How To Do Life

Fresh ideas about career and personal issues

How I Became a Writer

An author's improbable story that embeds lessons on writing and life.

Today, a client said he was afraid he couldn’t learn to write well enough, so I decided to tell him the improbable story of how I became a writer. He said it offered him lessons not only on writing but on living. So perhaps you too might find it of value.

When I was in college, I was thinking about becoming a journalist so I took Advanced Expository Writing. I was used to getting A’s, so when I got a B-, I decided to forget writing. That was reinforced by the feedback I got on my first paper in graduate school. I had worked very hard on it, wanting to get off to a good start at scary Berkeley. But emblazoned across the first page, the professor scrawled, “B. Should have been an F except that you worked so hard. Go to the writing center.” I did, didn’t find it helpful, and decided I was hopeless.

Ironically, graduate school made me a worse writer. It taught me to write in a bulletproof but impenetrable style. It's only a slight exaggeration to say that the professoriate would consider this a good sentence:

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So in addition to feeling I was a bad writer, I decided that if that’s what good writing is, I didn’t want to be a writer.

When I was hired to teach at the University of California, Davis, the chair gave me a tour of the campus, including its demonstration kindergarten classroom, which was empty at the time. Next to an Apple IIe, I noticed the box for a children’s word processing program, Bank Street Writer. I had been intimidated by computers but figured that even I might be able to use kindergarten software. Again lucky, the computer had been left on and with that word-processing program on the screen—I wouldn’t have known how to load it and too embarrassed to ask the chair to do it. I wrote a sentence on it and was amazed that it enables one to revise without using whiteout!

I tend to think big, so right there, I decided to banish all thoughts of being a bad writer, to buy a computer and Bank Street Writer, and use them to write a book: How to Get Your Child a Private School Education in a Public School.

I asked four people to review the first chapter: my wife, my next door neighbor (a retired military officer with a Ph.D. in philosophy who did plumbing), a friend who was a community college writing teacher, and my daughter’s friend’s mother who was a kindergarten teacher. Not a professor among them. The book was for the general public and that’s whose feedback I wanted.[i]

Their message was consistent: My writing was convoluted and pretentious.

I particularly appreciated the plumber’s feedback—word-by-word suggestions. That improved my writing more than anything I've ever done. So if you want to improve your writing, consider asking someone from your target audience, ideally who writes well, to critique your work, word by word. Pay if necessary. You might not want to accept all their suggestions but the experience will almost certainly be valuable.

Those four people’s feedback generated the principle that guided me in writing the rest of that book and in most of my subsequent writing: Write what’s important but not obvious to my target audience and say it as clearly as possible. People are busy and have abundant choices of what to read, so my goal is to give readers the most value per minute of their time.

However, if a more arcane word better reflects my intended meaning, I’ll use it—for example, “métier” in the next sentence. Also, if humor naturally emerges, fine, but I don’t try to be funny—manufactured humor is not my métier; it’s sitcom writers’. I guess those principles have worked pretty well: I’ve now had seven books and 2,500 articles well-published.

What are the life lessons embedded in that story?

  • Think twice about trusting professors’ judgment about what will work in the real world. Trust your target audience more.
  • Focus not on impressing but on communicating clearly.
  • Luck matters more than we’d like to acknowledge. If the chair hadn’t taken me to see that kindergarten classroom, if the box of a children’s word-processing program hadn’t been standing upright next to the computer where it caught my attention, and if the computer and monitor hadn’t been on and with that software on-screen, I might never have tried to write an article, let alone a book. So, yes, try, but recognize that if you haven’t had all the success you’d like, it’s not all on you—luck does matter.
  • You can boost your chances of having good luck by hanging out where good things are more likely to happen. For example, it might be wiser to come early and stay late at a public affairs talk than to get sloshed at a nightclub where you can’t hear yourself think, let alone have a meaningful conversation. Planned serendipity.

I imagine that many of you have a story that embeds life lessons. Might you want to tell it in a comment on this blog post?

Marty Nemko was named “The Bay Area’s Best Career Coach” by the San Francisco Bay Guardian and he enjoys a 96 percent client-satisfaction rate. In addition to the articles here on PsychologyToday.com, many more of Marty Nemko's writings are archived on www.martynemko.com. Of his seven books, the most relevant to readers of this blog is How to Do Life: What They Didn’t Teach You in School. Marty Nemko's  bio is on Wikipedia.

[i] Today, I’d have been even more targeted: I’d send it for review to parents of school-age kids, a couple of elementary school teachers and a principal.

Marty Nemko is a career and personal coach based in Oakland, Ca. and the author of 7 books. 
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