How To Be A Writer: Advanced Writing 101

This is the required pain and suffering. This is only for starters.

–Lorrie Moore, “How to Become a Writer”

A year ago, I wrote some advice about becoming a writer which, like, a million people read for some reason. …Because what the people really want is writing advice from the obscurely-and-minorly-well-known-on-the-internet-kind-of-writer Oliver Miller. And not, say, from Jonathan Franzen or Stephen King. …Anyway, this is all to the good. And as before, I find myself in need of money, so here’s another column about how to be a writer. This time, we’re moving on to ADVANCED WRITING STUFF. So hold on to your hats.

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A lot of people want to be writers for some reason. I can only assume that this is because writing is a sexy job.

And writing is a sexy job.  I originally started writing because I thought it would make girls like me. Yes, that was the actual reason that I started writing. I was correct; it did make girls like me, except that it took ten years for that to work, and at the end of it, I was broke, because I was a writer. Maybe you should learn how to play the guitar instead. That will also make members of the opposite sex like you, and it only takes like eight months to learn. Try that instead. In fact, do not become a writer. Please. Give up and stop now.

You’re still here. You’re not listening; I knew you wouldn’t listen. Great. So you really do want to become a writer, you moron. Wonder-f-cking-full. Is there any way that I can talk you out of this? …No? You’re INSPIRED and DETERMINED to become a writer, you say? Great; nifty…. Here are some advanced tips to keep you from screwing up.

1) Don’t write about vampires. Seriously. Number one, I hate reading about vampires, and number two, learn to write about normal stuff first, okay? We’re going to teach you how to write about normal stuff. You can add vampires later, if you want, but learn how to observe the world around you before you start writing sci-fi and/or fantasy. This will make your stories about vampires that I never ever want to read much, much better.

2) Go for walks, take a drive, do manual labor, whatever. You have ideas when you’re not trying to. That’s when ideas happen. “All the good ideas that I ever had came to me while I was milking a cow,” said a very famous person, once upon a time. A famous composer was once asked how he thought of his Ninth Symphony. He replied:

I was on a tramp through the hills, and climbed a crag to enjoy the view and eat my lunch. As I unfolded the greasy paper around a piece of rather strong cheese, the damned thing popped into my mind.

Right? Right. Get out of your room. You can’t have brilliant ideas by trying to have them. It’s like trying to get a cat to come to you. You can’t actually try to get it to come, or it’ll never happen. Or it’s like viewing an eclipse by looking at its shadow, or whatever it is that you do with eclipses. You have to use inverted vision. So get out of your house. Get out of your study with all of those books. Ideas will happen.

Every good idea that I’ve ever had happened to me while I was walking or driving. While I was distracted, that is — is what I mean to say. I once had a job working as a dishwasher. I had a lot of good ideas then too. Get out of your damn house, and then come back to it.

3) Stop reading only the books that you’re reading. This especially applies to people who only read Bukowski and Kerouac. Please stop doing that. It’s making your writing awful. Bukowski is bearable in small doses and Keroauc wrote one good book. Read lots of stuff. Get some different viewpoints, Christ.

4) Don’t write about yourself. I realize that I break this rule all the time. But I spent years writing fiction that wasn’t about myself. I wrote mostly from the point of view of girls, or jocks, or rock stars, or ad-men, or anyone I could think of who wasn’t me.

Here’s some actual wisdom for a moment — you can understand everything else in this world better than yourself, because you can view everything else in the world from the outside. But you can only view yourself from the inside. Therefore, you understand yourself least of all. If you start out by writing a short story about, say, your current messed-up relationship with your boyfriend, it’s going to be terrible. Of course it will be. Because you don’t understand your current messed-up relationship with your boyfriend, and why would you? You’re in it right now. You need to be outside something to view it and to write about it. So when you’re starting out, when you’re an apprentice writer, don’t write about yourself. Trust me. When my friends ask me for advice, I force them to not write about themselves and it makes their writing better. Writing about other people forces you to pay attention — to pay attention to the way other people talk, for instance — which is important, though I’m not going to explain why.

