5 Things I’ve Learned About Writing

daily-writingby John Ellis

It hasn’t been quite two months since I began writing for PJ Media. In that time, I’ve had eleven articles and over fifteen-thousand words published (not a lot, yet, I know); hundreds of strangers have informed me that I’m an idiot and a terrible writer, while hundreds more have sung hyperbolic praises to me. During the past two-(ish) months, friends have encouraged me and “friends” have discouraged me. I’ve agonized over the realization that “I don’t have a good pitch for this week!” And, thankfully, I’ve thrilled as articles took off and resonated with more people than I had hoped. Combined with my time as a columnist with No Depression and as a contributor for Bearded Gentleman Music, I have learned some things writing for PJ Media.  Which is good since I’ve never had a writing class in my life; there was and continues to be a lot that I need to learn. And since I’m currently having an “I can’t think of anything to write” moment, I’m going to share some of the things I’ve learned. Because …

Writing Begets Writing

During a shooting slump, shooters in basketball shoot. From the perspective of uninformed viewers, a player taking lots of shots without making many of those shots may appear to be selfish, a “ball hog,” if you will. But, if the player is the team’s shot-maker, it’s his or her job to shoot the ball. And the best way out of a shooting slump is to shoot, to regain a rhythm. The same holds true in writing.

I have deleted tens of thousands of words[1], and I don’t regret any of the time I spent on those now forgotten words. You see, some of my favorite articles began after spending time writing something that I eventually deleted. Writing experts refer to it as discipline; maybe they’re right, but I wouldn’t necessarily use the word “discipline.” For me, it’s more of an in-game decision to not quit doing what I love doing and what I’m on the court to do. I write, and when I’m in a slump, I write even more. Plus, the more I write, the easier writing becomes.

In fact, I’ve learned to be careful when I write, because while writing, I often end up in a rhythm that makes it hard to stop writing. I’m on staff at my church, and there are days when I can’t afford to begin writing. To that end, I have reserved two days each week almost solely for writing. That doesn’t mean that I only write two days a week; I write most evenings, and on the days that I’m working at the church, I do find time to write. But since writing begets writing, I make sure that I set aside large chunks of time in which to allow that to happen.

Most importantly, learning this about writing has freed me from feeling stressed about writing. I know that if I sit down and start writing without worrying about whether or not it’s any good or if my editor is going to like it or not, eventually, and often sooner than I expected, I will begin writing something that is good and that my editor will like.

Writing Happens After the Writing

At times, I wonder how many articles I’ve mistakenly discarded in the past because I had yet to learn that writing happens after the writing. I mean, I’ve heard the platitude “writing is editing” over and over for years now, but until I actually started writing as a job, I didn’t really get it. Another platitude states that necessity is the mother of invention. I may not have invented anything, but staring at an article that I don’t like but that my editor is expecting changed the game for me. In those moments, I’ve learned to view what I’ve written as a jumbled puzzle.

My favorite articles generally arise out of several hours of shuffling paragraphs and even sentences. It is rare that I don’t discover that during the initial burst of creativity, my brain spewed things out in the wrong order. Some sentences are in the wrong paragraph, and some paragraphs are in the wrong order. Reshuffling allows me to inspect almost each word to make sure that there’s not a better word, or better word order. It’s also during that time that I generally find my transitions. At first, I found this work a chore, but I now look forward to that part of the process. In fact, even if I’m happy with an article, I now go back and shuffle, reshuffle, and play around with the article to see if there’s not a better article hidden within the one that I wrote.

Comments Do Not Exist

Years ago, a director told me that if I believed the good reviews, I also had to believe the bad reviews; in other words, ignore reviews. Few of the actors I’ve worked with even came close to following that dictum. Almost all of us anxiously awaited the first reviews to be published; soaked up the glowing reviews; pondered and dissected any slightly tepid reviews; and pretended to ignore the negative reviews. (For the record, I never really believed those actors who claimed that they didn’t read reviews.) As useless as theatre reviews are, however, as a rule, internet comments hold the same value as pet butt covers.

pet butt covers
Pet butt covers = internet comments.

Unlike this blog, I don’t have the time to read all of the comments on my PJ Media articles. And I’ve learned to not read any of them[2].  At first, reading the angry comments was fun, and then it became white noise, and then it stopped being fun. At some point, the realization that that many strangers feel compelled to write things about me that the vast majority of people would never say to someone’s face began to occupy more and more space in my head – space in my head that should’ve been reserved for facilitating my job of writing. The thing is, I knew better.

