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Note to self: Advice for beginning writers

A writer reflects on his younger days. And advises.

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Advice for beginning writers


When you first begin writing, the horizon extends promisingly before you. All you see are your creativity and the gift of your words that readers will surely devour. You know intellectually that there will be bumps, but those will be quickly navigated as your energy and muse pour on the coal, slinging amazing ideas into the world. And in this sunshine coated-beginning, you think you have very little to learn and a great deal of wisdom to share. Ah, youth.

I started writing seriously at age 23. I’d been a voracious reader for some time and had written short film scripts and plays in high school, but nothing that I’d show except to my closest friends, with whom I shared my secret desire to write. It would be two years before I had my first professional publication. Acceptances came a little quicker after that, but so did the rejections. Lots of them. Hundreds of them, in fact.

In retrospect, I’d like to offer the younger me some advice about what lay ahead. The following are my tips for that young fellow.


As good as you think those first pieces are, they’re not.

What you’re feeling is a tremendous sense of accomplishment, not anything about the quality of the writing. Nothing wrong with that. But as master Hemingway says, the first million words are crap. After that, the quality starts to come. It takes a while to write a million words.



→Don’t be discouraged by rejection.

You’re going to get lots of it. When you get an editor’s personalized response, understand how rare those are. Rejection means you’re putting yourself out there and that you’re completing something. It has nothing to do with you personally. It’s a particular editor’s view of your writing in that moment. Rejection can also produce perseverance and tenacity, if you let it.


→Finish writing what you begin, even if it’s not working.

Walk away from it for a while if you must, but always complete the story, article, script or novel. If it still doesn’t work after you’ve finished, put it in a drawer. Completing your writing gets you out of the habit of starting numerous projects and never finishing anything. Doing so also puts you ahead of 98 percent of the people out there who say they’ve always wanted to be a writer but just couldn’t find the time. You are finding the time, and it separates you from the pack.



→You’ll start out copying other writer’s voices.

That’s OK. Almost every writer does this in a quest to write the kind of stories he or she likes to read. But keep pushing through this period because your voice is in there and it will come out, but only with time. Imitation and clichés will fall away, and your sensibilities, your filter of experience, your psychic roadmap – your voice – will emerge. Trust it.


→You’ll reach a point at which you’ve been published and then the momentum stalls.

Your ideas dry up. You think you’ve reached the height of your capabilities. You haven’t. You’ve reached a plateau. Keep writing, and you’ll break through – until you hit the next plateau. It’s part of the journey.



→Keep writing, keep reading, keep trying to improve, take risks.

Don’t be afraid to try new styles, genres, techniques. Never stop learning. Be both a sponge and humble with criticism. Take your medicine. It’s good for you.


→Write from your heart.

You’ll hear that a lot, but what it means is to write from what moves you, what frightens you, what makes you deeply sad, what makes you ecstatic. Remember to write from that place where the real you exists.


→Always remember why you started writing in the first place.

Because it takes you places where only writing can go. Because there’s something inside you that needs to get out. Because you’re supposed to. Because it’s a gift.



The 23-year-old me was full of vigor, dreams and a seemingly tireless work ethic. I miss that kid. Well, some parts of him, anyway. What he also had was a lot of naiveté and ignorance about the writing business and his own words. I’ve grown up a lot since then, but I still carry that magic my younger self believed was in the story. I keep trying to get the magic perfect, where the story soars and goes beyond me. Because I am a writer.


John Kelly has written for American Way, Alaska Airlines Magazine, Horizon Air, Equus, Grit, Notre Dame Magazine, Stage & Screen and Prairie Business Journal. He has also done corporate scriptwriting and copywriting. 



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