On life as a writer

I always wanted to be a writer when I grew up.

I spent most of my childhood reading books, and I daydreamt my teenage years away picturing my future life as a writer – by night I would be masking a riot of hedonistic, but elegant, excess as all essential research, and then I would emerge at around midday to flamboyantly touch my pen to paper and effortlessly produce works that would leave readers gasping for breath at my ability to rake up raw emotions, to tear apart false arguments, and to cast light into the shadowy corners of ignorance. My only concern was whether turning up to pick up the Bookers and Pulitzers would start to eat into my party time.

Of course, life as writer is nothing like that in reality. OK, my nights are admittedly a riot of hedonistic, but elegant, excess. (Last night I even had a bag of dry roasted – well it’s nearly the weekend). But my working day is much harder work than I ever thought it would be.  I’ve discovered that writing isn’t just a matter of sitting down with a good cappuccino, firing up the laptop and sitting back as the bon mots come fizzing out of my fingers. In fact most of the time I struggle to think of any mots, let alone some bon ones. Most of my time isn’t even spent writing – it’s spent researching and planning what I’m going to write and then editing what I have written.

This is a revelation that I share with people on my writing courses (http://www.alex-blyth.co.uk/training.php) – writing is as much about planning and editing as it is about the act of writing. Most inexperienced writers make the twin mistakes of firstly diving straight into the actual act of writing without sufficient planning, and secondly not spending enough time editing their own work before declaring it complete. The result (unless you happen by chance to be a Byron or Hunter S. Thompson, both of whom not doubt had no need for such mundane activities as planning and editing) tends to be writing that lacks structure, flow and clarity.

So, one of the many pieces of advice I offer to anyone who wants to improve their writing is to spend a third of your time planning the piece, a third of the time writing it, and then the final third editing it. Taking this approach has the positive side-effect that you’ll spend a great deal less time staring at a blank page. I always assume that what I write will be bad on the first draft, but I know I’ll improve it on the second draft and by the time I’ve been through it three times someone might actually want to read it.

And I’m lucky enough that a few people do want to read the things I write, and so I get to do what I always dreamed of – earn a living as a writer. Admittedly it’s not exactly a spectacular living, and if I’m honest it barely pays for any hedonism at all (those nuts were a rare moment of reckless abandon) but I’m happy with it.

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