5) Here’s a simple rule of thumb. “Here’s a simple rule of thumb/ Too clever is dumb.” So said a famous poet. Stop trying to be so f-cking clever with your writing. I actively try not to think when I’m writing. I clear my mind. I don’t think of clever metaphors or  anything like that. It’s a little Zen, I know. Here’s a little more Zen, from a story about a guy trying to shoot some marbles. He gets some advice about shooting marbles from his brother:

From the way he was balanced on the curb edge, from the position of his hands, from – well, the quantity x itself, I knew as well then as I know now that he was immensely conscious himself of the magic hour of the day. ‘Could you try not aiming so much?’ he asked me, still standing there. ‘If you hit him when you aim, it’ll just be luck.’ He was speaking, communicating, and yet not breaking the spell. I then broke it. Quite deliberately. ‘How can it be luck if I aim?’ I said back to him, not loud (despite the italics) but with rather more irritation in my voice than I was actually feeling. He didn’t say anything for a moment but simply stood balanced on the curb, looking at me, I knew imperfectly, with love. ‘Because it will be,’ he said. ‘You’ll be glad if you hit his marble – Ira’s marble – won’t you? Won’t you be glad? And if you’re glad when you hit somebody’s marble, then you sort of secretly didn’t expect too much to do it. So there’d have to be some luck in it, there’d have to be slightly quite a lot of accident in it.’

Stop aiming so much. Stop thinking up your precious clever, clever little bot mots beforehand. Just look at the world around you and try to describe it honestly — very, very honestly. Just do that. If can do that, then things will work out, assuming that you’re not incredibly boring and uninteresting. If you are those two things, then I can’t help you and no one else can either.

But for the rest of you, look out the window. What do you see? A tree, a cat, a car? Describe it plainly, with utter honesty. Because after all, the greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion — all in one. And if you can see clearly and write that down, then someone will discover you.

Don’t think. You shouldn’t even have time to think. You should be too busy just observing the world and being honest. An interviewer once asked William Faulkner about his writing process. “You haven’t got time,” Faulkner said, “to be thinking about images and symbols. You’ve got all you can manage without that. …Writing a novel,” he said, “is like trying to nail together a henhouse in a hurricane.”

6) And by the way, good writers don’t die alone and undiscovered. …For some reason, this is something believed by people who read lots of Bukowski and Kerouac and Kafka and stuff. They believe that great writers starve to death in a garret and no one reads their stuff until fifty years later. Look. It’s romantic to think that you’re an undiscovered genius whose deep thoughts will be discovered after your death to the universal acclaim of millions. This never happens. This has happened once in the recorded history of the world, with the book A Confederacy of Dunces (which I never read). It’s never happening again. Kafka was published and popular in his lifetime, and so was every other “unknown” genius that you can think of. If you’re good, you’ll get published.

7) But who gives a sh-t about getting published? I write for myself, dude. And that whole publishing scene is so bogus, man. First of all: nice attitude! Second of all, if you don’t care about getting published, then why are you reading an article that gives advice about how to write? If you just want to scribble in your private journal, then you don’t need my advice, or anyone’s advice. I’ve met a million people who say that they write “for themselves.” Bullsh-t. I don’t write for myself. Doing this is a lot of work. I could be getting stoned and playing Super Mario 3 on an emulator. Or be endlessly browsing through Or be reading or having sex or masturbating or whatever. I enjoy doing all those things more than I enjoy writing. I mean, I like writing, but it’s a job. Nothing is fun to do for eight hours a day, every day, and that includes writing.

My feeling is that “I only write for myself” is just used as a defense mechanism. It’s a way to deflect all criticism. And you’re going to have to learn to accept criticism. Which leads me to my next step.

8) You’re going to have to learn to accept criticism.  I went to the largest MFA writing program in the country. We had something like 150 students. The bad writers were universally the ones who couldn’t take criticism, who would retreat into “well, I just wrote this story for myself” territory. Some people would get mad. Some people would cry when their story was critiqued.

Look. It’s writing. It’s not you. Your writing is not you; it’s a craft — that’s all writing is. Being the world’s greatest writer is no different — is qualitatively no better and no worse — than being the world’s greatest bridge-builder, or the world’s greatest dental hygienist, or the world’s greatest tier of knots in cherry stems with your tongue. All these things are crafts; and to be truly skillful at a craft, you need both training and some artistry. And so anyway, to sort of return to my original point, if you were trying to fix the engine of your car and someone said, “You’re doing that wrong,” and you weren’t actually a licensed mechanic, well, you wouldn’t get angry at them, would you? You wouldn’t cry. Right? No. You wouldn’t. So don’t cry when someone criticizes your writing.

Here’s something I learned in grad school. If a majority of people in a room say that your story is bad, or needs to be changed/ fixed, then it’s bad. They’re not trying to hurt your feelings. People are intrinsically shy. They don’t want to say awkward things. They don’t want to offend you. They’re saying it because they have to.

And you don’t like getting criticism? Guess what — neither do I. No one does. Suck it up and deal. Life is pain, princess. Anyone who says differently is selling something.

9) So hey, what about that whole MFA scene, anyway? Should I go to grad school for writing? Well, that’s the $100,000 question, isn’t it? And in my case, it literally cost $100,000, because I went to the most expensive MFA program in the country. I regret this. I stupidly turned down a full scholarship and stipend to a sh-tty MFA program in order to go to a better one. In my defense, the school I went to was made up of 80% girls, was located right outside New York City, and featured naked all-night bisexual girl parties. Still, I shouldn’t have gone.

