I can put together words so that they sound nice. I can't write. Why?
August 7, 2014 11:26 AM   Subscribe

All my life, people have complimented me on my abiity to write well. In middle and high school, it was writing good chapter summaries, literary analyses and essays for homework using flowery language. In college, it became about construction and the flow of ideas, and I found myself to be reasonably adept at that as well. I'm currently jobless ( looking for my first job at 25), and when people chime in with suggestions on how to fix that, they can't understand why I poo-poo the idea of writing professionally out of hand. Help me develop my writerly mind and get myself out of the English class for good.

A couple of things for MeFi to chew on that might explain my diificulties- that is, my inability to form original thought in any arena- literary, scientific, cultural, etc.

- I was never a reader. The reasons for this are many and could, (and probably will) motivate a doozy of a future Ask Whatever talent I ostensibly had came from this weird ability to absorb what souded good to the educated ear. That's why classroom essays and emails seem to be my forte.
- I was always an emotional dude, but never felt the need to " get anything out" until late in life, and then it was like pulling teeth. There never seemed to be a consistent internal voice or worldview that I could put to paper.
- I always make what seem like "obvious" arguments in my writing. I'm a great bullshit artist though, and can extend these for pages.
- I can never motivate myself to finish anything labor-intensive. Ever.
- I could never bring myself to be about anything. I like the idea of ____ but spending entire chunks of my life doing/thinking about ___ bores and depresses me to tears. I'm funny, but I don't know if I have what it takes to be a pop culture blogger. I like science, but get intimidated seeing what something like medical writing involves.

What can I do to find my voice, monetize it and express myself -whoever that may be- in a fulfilling way. Thoughts, hivemind?

Please try to stay away from the suggestion that I might not actually enjoy writing. This line of thought might have merit on my bad days, but the rare moments of writerly lucidty I do have are satisfying enough that I know I want to try this out for at least the next few years, if I can get to a good place.
posted by marsbar77 to Writing & Language (25 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
What it sounds like (from an English major and high school English teacher) is that you learned how to bullshit the five paragraph essay but didn't transition to developing a mature and authentic voice of your own. There is a HUGE difference between writing something for a high school class and writing something that can be sold professionally.

It's not just about writing ability - it's also about unique perspective, making people connect to what you're writing about in ways that are unexpected and surprising and beautiful, and about saying things in a new way.

When I teach a writing class, I start with model essays. If you get something like the Blair Reader of the Best New American [insert genre] or Seeing & Writing or my favourite, The Essay Connection you can find writing you love and start copying their style - not the content, but the WAY they write. The patterns they use, the imagery, etc.

I also recommend finding some people who will write with you and be honest about how you're doing. You want not just friends who will tell you how good you are, but people who will honestly critique what you've written.

If you want some links to the assignments I gave my class, I'm happy to send them to you. Good luck, and above all, just start writing and sharing. It all builds from there.
posted by guster4lovers at 11:34 AM on August 7, 2014 [17 favorites]

Response by poster: That's actually a very smart characterization of the problem, Guster. I would love to have a look at those assignments. To everyone else, Guster put the problem into words I couldn't seem to find. Let's work from there.
posted by marsbar77 at 11:39 AM on August 7, 2014

> I'm a great bullshit artist

Have you considered working in advertising, or some flavour of marketing or branding? It's a lot of fun, and usually pays pretty well. You don't have to believe in or be attached to anything in particular — although some copywriters may specialise in sports brands or electronics, others will take whatever comes their way.

If you have loftier ambitions, don't forget that F. Scott Fitzgerald, Salman Rushdie, Dorothy Sayers, Don DeLillo, and Joseph Heller all worked as copywriters at some stage.
posted by ZipRibbons at 11:45 AM on August 7, 2014 [7 favorites]

You ask why you can't write, and I would guess the answer is: because you aren't practicing writing. You have to write to be a writer. It's not any more complicated than that, and trying to analyze your specific situation as to why you can't or haven't is a waste of time and energy. Write. Consistently. About things that interest you. Once you're doing that, then you can come back and refine your approach or analyze how you could improve your craft.

Monetizing your writing is a whole different story.

Note: if writing as a practice does not sound appealing to you, that's okay. You can be good at putting words together without wanting to be a writer, but it's hard to be a writer without the drive to consistently practice your craft. I myself would say I fall into the first category - I have writerly potential, but I am not a writer because despite several interesting and short-lived blogging attempts, I do not have the drive to write consistently at this point in my life. I can, however, take on jobs that require a lot of writing, especially if other people are providing the direction on what I should be writing.

