So You Want To Be A Writer? That’s Mistake #1

October 28, 2013 — 67 Comments

There are two types of writers, Schopenhauer once observed, those who write because they have something they have to say and those who write for the sake of writing.

If you’re young and you think you want to be a writer, chances are you are already in the second camp. And all the advice you’ll get from other people about writing only compounds this terrible impulse.

Write all the time, they’ll tell you. Write for your college newspaper. Get an MFA. Go to writer’s groups. Send query letters to agents.

What do they never say? Go do interesting things.

I was lucky enough to actually get this advice. Combine this with the fact that I was too self-conscious to tell people that I wanted to be a writer, I became one in secret.

I’m not saying I’m great at it or anything, but I am a bestselling author at 26. I have a column with a major newspaper. I get paid to write professionally. A fair amount of aspiring writers are nice enough email me questions about becoming a writer. I usually have the same answer: Well, wanting to be a “writer” is your first mistake.

The problem is identifying as a writer. As though assembling words together is somehow its own activity. It isn’t. It’s a means to an end. And that end is always to say something, to speak some truth or reach someone outside yourself.

Deep down, you already know this. Take any good piece of writing, something that matters to you. Why is it good? Because of what it says. Because what the writer manages to communicate to you, their reader. It’s because of what’s within it, not how they wrote it.

No one ever reads something and says, “Well, I got absolutely nothing out of this and have no idea what any of this means but it sure is technically beautiful!” But they say the opposite all the time, they say “Goddamn, that’s good” to things with typos, poor grammar and simple diction.

Good writing saves nothing. On the other hand, a deep, compelling or stunning message can float writers who struggle to even complete a sentence.

So if you want to be a writer, put “writing” on hold for a while. When you find something that is new and different and you can’t wait to share with the world, you’ll beat your fat hands against the keyboard until you get it out in one form or another.

Everything that is good in my writing came from risks I took outside of school, outside of the “craft.” It was sleeping on Tucker Max’s floor for a year. It was working as Robert Greene’s assistant. It was working at American Apparel, watching the office politics and learning how to get stuff done. It was dropping out of college at 19. It was saying yes to every meeting and introduction I got, and hustling to get as many as I could on my own. It was reading dozens of books a month.

It was going to therapy. It was getting into pointless arguments. It was having friends who are smarter than me. It was traveling. It was living (briefly) in the ghetto. I was able to write about the dark side of the media because I put myself in a position to see it firsthand.

All these things gave me something to say. They gave me a perspective. They gave me a fucked up writing style that makes my voice unique. They gave me opinions that tend to piss people off.

It also gave me money and the marketing experience to make my projects a success.

I don’t know the first thing about how to write (as you probably noticed in this post). I nod along and pretend that I know what things like “subject” and “predicate” and “passive tense” actually mean. I mean, I think I have an idea, but it hasn’t held me back so far. To quote Schopenhauer again, “to have something to say” is “by itself virtually a sufficient condition for good style.” I’ll take grade school dropout writing passionately in his prison cell over some empty, superior Yale MFA any day.

Part of what I’ve said here is my opinion. There are many ways to become a writer and though my way worked for me, you may prefer a different route. So you can take that part or leave it. But another part of it is an undeniable change in the economics of the business of writing.

See, it used to be that getting “published” was the hard part. You had to impress some gatekeeper and that gatekeeper was an agent or an editor at magazine, at a newspaper or at a book publisher (all of whom were typically trained writers). Well, today there are essentially an infinite amount of outlets to feature your writing. And no matter where you ultimately do get your writing out, you’ll have to bring your own audience with you anyway.

Getting published is easy. Getting anyone to care? Well, that’s the hard part.

What matters more now than any other single thing is that what you’re saying is different–that it’s interesting, that it provokes some response from people. You’ll only accomplish this if you’ve got something you have to say. Better yet, you need to have something that you can’t NOT say.  If what you’re writing is a compulsion rather than a vehicle for your display how smart and well practiced you are.

