lots of smart and funny and poignant things (including the McSweeney’s series Dispatches From a Guy Trying Unsuccessfully To Sell a Song in Nashville)—gave my name to one of his Butler University students (apparently, Charlie also teaches) as part of a classroom assignment.

So yes, it was solicited, but under a certain degree of academic duress. Nevertheless, Charlie’s student asked some good questions, and I gave what I felt like were some not-bad answers. So: Here are her good questions, and my (hopefully) not-bad answers:

Can you give any general advice to an aspiring writer?

First, there’s the obvious advice that everyone gives, because it’s absolutely essential, and if you don’t follow it, you’ll have no hope. Here it is:

  1. Write frequently. Daily, if at all possible. Doesn’t matter if it’s journaling, writing long emails to friends, or writing rambling travel blog posts, regular practice is non-negotiable for the aspiring writer. If you don’t do it, you’ll suck. And nobody wants to suck.
  2. Read frequently. And not just fun, trashy stuff like TMZ.com (although, sure, read that stuff from time to time; I do!). Read literature. Read long-form journalism. And if you’re really feeling ambitious (and you should if you’re serious about being a writer!) write about what you read, even if only in your own journal. I retain what I’ve read more fully, and understand it more thoroughly, when I write about it afterward. Finally: Read a mix of contemporary and classic literature. Read fiction and non-fiction. Read philosophy and folklore. If that sounds boring to you, maybe consider another vocation.

Additionally:

  • Be OK with solitude. Writing is a lonely practice. If you have a problem spending lots of time alone, in your house, hunched over a keyboard while agonizing over the second or third draft of whatever you happen to be working on, well, that’s going to be a problem for you.
  • Learn to love revising. Revising IS writing. It is very rare indeed that your first draft of anything will be worth publishing. For me, the first draft is just getting the big ideas down on the page, and it’s usually shapeless and clumsily written and poorly argued. The real work comes in turning that malformed mass into something taut and rich and compelling.
  • Shamelessly promote your work (and yourself). Aspiring writers are often introverts. This means they’re great at the being-OK-with-solitude thing, but they’re often not so good at the self-promotion thing. But promoting your work is part of the job. You need to have a website that shows your work off, you need to have social media channels that position you as a Professional Writer, and you should probably (it hurts my soul to say this) “network” out in the real world with people in whatever industry that you want to work in, whether that’s journalism, advertising, publishing, or PR.

What is the best advice you have been given?

“Write twice a day, for 40 minutes, every day, no matter what.” I have not succeeded in following this advice for any sustained period of time, but it’s GREAT advice, and I have no doubt that the aspiring writer who follows it successfully will be far better off than the one who fritters away his free time scrolling and texting.

What are/have you been involved with?

I run a creative studio with my wife, and much of my job involves helping businesses tell brand stories. But I still do a lot of good old fashioned narrative writing. In addition to ghostwriting for Matinee clients, I write long-form pieces for Indianapolis Monthly regularly. As for involvement with professional groups/associations, I plead guilty to not being much of a “joiner.” Plus, I have two young kids, so family takes up most of my time when I’m not working.

What inspires your writing?

The subject matter. The world is unfathomably complex and infinitely interesting, and writing is an opportunity to stop and focus deeply on a tiny patch of it—to get lost in that patch, untangle it, examine it, and maybe even illuminate it. The subject could be anything from GMO fish to auto racing to the restoration of old barns (all subjects I have written about) but once you give yourself over to the subject matter, the inspiration comes naturally.

What is the most enjoyable thing about your career?

The opportunity to indulge my curiosity and learn deeply about a wide variety of subjects every day. It’s a gift, to be sure.