Sorry if that comes off as harsh, but your description of yourself reminds me of me in some ways, and I wish I'd caught on earlier that the lack of a strong drive to write for writing's sake meant that I shouldn't take on freelance writing as a career at a point when I had a lot of unstructured time.
posted by deludingmyself at 11:50 AM on August 7, 2014 [4 favorites]

I just checked out this book from the library, and have found it to be clear, straight-forward, and user-friendly: How to Write Anything: A Complete Guide by Laura Brown.

In the introduction she says that "there's no such thing as a person who 'can't write.' Anyone can write, and anyone can write anything they need to. All that's needed is an understanding of the writing process, an understanding of the particular task you're working on, and a little dedication."

I haven't read all of it (it's 596 pages, hardcover!), but what I've read, I've liked and it makes sense to me. Hope this helps.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 11:52 AM on August 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm going to say marketing and advertising sound like good paths for you and although I think the advice to develop a voice is excellent, that's actually not always a plus in copywriting (which is the term you probably want to look for in job postings.)

Coursera is running a free intro to marketing class starting in Oct: https://www.coursera.org/course/marketing

Another option might be communications, which also is about delivering a clear message that is someone else's.

I don't suggest editorial freelance writing as a great career if writing isn't already your thing, because rates are overall being driven down and when people are paying good rates, in my experience they are usually paying because someone has a strong voice.
posted by warriorqueen at 11:55 AM on August 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

If you're talking about writing for money, you don't need to have your own ideas. In a sense, it's exactly like an English class. Every writing job is an assignment with specs and expected outcomes and a client/boss/budget relying on you to do it right. It's not creative writing. I've been writing pretty much my whole career and while I have to come up with the right way to say something given the audience, I don't come up with the original concept. I come up with the creative approach to solve the problem, or I demonstrate the need and potential benefits in order to win the grant. But they're all assignments.
posted by headnsouth at 11:58 AM on August 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

In addition to what Guster said, I'm also gonna suggest taking up more reading. That'll familiarize yourself more with what's out there in terms of "things people write" as well as "how people write those things," and even reading something and realizing "well, THAT right there sucks" is an education - even reading shitty stuff, and realizing it's shitty, gives you an idea of what you shouldn't do.

But I'm gonna go back even further - and ask why you are trying to become a writer in the first place. I mean, is this something you want to do, or something that people are just saying you should do and you feel like it'd be letting them down if you didn't try?

Even if it is something you have a knack for, if it's not something you really want to do, you don't have to do it. (Like an old workmate said once, "even if you're hung like a moose, that still doesn't mean working in porn is the right thing for you.") So unless you really want to pursue this...maybe just, don't sweat it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:05 PM on August 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

Making a decent living from writing creatively is Professional Basketball Star/NASA Astronaut level unlikely. However, there are many, many jobs where your ability to articulate yourself clearly in writing will put you head and shoulders above the majority. In fact, if you pick just about any field, your writing skills can help move you from the lower parts of the hierarchy up into more interesting and well-compensated roles.

Anyway, I would start looking for job experience where being articulate and well educated will be valued, and not think about trying to make money as a writer.

If you want to write to express yourself, by all means pursue that, work on it every single day, get feedback and so forth, but I recommend separating that from your career goals.
posted by latkes at 12:05 PM on August 7, 2014 [5 favorites]

You can sign up for a freelance service and, yeah, they will tell you what topic they want you to write about. Some things will be fairly free form -- "we want you to bullshit your way through 500 words on BLAH!" -- and others will have very detailed (annoyingly so) instructions of exactly what you need to write, how you need to write it, etc. And then you get paid, even if you didn't enjoy doing it.

You can also start blogging. I had a blog for a time where my only real goal was to try to post something daily. I didn't always succeed but I did grow as a writer. I later dismantled that blog and some of those posts have been edited and reposted to various other sites with more specific subjects.

Getting to a point where something like a blog makes money is way more complicated than figuring out how to publish blog posts regularly but I highly recommend it as a means to develop your voice. It helps to have a particular person/audience in mind. My blog got jumpstarted when I was trying to make myself more available to a specific person in a very different time zone and email was not adequate to their needs. I began also blogging and that helped me start developing my voice/my writing.
posted by Michele in California at 12:07 PM on August 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

I write real estate appraisals. If you are able to understand the market forces and data about vacancy and lease rates and so forth, and if you're reasonably competent with Microsoft Word and Excel, you may be really good at this. I found a guy who was willing to hire someone with little (read: zero) real estate experience, and being someone who is very good at the reports and things you are also good at has been invaluable. Most of the other people in this industry are finance/business/economics types, but our actual product is a 60-70 page written report. So having legit writing skills makes me stand out.