Get an MFA if they pay you to do it, with a scholarship and a teaching stipend. Because an MFA gives you lots of time to write, and you need lots of practice to get better. Christ, do you need lots of practice to get better. But if they don’t pay for it, don’t waste your money. Don’t do it unless it’s free. Sadly, it does help to go to an MFA program, or a journalism program, because you make connections there, which is lame. And it does help to live in New York City, which is really lame. Of course broke writers are supposed to live in the most expensive city in the history of the world. F-cking great. And I hate New York City, mostly. I like yards and trees and things. The main thing I like about New York City is the Natural History Museum. And then there’s this one bar on 12th and 2nd Avenue that I like. Otherwise, it kind of sucks. …Anyway, where was I?

10) And finally, stop worrying about external sh-t. Just write all the time, because Christ do you need a lot of practice. As I mentioned the last time I dished out advice, I wrote for six hours a day, every day, for 15 years before I could quit my dumb job and become a full-time writer. …It’s like jogging, which I never do. Or it’s like quitting drinking, which I’m trying to do. It needs to become routine. Jog once, and it sucks, and you never want to jog again. Jog every day for a month, and it starts to become ingrained. Do it for a year, and it’s automatic.

Affectations that become habits. I started out writing stupidly, in order to get girls to like me. Now it’s automatic, like breathing. Girls, no girls, whatever. I probably think about writing once every three minutes or so, no matter what I’m doing — the way that normal people are supposed to think about sex. I don’t have to think about writing every day anymore: it’s just my thing that I do, the way that I smoke cigarettes or waste time flirting on IM. It’s ingrained. Get a routine. Find an “office.” I try to never write at home. When I first started writing, I would hump my ancient gray Macintosh laptop (which weighed about 10 pounds) all the way across Washington, D.C. I would walk for an hour to this one gay coffeehouse where you could smoke cigarettes. And once I got there, I had to write. I had just walked for an hour! I had to do something. I couldn’t just walk back without writing; that would be retarded.

Write all the time, and you’ll get better. Here’s the thing: writing is the best job there is; the best job that I can think of (okay, maybe being in a band is better). But it’s hard to be writer, because it’s fun, so everyone wants to be one. It’s like trying to make it in the NBA. How many famous writers are there? Let’s say that there are maybe 300 of them. That’s about the same number of players as are in the National Basketball Association. Do you think that you could star on an NBA team? You wouldn’t dream of trying to do that — unless you played basketball every day for six hours for ten years. Then, maybe you could start thinking about being in the NBA. So you’re in it for the long haul, baby.

And please, stop worrying about Twitter and stuff like that. Twitter is vile; I never use it. It’s like a video game that never plays back. It’s like Facebook if you were the only person on Facebook and had to read your own stupid thoughts all day long. Stop worrying about Twitter and social media and getting followers and all that crap, okay? Just write all the time. I have an agent now; I didn’t really try to get one; agents come to me now. Stop paging through How to Get an Agent guides and all that crap. Just write all the time, and it’ll happen. …I’m the worst self-promoter in the history of the world, but I got noticed. And if you get good, people will notice. And then you’ll be a writer, and you won’t die alone, starving in a garret. People will notice. And then you’ll be the writer. And instead of reading stupid articles like this, you can write them. …And that’s all. That’s the end. Finis.TC mark

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More From Thought Catalog

  • Nishant

    Thank you. :)

  • Michael Koh

    i stopped after #3 to tell you that you are absolutely correct. time to resume the reading

  • S N Cosme

    I’m really surprised by just how legitimate this advice really us. Great work, Oliver.

  • Anonymous

    Great article. I once told a girl that she should write something that wasn’t Lord of the Ringsesque and she started crying.


  • Spencer Lewin

    11. Try out being a prostitute. 

  • Anonymous

    We’ve both used the same Princess Bride reference in articles this month.

    Also, well done on this. Sincerely great advice.

    • Oliver Miller

      Love that quote so much.

  • Zaike Airey

    Thanks, that was awesome.

  • Age

    I’m extremely happy that you’re “hugely old” and you contribute to TC. You have just taken the #1 spot as my favorite writer here.


  • JEReich

    Thank you for thoroughly dispelling the rumor that writing isn’t work.  

  • Ben Empey

    You’re my favorite ever.

  • Stephanie Georgopulos

    Two thumbs up 

  • RBR

    Oliver Miller, write a book. (Not about becoming a writer, though this was fantastic.) I would read it in a heartbeat. 