So think about it one more time. Is it that you want to be a writer? Or it’s that you have these things inside you that you want very badly to communicate to people and writing is the best way to do it?

Getting the answer to that question right is the day you really become a writer.

This post originally ran on ThoughtCatalog.com. Comments can be seen there.

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

67 responses to So You Want To Be A Writer? That’s Mistake #1

  1. Agree with this piece wholeheartedly. Semil Shah had a great quote about ‘writers’ recently:

    “Writing is now more important, yet journalism continues to erode. The catch: one has to *pair* writing with another activity. The pairing creates lift.”

    Putting words to paper is just the medium for spreading ideas, as you mention, having great ideas and getting people to care about them is the “real” work.

  2. I disagree that content has as strong a primacy over form as you imply. But:

    ‘Being a writer’ = a place in a culture, a great opening line at parties, admirers you’ve not even met yet.

    ‘Writing’ = hard work.

    It’s no wonder people want the former, or that they decide not to commit to the latter.

  3. I too have become a writer in secret… I rarley tell people that I write or what I write about. However if someone asks about branding or marketing ill point them to my blog. Thanks Ryan

  4. I studied Philosophy in college, and I think the same is true of Philosophy. You can’t just sit in your ivory tower and “do philosophy”, you have to go into the world, have experiences, live your life, and only then reflect back with Philosophy.

  5. I was about to be impressed that you’re a best-selling writer, until I saw that it’s non-fiction and just a manual for online marketing. That’s not writing dude.

    • Oh, I didn’t know. I take it all back because some fucking idiot says it doesn’t count.

      • I love the honesty in this comment.

      • Hahahaha I literally laughed out loud after reading that comment. It’s not often that I do that.

      • YES RYAN!!! You sir, kick ass.

      • Woah, harsh answer! Note to self: never write stupid comments on Ryan’s stuff.
        Though yeah, it does bother me too that he doesn’t appreciate written art only because the events actually took place and the characters are real.
        Also, it’s kind of obvious you’re a very fast learner and could learn to write fiction in less than a month.
        Don’t do that though, then everybody’ll do it….

        • Except your assumption is totally wrong. I love good fiction. But good fiction comes from people who have experienced life. It cannot be taught or compensated for.

          • You either read too fast or I should have made my comment more specific.

            I meant the commenter doesn’t appreciate your kind of art. It’s obvious you like fiction since you’re a good communicator. I have yet to find a good communicator who doesn’t like a good story, real or fictive.

            And yes, good fiction comes from people who have experienced life. To put it in fiction-writing terms, good fiction has good themes illustrated well. You can be good at blending words and having snappy dialogue, as long as you don’t understand life and humanity you’ll just write pointless things.

            The reason “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.” is quoted by everyone, is because it shows an interesting side of humanity: Everything has a price and a lot of times people respond better to threats.

            Of course, in order to know about life, you have to live it.

          • Says the idiot who hasn’t written a novel. WHAT THE HELL DO YOU KNOW ABOUT IT? HOW, in any way, does your marketing “expertise” translate to expertise about fiction writing?

      • I’m afraid Ryan Frost is right, Ryan Holiday. Writing pandering marketing bullshit is not writing. Anyone who thinks they can write should try writing a few good *novels* first.

        • Says the guy no one has ever heard of, let alone read.

          • Argumentum ad hominem. Another brilliancy. You just keep sticking with those logical fallacies, kid. But I imagine that, working in marketing, you’ve become very adept with them.

            https://yourlogicalfallacyis.com/ad-hominem

            * By the way, you’re right about something: nobody has heard of me in my current incarnation (I only started yesterday). But as for your assumption that no one has read my work, you couldn’t be more wrong. I am the author of several high-rated, bestselling novels, and I’ve become sick of bad writing and you marketing hucksters who are giving Kindle and ebooks a bad name. I’m on a mission to change that, one poor writer or one marketing moron at a time.