I also don't particularly like it or find it fulfilling, which is one of your criteria. But if you're really stressing about a job... I've had worse.

Edit: I realize, I guess, that this isn't what your question is about. This won't help you develop as a writer beyond having you practice more report writing. But it is a way to use the skills you already have in the meantime.
posted by papayaninja at 12:40 PM on August 7, 2014

I'm a professional writer in the least romantic possible way - marketing for a consulting firm. You sound like me, at least in terms of the particular way you're good at writing. And I'd say you'd fit right in doing the work I do. I write about our projects, tuturial style stuff for our blog, newsletter and feature-length articles with subject matter experts, etc. Some of it is terribly boring, but some of it is pretty fun.

If you are, indeed, anything like me, you'll want to watch out for the horror that is the SEO content-by-the-foot bullshit job. Look around for content marketing or writing positions with non-marketing firms. Memail me if you want to discuss the specifics more candidly.
posted by that's candlepin at 12:41 PM on August 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: From the above book: In the introduction she says that "there's no such thing as a person who 'can't write.' Anyone can write, and anyone can write anything they need to. All that's needed is an understanding of the writing process, an understanding of the particular task you're working on, and a little dedication."

Hoo-boy. That's like saying everyone can act. Sure, I can act. I'm President Nixon, look I'm making victory signs with my fingers. Everyone can act, most everyone can write, but that doesn't mean they can do it well. And if you don't want to do it well, don't get into it. It will be a waste of time for you and for your potential readers.

The above goes on to say "a little dedication." A "little" dedication will get you nowhere. To get into writing, you need passion. I liken writing to being a master cabinet-maker. You can nail some boards together but if you want to be a craftsman, think about working and refining your technique over years, carving wood, learning polishing techniques. You are looking to be a craftsman with words. It takes love plus time.

Anyone can write a novel. Just keep going at it page after page. But unless you are willing to write a novel and throw it away because you were just learning, you are not willing to be a writer.

To be a writer you have to read. You need to love reading. If it helps, you can cut out reading dreck. You can read the greats among the writing styles and genres you enjoy, but you've got to read.

As has been said above, imitate voice. There was once a post on the front page with an author saying a writer should avoid imitating Raymond Chandler, Salinger, etc. mostly because he was tired of reading the poor imitations. I say: imitate them all. Find writers with strong voices and try to write in that voice. And if it's bad: throw it out and try again. You imitate a dozen voices of writers that you love and soon you'll find your voice: a mix of them and you.

You say you've got no ideas. Ideas are everywhere, we just crowd them out of our minds. Take a well-used idea. Combine it with another. Turn it on its head.

Try this. Read the first half of an acclaimed short story (that you are unfamiliar with) and write the second half. Compare it to the author's ending. Then write a different first half to match your ending.

Read a newspaper article and ask yourself: who does this story impact? What is that individual's story?

Here, I went to CNN International edition online and grabbed the top four headlines under "The Latest."

Hamas: We're ready to resume battle
Fears grow as Ebola toll rises
Hawaii in hurricane firing line
Khmer Rouge leaders jailed for life

Inside these are dozens of stories. A Palestinian surviving. An Israeli making hard decisions (pacifist? militarist?). A child. An old man who has seen this too many times. Ebola can make for a dozen thriller stories or maybe the personal story of one of the missionaries struggling with faith in the presence of horror.

There are too many ideas for any of us to write about. But then, I love writing.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 1:03 PM on August 7, 2014 [11 favorites]

If this isn't helpful to you then just brush it off, but from reading your question it doesn't sound like writing is for you. The fact that friends and family encourage you to write isn't unique or revealing of anything. Creative professions especially are filled with people whose support systems have told them them, "You should write!" or "You should be a singer!" or "How come you don't take photos professionally?" Respectfully, most of those people should keep their day jobs. Editors, publishers, and the marketplace are the experts on who "should" be writing for money. Not anyone's mom.

I'm looking at your post. You don't read. You aren't expressive, and you don't have original ideas or even ones you especially like. You don't stick with things, you aren't a hard worker, and you don't self-motivate. I'm not echoing these things to criticize you; none of them make you a bad person, and they shouldn't affect your self-confidence. There are contexts where you can excel with some of these traits. Many of them are common. Some you might think about working to change. But the point is, if you posted an AskMe asking what attributes are important for being a successful writer, you would get a script that's essentially opposite to what you've written about yourself.