I’m sensitive; I can admit it; I mean, I am (was) an actor, after all. But I allowed myself to become impressed by the amount of comments that some of my articles were generating. As I wrote above, I initially found the straight up negative comments amusing. Originally, it was the comments from “helpful” people wanting to “fix” my article(s) that distracted me from writing what I was supposed to be writing. It’s frustrating when people interacting with your article obviously didn’t read it. Re-writing the article in a comment is a waste of time; the individual didn’t read or pay attention to the original article, there’s no reason to believe that they’ll interact with a comment any differently. Likewise, over time, my chuckles at comments like “John Ellis should face the corner with a dunce cap for his idiocy” morphed into a distracting desire to defend myself.

For the sake of my writing, comments on my articles need to exist in a world in which I have no part. On one hand, I’m thankful for the job-security that even negative comments provide, but the world of internet comments is too fraught with dangerous distractions and potential derailments for most writers. As a producer of content, the world of internet comments should be off-limits to me.

Writing Requires Faith

Realizing that no one is going to pay me for content that isn’t generating clicks should cause me to ignore all the noise and simply write. Readers who agree with articles don’t generally take the time to comment. I’ve learned, or, rather, am learning that I owe those readers my trust. The only thing that I can really control is the amount of thought, effort, and passion that I pour into my writing. If I allow myself to become sidetracked by negative feedback, I’m not focusing on the people for whom I’m actually writing. And those people are a gift.

Writing into what feels like a vacuum can be tiresome; having readers is a joy and a privilege. And as long as I’m getting a paycheck, I know that I have readers. Just because they don’t comment doesn’t mean that they aren’t there, and it doesn’t mean that there aren’t readers who positively engage my writing. Having faith that those readers are responding to my writing, even if I’m not aware of it, frees me to do what I’m supposed to do – write.

For those of you who write but don’t receive any indication that you have an audience (either positive or negative) and lack the objective “someone’s paying me so people must be reading” to fall back on, having faith may be even more important for you. Write for the audience that you want, not for the audience that you think you have. Have faith in your writing and have faith that the audience you want will find you – with the caveat that self-promotion is an integral part of the writer’s job[3].

Writing Is Speaking

About a year and a half ago, I started a satirical blog for my enjoyment and to help me get better at writing satire. For the blog, I wrote under the pseudonym Jonathan Aristophanes. But before I had the chance to tell people that I was the one writing the blog, several friends informed me that they knew it was me because the posts were written like I talk. That bothered me at first because I was afraid that I was “writing” wrong. I have since come to realize that writing like I talk is a plus.

A help to finding an audience is understanding that writing is communication. I realize that many will find that an obvious statement, but having read many people who have degrees in writing, I’m not sure that every individual who identifies as a writer understands that. Recently, a writer friend and I had a conversation about how laborious much of the writing is from those with graduate degrees in writing[4]. I try to read their stuff, but it’s difficult. Those writers may be masters at the tools of writing, but they’re writing at people and not to people; that type of writing is only communicating to the writer’s ego.

Theatre has the maxim, “Don’t let the audience catch you acting.” Having never had a creative writing class in my life, I’m not sure if writing has a similar saying, but it should. Allowing the readers to catch you writing is a hindrance to communication. Don’t write like you think you should write; write like you speak. After all, none of your creative writing professors are probably looking to hire you.

I’m not naïve enough to believe that I’ve uncovered anything new. Hopefully some will find these five things helpful. Maybe others will find them amusing. Regardless, writing this post did the trick for me; my writing well has been primed enough for me to begin writing my next article for PJ Media.

[1] And that’s just the last two(ish) months.

[2] Although, I occasionally still do.

[3] Your audience isn’t going to find you if you don’t make it easy for them to do so. Don’t allow yourself to be shamed by people claiming to be your friend who complain about your “self-promotion” on social media (or wherever you promote your writing). Don’t be embarrassed to promote yourself. If you don’t, you will be writing in a vacuum.

[4] This is not a universal statement. I have friends who have graduate degrees in writing and are wonderful writers.


2 thoughts on “5 Things I’ve Learned About Writing

  1. I actually did study writing in college — but that was back in the mid-70s. I think the Internet (and blogging in particular) has made it more conversational than it was when I wrote for print. Lately I find myself feeling like I’m starting all over again. Thank you for your tips here.

    Liked by 1 person

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