    • The whole point of this article is that writing is about conveying a message, which Ryan can do better than most of your best selling authors can.

      What do you respect more: a writer who gets a lot of sales, or a writer that can make you care about what they’ve written?

  6. This article really resonates with me – and applies to many other disciplines as well. A lot of people seem to be interested in photography for the act of taking photographs, and buying and playing with gear – completely lacking a ‘passion’ that they want to share via the act of photography.

    On another note, I thought maybe I’d found a fantastic source of inspiration/ideas/knowledge in this blog, but having a quick look through the Authors attitude in the comments, I’ll ensure I avoid it in the future.

  7. I am so passionate when I speak one on one to people about why I do what I do, but when it comes to blogging or PR, my fingers are quite often tongue tied. Thank you for making me remember to just write as I speak, with passion and genuine caring for the topic.

  8. YES! Until I got out from behind my laptop and DID SHIT I had nothing to say, nobody cared. I’ve heard the advice to just ‘write everyday’ – about what exactly?

  9. Nail on the head. As someone who’s been in magazines for a decade, I would like to AMEN everything you said above. Also, I’m going to start sending this link out to the dozen or so college kids who write me each week asking how they get into publishing/magazines/travel writing, so thanks for knocking that out for me ;-)

  10. I too have become an extremely successful writer, but without having to resort to such patronizing, holier-than-thou soapboxing directed toward others. I’m glad I didn’t come across this when I was trying to make a name for myself – it would’ve totally thrown me off track.

    • Right, your site is soapbox enough.

    • Right on, Robert. And it’s great to hear that somebody else has been successful without having to pander and soapbox.

      • So I’m reading the comments and find Kindle Sherrif. Right. Followers on twitter, 24. Right. Uses logical counterarguments. Right. Then he/she states : “Writing pandering marketing bullshit is not writing.” In other words, he states that writing non-fiction is not writing. Fucking writing on the walls with a marker is writing. What it is not? Fiction. Writing fiction is not the same as writing non-fiction. That’s his logical argument. Who said it was? Was the title how to write fiction in 10 steps? Go tell your whole 24 followers how pissed off you are with non-fiction. Next time you want to be logical go give you gf/bf an Alaskan Firedragon.

  11. Awesome article! I don’t worry about the proper way to write things. I use words to get a message out and that’s why people read it. I stay true to who I am and the things I want to share. When you do people listen. I never write to just write.

  12. Yeah, this is why I unsubscribed from the writing podcasts I used to listen to (and, I guess, listen to interviews with folks doing interesting things instead). I think I’m still waiting for The Thing I Must Say, but I do enjoy the activity of blogging – it’s like the rummaging around, looking for the thing in between doing the other things.

  13. that is true :P well i want to be a writer and im working on that in the near futur , inspired by your articles and thoughts

  14. There are many would be writers in the world, so people don’t pay attention to me until they read one of my scripts. Then, they are amazed they learned something from my story and ask me when and how I decided to be a writer and they expect the same old story with “Oh, I read this great book as a kid and that made me want to be a writer.”, but I answer with “I never wanted to be a writer. I wanted to work within the justice system and failed.”

  15. Ryan, brilliant post! I love it! Thanks for inspiration. I am currently working a lot on improving my writing and still believe I need to do a lot of work (mainly because English is not my first language), but your post inspired me as I really have thins I so bad want to say – and this is most important thing. I will get my style improved, but most important I am writing for a write reason. Thanks helping me to realise it.