Learning how to bullshit your way through classroom essays (your description) is not learning how to write. It's not even related. It is learning to bullshit your way through school, a separate and more common skill. Extrapolating one to the other is jumping over a chasm. You haven't experienced any "writerly lucidty." It doesn't sound like you've even completed any significant work ("emails"?), let alone sold or published. Those are all substantive experiences in their own right, with ups and downs and lessons.

The best career advice I ever received was three questions: "What gives you joy? Are you good at it? Does the world need you to do it?" You've asked us to ignore the first of those three, and that's fair because it's something only you can answer. But you're asking why you can't write, and the essential answer is that nothing you describe about yourself here indicates that you would be able to. People have different aptitudes. You've framed the issue as a mystery, but it doesn't convey as one. I'm genuinely sorry for your frustration and I wish you luck.
posted by cribcage at 1:14 PM on August 7, 2014 [16 favorites]

Here's a link to my blog where I give all of the assignments for the entire semester course (designed for 11th-12th graders, most bound for Ivy League, who want to build their writing repertoire). This is obviously a self-link.
posted by guster4lovers at 1:41 PM on August 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I say the best way to escape the English class mindset is to forget about the obsession with pretty sentences and to resist the flattery that you might get from A's on papers about The Scarlet Letter or whatever. I loved all those classes and what I learned about literature, but it is also a good way to get addicted to sounding flowery and self-important. The approval is like crack and can blind you to what you really like doing or making.

(I'm only thinking of this because you kept using the word "writerly," which sounds like something I would have said in my 20s while trying to impress my aunt who wrote poems, but wish I hadn't.)

About the money part, the world of freelance writing is mostly terrible and exploitative, although there is more hardcore advertising/marketing money out there. But if you feel any type of call to express yourself, I would recommend doing this instead, while funding yourself through just about any other type of job.

Otherwise, bit by bit, you can find you have sacrificed what you really want to write or make, for what some boss will pay you (in incredibly small amounts, unless you get seriously into advertising copy and stuff like that.) Blogging is a good idea. Blog about stuff you like, though.

If you are 25, there is plenty of time to do something wild now and then be a copywriter or whatever later if you want.
posted by johngoren at 1:43 PM on August 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

I had a work colleague who faced the exact same problem. Her first instinct was to follow her parental advice to go to law school and she managed to find an in house job at a design firm. Then, she started writing romance novels in her spare time, she was 28, and got a three book deal. She still has her job writing legal documents for a design firm.

I would say your probably in the position to ask those who encourage you to write to pay you to do so. Ask them, what do you want to read that I wrote, and would you pay me to write my heart out? If they balk, tell them they can have 60% of the royalty if they think it's good enough to get published. Get the money up front as a signing bonus and agree a date to deliver a final draft. You will have to possibly pay for an editor and you might decide to go to a place where your writing will really take off, perhaps you would like to write one book in a place where you could see yourself living always or worth your time to get to know. Having a schedule for writing over the next year or two would a great way to transition back into the workforce with novel entrepreneurship, if you'll please excuse the p
Work at a bar or a job that might help you define a character. Use that as your way in, as an excuse to learn all about what it takes to do a job well.
posted by parmanparman at 1:44 PM on August 7, 2014

Meant you're in second paragraph!
posted by parmanparman at 1:51 PM on August 7, 2014

Making a decent living from writing creatively is Professional Basketball Star/NASA Astronaut level unlikely

First of all, this is just factually false. There are about 300 players in the NBA at any given time and most of them are not "stars;" there are, I imagine, even fewer astronauts. Becoming a world-famous millionaire novelist might be equivalent to one of those things, but a ton of people make a living writing.

There's a lot of good advice here, but I'll add this:

I was a bit like you- always A's in English, always told I was "good" at "writing." Then I tried to take up screenwriting and- guess what? I was terrible. I had never considered character, theme, story structure - any of the nuts and bolts of what makes a pro a pro.

"Writing" is too broad a category to really be useful. Each type of writing has its own unique skill set. I'd suggest picking a focus and seeking out a good teacher or program to learn that specific type of writing. For me, a community college class in Screenwriting really did the trick, because the instructor was very engaged in down-to-Earth "this is what it takes" nuts-and-bolts, as opposed to theory and academic abstractions.
posted by drjimmy11 at 1:53 PM on August 7, 2014 [4 favorites]

I write for a living, and like you, I always received excellent scores in English classes. I even landed a fiction scholarship in college.

