Recently my friend Debbie Ridpath Ohi asked if I would do an interview for her. After we'd wrapped it up she sent me a final question: "What one piece of advice do you have for aspiring freelance writers?"
It has taken me months to come up with an answer. The trick, of course, is that word "one." I have loads of advice; I have an entire website full of advice. But... one piece? And, preferably, one piece that does not simply repeat what beginners have heard a thousand times before? ("Learn your craft; always strive to improve; understand the trade!")
So I thought I'd turn the question around, and ask whether there is a specific challenge facing new writers today that was not an issue back in the semi-dark ages when I got started. And it seems to me that there is: Social Media.
Most articles on the topic of "writers" and "social media" extol the benefits writers can reap from exploiting this new realm of communication. But for beginning writers, I believe social media offers a downside. It has the potential to reinforce a view that afflicts many beginners (and many not-so-beginners): The view that writing is "all about me."
When we start out as writers, quite often, we are terribly full of ourselves. Often, we are embarking upon a journey of self-exploration. We are bursting with thoughts, ideas, memories, and experiences that we consider dazzling and enthralling simply because they are ours. Either we imagine that our ideas are so unique and amazing that the world will be stunned by their brilliance, or we suppose that we have such a grasp of the plight of "everyman" that the world cannot help but see itself reflected in our prose. Consequently, it is very easy for our writing to become full of, well, us.
In those ancient days when writers hunched over typewriters and made carbon copies, this wasn't much of a problem. One sent one's brilliant, me-focused poem, story or article to an editor, held one's breath for roughly six weeks, and got the inevitable form rejection. Successful writers were those who eventually figured out that something wasn't working, took a look around at what was getting published, and adapted accordingly. And while this system was certainly a bit rough on beginners, it worked -- because in those bad old days, the only writing that one could find as an "example" to guide one's path was writing that was good enough to be paid for. Whether you turned to books, magazines, or newspapers, the only "published media" you could find was work that readers considered good enough to pay to read -- and that editors, consequently, considered good enough to pay to acquire.
Naturally, this led to plenty of grumbling amongst new and not-so-new writers who weren't getting paid -- or published. Editors and publishers were widely accused of being hostile gatekeepers, turning away wondrous works by the score in their crass pursuit of "marketable" material. If only there were another way to get one's work to the world, why, then, surely the world would beat a path to one's door...
Fast forward to the world in which that dream has become a reality -- and the situation it creates for writers today. The "me-focused" affliction still haunts us, but when we look around at what is "out there," what do we see? We see a world of "me." Now, granted, there is much that is admirable in the world of social media. But for every well written and informative blog, there are a thousand that have nothing worthwhile to say, and that say it at great length. For every inspirational Facebook page, there are thousands of people posting what they had for breakfast. For every meaningful tweet... Well, you get the idea.
For a new writer who is exploring self-expression, it has become far too easy to assume that the emphasis is on the word "self." After all, if so many people are sharing what they had for breakfast, surely this must mean that somewhere, there's an audience that cares what you had for breakfast, so why not tell them?
Now, let me be clear: I am not saying that new writers do not have brilliant ideas to share. In fact, a great many do. The problem lies in determining how to separate one's brilliant ideas from one's sense of being the person who comes up with those ideas. It lies in determining the balance between sharing one's self and sharing what lies within one's self. How do you get what is within you out into the world, while simultaneously getting yourself out of what is within you?
If that sounded convoluted, allow me one more old-fashioned example. Many years ago, some family friends (call them Mr. and Mrs. W.) returned from a trip to Europe. This was before home computers, the Internet, or Facebook -- so to share such experiences, people invited other people to their homes, turned out the lights, and gave slide shows. (This was legal. You could actually do this to someone without being locked up on charges of cruelty and abuse.)
So Mr. W. got behind the slide projector, and we settled in our chairs to watch slide after slide of the famous sights of Europe. And every slide, whether of a castle or a cathedral or a village street, had one thing in common: It also included Mrs. W. Every single one.
This is the problem with me-focused writing. A writer wants to share something memorable, meaningful, beautiful, inspiring, or simply useful -- but, inspired by the me-focus of social media, also wants to share that "this is me sharing it with you." Instead of looking at the beautiful thing you want to show me, I end up looking at you showing me the beautiful thing.
So if there is one piece of advice I would offer new writers, it is this: Get out of the way. Forget about followers and friends and "likes" and re-tweets. What is inside you is bigger than "you." The more you cause your readers' attention to focus on you, the more you risk distracting them from the important and wonderful things you actually have to say.
Instead, look at the media that surrounds you from an old-fashioned perspective. Ask yourself if you would pay to read a particular blog, or Facebook page, or tweet. If the answer is no, then don't use it as an inspiration for the type of writing that you would like to get paid for.
Don't get me wrong -- I'm not suggesting that you avoid social
media, either as a writer or a reader. But it is not the model to
turn to if you want to learn how to write publishable (i.e.,
"saleable") material. If you yearn to craft stories, poetry,
novels or nonfiction, and get paid for the privilege, learn that
craft from those works that you'd be willing to pay for the
privilege of reading. Social media gives you a wonderful way to
talk to your audience -- but great writing is what gives you a
chance to build one.
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