  • Ben Findlay

    “Get an MFA if they pay you to do it, with a scholarship and a teaching stipend. Because an MFA gives you lots of time to write, and you need lots of practice to get better. Christ, do you need lots of practice to get better. But if they don’t pay for it, don’t waste your money. Don’t do it unless it’s free.”
    An MFA does not magically add hours to your day. In fact, an MFA will probably leave you with less time to write than you had before graduate school, particularly if you’re teaching two sections of composition while taking three or four courses. Even under optimal circumstances: you don’t have kids and you go to a program that provides a huge stipend (so you don’t have to get a job) without a teaching requirement, you still won’t have endless hours to write because, guess what, you’ll still be in graduate school going to class, reading a few hundred pages a week, and writing papers. You want time to write? Get a part-time job. You’ll probably make more money working 30 hours a week at $12/hr than you will with a teaching stipend.

    Graduate school can give you the opportunity to surround yourself with brilliant people who care about writing enough to commit themselves to it for a few years (colleagues) or more (professors). It can expose you to styles and ideas that you may not have found on your own. It can make you focus on writing more than anything else in your life, not because you suddenly have all of this time time to write, but because you’re around it all the time. For some people, that experience is worth tens of thousands of dollars. For others, it’s not. Then again, people spend lots of money on all sorts of things they may want but not need. There are reasons to go or not to go to graduate school; money is only one of them.

    • Oliver Miller

      My grad school didn’t do papers.  Do some MFA programs require you to write stupid papers?  That’s lame.

      • Ben Findlay

        Oh, I get it. Carry on.

  • Steven Timberman

    I’m MFAing at the moment and agree with 95% of this. But Oliver, don’t you think its also important for writers to learn what criticism to discard? While I agree that if a group generally says “this is crap”, it IS crap, but I’ve always found workshops to be a way to find the two or three people who dig what you’re doing. 

    You know, find your audience and all that nonsense. I’ve just seen so many writers self-edit their work into oblivion because they were trying to please EVERYONE in a workshop, and that never happens. 

    • Oliver Miller

      Yes.  For example, don’t take advice from the idiots who cry in workshops.  But yes, it is a good point, and I thought about talking about that — so everyone go back and read Steve’s comment again, please.

  • Emil Caillaux

    Awesome job!  Like that “don’t write about vampires” is #1.

  • Nikki

    I just love this! ;) Thank you. :))

  • Damien

    So what’s your Twitter handle? *raises hand to deflect inevitable blow*

    • Oliver Miller

      It’s in my bio, if you click on my name at the top of the article.  I don’t even remember what it is?  My name, I guess?

  • Um

    found this article thru the link on your twitter

    • Oliver Miller

      Right, that’s all I use Twitter for, to post article links, gosh.  I spend 40 seconds a week on Twitter, max.

  • niki

    I love that you’ve read ‘Seymour’. It made me like this article so much more (as stupid as that is).

  • beatrice

    So, why didn’t law school work out again? 

    • Oliver Miller

      Oh god, law school.  Don’t get me started.

  • Lauren K. Richer

    This is great because you can apply it to any career. How to Be an Artist/Entrepreneur/Architect/Designer/Director/Actor — the continuous repetition of something is what really makes or breaks someone. If they can’t do it on a daily basis, why do they think they can do it for a career and make loads of $$? 

    Didn’t anyone play sports as a kid? My mom had to FORCE me to go to soccer practice before I understood the more I practiced, the better I scored, and then the more I realized how much I really hated to run. So then I quit. But you have to try something numerous times, with 100% dedication before you’ll know if its really your thing, if you actually like it or not and if you will eventually do something bigger with it.Great article, keep it up. 

  • Odettetoabird

    i’m 21. is this too old to start writing?

    • Oliver Miller

      Nah.  I started when I was 19, so big whoop/ no real difference.

  • The JackB

    I am a fan of patronage, you know like they used to do way back when. Some rich person pays you to paint or sculpt. I figure that there have to be a few who are willing to pay me to write, not you, just me.

    Ok, I am willing to share but not until after I make a couple of bucks. The world doesn’t need another poor starving writer- which in large part why I am not going to get an MFA.

    That and I 132 years old now so I don’t know if I would survive long enough to get the damn degree.

  • Mister Burke

    Bukowski and Kerouac suck, move to New York City (where do you live again?), listen to the advice of your unpublished peers, and it only takes 8 months to learn the guitar. Got it. Thanks Ollie.

  • Niamh

    This is fantastic, the internet has created a beautiful platform for writers to display their thoughts. It also allows our voice to be heard over a huge audience. Therefore writers are actally being heard now, whereas before the world wide web was created, the art must have been painstakingly slow. That is the beauty of technology, it is truely helping us and easing us in every way imaginable. However our language does become dissolved through texting and twitter which is the flip side to this new paradigm.

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