  16. I want to write stuff about my life buy NOONE will believe what I say.
    I have been at exact places when paths meet and I have influenced many things even deaths. I have seen famous people who looked at me just in the street and about three days later they die, that happened when I was younger.
    People I have known say I am weird and have weird things happen around me alot.
    I couldn’t tell you but I feel I am placed in circumstances to either create something or to help or destroy but always things happen. Somethings when I am out black crows suddenly land all around me from nowhere then follow me but I feel protected not at threat.
    Things is noone will believe who I have met and infulenced and ALWAYS at the right time. Since I was a kid. Some say I am cursed and others that forces are at work in my life. My girlfriend even says weird things happen like we row and she goes off somewhere I don’t know then I go to my brothers and the train is all mixed up and I end up somewhere else then I cahneg my mind and end up ona train to scotland and I get up and in the seat in front of me she is alseep and freeks out how this happened and she claims other worldly things have happened that circumstance just makes impossible unless there is a purpose. On lsd I even started telling people what would happen before it happened. I would do judges impressions in court which only meant something to anyone later. But I seem like a guide or something. But most people are just meat and veg life like my brother thinks it is all nonseense but even when we were in certain places he cannot explain some oddities and stuff that were weird beyond beleif. I used to drink out of my mind to stop it but now I think “fuck it, whatever it is it is not harming me at all but it appears it hurts people who try to damage me but it always takes about 3-5 years before. People who cross me or try to take my pride always suffer and suffer badly sometime later.
    Once the police asked me how I knew about a conversation and the truth was it just came to me. I just lay there and heard it going on. I didn’t know it was what was going on till later. I feel protected but people who are good souls bring joy and evil doers get damaged.
    I WAS READING a book about alistair campbell and walked around leicester square aimlessly wondering what to eat and his car pulled up right in front of me.
    I was listening to a book by david mitchell and thinking about his life while waiting for a train and went for a stroll and who walked past me in the park David Mitchell and we said hello.
    Just weird weird weird. Not just me but loved ones also sometimes see things too. I am only now at long last accepting these things.
    But if I wrote it as fact about my life NOONE would believe it. I think I have influenced many people. The worst one was Stanly Kubrick was on the train facing me late a night going to st albans and he kept staring at me kept staring at me. He then made eyes wide shut and died. It was the intense way he kept his eyes on me the whole trip,. I do look very strange in a way. I saw Bobby moore as a teenager in his car and heard on the news he’d died about a week later. wE BOTH LOOKED DEEPLY INTO EACH OTHERS EYES MY FOOTBALL HERO.
    aLL SO MUCH SHIT. i WONT EVEN GO INTO THE NOEL THING. pATHS CROSS AT SUCH TIMES WHEN WE ARE MAKING LIFE DECISIONS AND HAVE DONE.
    mAYBE i AM THE DEVIL OR ONE OF THEM OR PERHAPS SOME PURPOSE BUT i KNOW nOONE WILL BELIEVE ME. cEPT THE ONES ALIVE MIGHT TESTIFY. iT WOULD MAKE A GREAT BOOK.

  17. I write because it is through the written word where I am most like myself. When we speak, subconsciously we filter our words. We are somebody’s wife, mother, husband or son, and we speak within those roles. Writing removes these filters. And allowed free reign, thoughts and experience combine, and self-expression is born. Perhaps it’s not so much a question of “Could I be a writer?”, as a statement – “I am a writer”. Not so much a choice of whether or not to write, but whether or not to share. For to write well is to create power and emotion with words. Then, when read by another, if they in turn are inspired, moved or swayed by what you have written, a connection has been forged, and you no longer need to ask if you should be a writer. You already are.

  18. By the way, son, you need to edit what you *write*: “A fair amount of aspiring writers are nice enough email me questions about becoming a writer.”

    “Amount” should be “number” in that sentence. Why? Look it up.

    You need the word “to” between “email” and “me.”

      • “Meh”—just brilliant. This is why a punk like you will never be a real writer. A real writer wants to get it right. A real writer *knows* the rules, because he realizes that if he knows the rules, he’ll also know when it’s okay to break them. The way you’re blowing off the difference between “amount” and “number” is totemic of a complete disrespect for, and lack of understanding of, the English language. I found several other errors of grammar and punctuation in your post, but I’m not going to waste my time telling you what they are, because chances are, you won’t make any effort to correct these errors. Besides, you strike me as a solipsistic kid who doesn’t recognize, and doesn’t take, good advice when it’s given to him.

