Here’s what it takes to become a writer.

If anyone has good advice on becoming a writer, Margaret Atwood does.
If anyone has good advice on becoming a writer, Margaret Atwood does.

SO YOU’VE DECIDED to become a writer.


I wonder.

I have a story to tell, you say.

Can you write?

Don’t know, you say.

Never have, you say.

Do you read?

All the time, you say.

That’s a good start.

If you don’t read and read a lot, you’ll never write.

At least you’ll never write well.

That’s not me saying that.

The pro’s in this game all say it.

How can I argue with them?

They’re pro’s.

I’m excited you want to be a writer.

It’s a tough job.

It’s often an unrewarding job.

But it’s an honorable job.

So what’s on your mind?

I need some advice, you say.

I need to know how to get started, you say.

I’m stumped, you say.

Let me help you.

Let me introduce you to Margaret Atwood.

Who’s she?

She wrote The Handmaiden’s Tale.

When they separate the good from the great, Margaret will be seated with the great.

Listen to her.

She has labored in the garden of good words.

And these are the tips Margaret can give you.

  1. Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.
  2. If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.
  3. Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.
  4. If you’re using a computer, always safeguard new text with a memory stick.
  5. Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.
  6. Hold the reader’s attention. (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.) But you don’t know who the reader is, so it’s like shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark. What fascinates A will bore the pants off B.
  7. You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but –essentially you’re on your own. Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.
  8. You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You’ve been backstage. You’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a –romantic relationship, unless you want to break up.
  9. Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.
  10. Prayer might work. Or reading something else. Or a constant visualization of the holy grail that is the finished, published version of your resplendent book.

The road to becoming a writer is not necessarily an easy one to travel. The journey will frighten, confuse, and frustrate you. But once you come to the end, you can’t wait to sharpen your pencil and begin again.

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