        By the way, congratulations on becoming a bestselling “author” of two flash-in-the-pan, adding-nothing-to-the-culture-or-society books about marketing. It must be *so difficult* selling such books to a “readership” of other rabid marketing douchebags who will gobble up *anything* that might enable them to better screw the other guy and make more money in the process.

        To anyone else reading this: This guy might be an authority on marketing and “media manipulation,” but if you want to learn more about writing and what it takes to be a good one, you’ve come to the wrong place.

  19. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E2zhlDbMfDg

    You should watch this film before writing and judging
    He he he

  20. Pure coincidences make people believe in miracles and writers seem implausible.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E2zhlDbMfDg
    See, life is soo rich if you open your eyes but coincidences just make writing more fun and colourful.
    Some people only believe weird stuff if it is old religion. Bill Mayer is great.
    Writers need to experience all kinds of experiences such as Huxley and lsd spawned the greatest book, in my opinion brave new world. Lsd inspired.

  21. I believe the Armageddon they talk of is the end of religion. Not the end of the world but the end of religion, just my own belief.

  22. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VAtGOESO7W8
    Love power will outlive nasty religious beliefs.
    Any serious author should read Huxley first.
    Believe in loooooove power
    That is all.

  23. Thanks Kindle Sheriff, those grammatical errors and comments from the author grated with me too. You know what? I’d like to read your blog – if you have one. Sounds like there’d be a shed load more point in reading that than this puffed up guff with such little credibility.

  24. Hi Ryan,

    I love to write. I used to write every single day in my blog in 2011. As you can guess, I fell into “the second camp” as you put it. I already learned that I needed to come up with something new and interesting to write to actually be a good writer. This thought only made me ‘chase perfection’ and held me back from clicking on the ‘Publish’ button.

    I promise myself that things will be different for me in 2014. I will write something interesting and ‘fresh’ and will not shy away from clicking on “Publish” on my own already established deadline.

    Thank you for the inspiration!

    Adhy

  25. Hi Ryan everything you stated was helpful. My ex husband, a screenplay writer gave the same advice you provided
    Thank you so much confirming. This was the encouragement I needed to follow through with my ideas. To the idiots who posted negative comments, well the fact that their reading your work as opposed to you and the rest of us reading theirs speaks for itself…congratulation on all your accomplishments, great and small.

  26. please tell me where to start writing.

  27. I don’t know you but I already love you.

  28. I think I love you.

  29. You’ve stated some very important points but personally I think that though having something to say is the key, believing that no one cares for the techinal part is a bit too dreamy. And being a writer who doesn’t care for grammar or language iself in technical terms just seems a contradiction.

  30. You sounded a bit mean. It was a long read that kept me going and I guess, judging from that, you are good at what you are doing.

  31. hum…I have one small observation:
    You say that what appeals to readers is the content of the writing, the message of the author. One should then think about the message before the act of writing, and in extent, think about the meaning of the whole before the form, prose, etc.
    And you say, go live and experience, then shall you have something to write about and be a writer.
    But…what about the great french writers of the 18-1900? I’m thinking of Balzac, Flaubert in particular : his quest of “ideal” was in the perfect prose, in a perfect style of writing ; as he told L. Colet “a book almost on nothing, who would almost have no subject, and would hold of itself by the internal beauty of it’s style”. Yet, these are masters of french litterature… Therefore I must disagree with you on the idea that writers always have to “live” to write, to “experience”. Sometimes, you just have to have the mind and an ideal.
    Very interesting article though, and please excuse my english I am no native speaker and furtherless a writer.

  32. You said the day someone answers that last question right, “that you have these things inside you that you want very badly to communicate to people and writing is the best way to do it?”, as you phrase it, is the day you become a writer. What if the right answer for someone is no?

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