I was corresponding recently with a college-bound friend of the family about her interest in a writing life. She seemed to have this idea that any writing job would involve typewriters, smudged ink, long hours, and drafty garrets. Fingerless gloves and penny-penching. I had to explain to her that it's really laptops and interminable conference calls and SharePoint, and in my case of working at home, yoga pants and long walks with my dog to get ideas flowing.

She had no idea that most lucrative writing jobs are business-to-business. There's only a handful of writers and bloggers who can support themselves through writing alone, but financially stable technical and business writers are legion.

The advice you receive above is all pretty much true. I'm a proposal writer now, but I've done my fair share of marketing writing, technical writing, and editing. There's nothing romantic or emotional about what I do. But I have found that being a solid writer has opened a lot of doors for me professionally & allows me to make a comfortable living doing something that comes very naturally to me. My work doesn't often feel like work.

There's no magic to any of the writing jobs I've had: You show up, you treat your subject matter experts and reviewers with kindness and respect, you don't grouse the editor, and you turn good copy in on time. That's it. Although my work is assigned to me, I enjoy the creative part of finding the right balance of information and making concepts clear to a variety of readers. I'm fortunate to have strengths in that area.

The more I learn about writing, the easier my job becomes. I love fiction writing and I get a lot out of fiction workshops. I took a screenwriting class several years ago and I find that I use lessons from that class pretty much every day in the professional world. The most helpful lesson from screenwriting was that all the pretty language in the world means nothing unless you've got a good story. That applies to every type of writing. If you want to be a pop culture blogger, do it because you have a fresh perspective on pop culture. If you want to be a grantwriter, do it because you have a unique way of positioning an appeal.

Remember: Strong writing skills are essential most other jobs, too. It's helpful in anything client-facing, like project management, customer support, or account management. I'm often shocked by the number of talented business people who lack decent writing skills, but that means more opportunities for solid writers who are talented in multiple ways.
posted by mochapickle at 2:37 PM on August 7, 2014 [5 favorites]

I was always good at the craft of stringing words together, but lacking in the self-motivation to sit down and write a novel. So I became a journalist. Not as fancy-sounding as being a novelist - you're a hack writing what needs written for cash - but, like you, I didn't have a novel inside me trying to burn its way out, so didn't feel unfulfilled.

It felt like a massive privilege in two ways:
1. I got paid a salary to write every day. A salary! For writing! I had job security but still got to spend eight hours every day wrangling lovely words, getting them in exactly the right order, polishing them until they had turned the chaotic real world into a neat 400 word story.
2. I knew that within hours of finishing it, 40,000 people would read my words in print, with my name on them.

Both of those things felt like a great thrill, that more than made up for not having my own individual voice.

Less enjoyable, but completely necessary for me to be able to write daily, was that I got the motivation I was lacking in the form of a stern news editor who needed me to fill pages every single day and wasn't letting anyone out of the building until the paper was full.

Being able to write well is not the only job requirement for being a writer, it turns out, so sometimes you have to find ways to plug the gaps in your skills and live gracefully with your shortcomings.
posted by penguin pie at 3:14 PM on August 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

when people chime in with suggestions on how to fix that, they can't understand why I poo-poo the idea of writing professionally out of hand.

Most people have no conception of how difficult writing professionally is or how little money there is in it. My mother doesn't understand why I haven't written the next Harry Potter by now. Ignore them.

Also, don't go into writing. I know you said not to say this, but seriously, don't. You don't sound like you have much of a passion for it besides "hmm, writing, that worked out OK in college I guess," and the market is flooded not only with professional writers who can't find enough work to make rent but every 25-year-old English-major millennial straight outta Avenue Q in the world. It's a fucking terrible idea to go into writing even if you have a passion for it and would rather die than do anything else. Why would you do this to yourself - your 25-year-old self trying to bum around, your 35-year-old self trying to settle down or start a family or buy a house, your 65-year-old self trying to retire, except oh wait you can't because you had a string of crappy writing jobs - if you're ambivalent about it?

And also: This is going to be very blunt, but most colleges have heavy grade inflation, particularly in the humanities. Just because you got A's on your papers doesn't make you an outstanding writer.
posted by dekathelon at 3:33 PM on August 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh, and one more thing: This literally went up seven hours ago and is a pretty accurate depiction of what you'd be getting into: Freelancing Sucks
posted by dekathelon at 3:42 PM on August 7, 2014

In addition to what Guster said, I'm also gonna suggest taking up more reading.

Absolutely, this. It's the only thing you can count on to give your style some maturity, and to deepen your worldview. I wouldn't say your style is terribly immature for your age-- even if your AskMe posts are your best writing, which I'm sure they're not intended to be. But at 25, why wouldn't you want to mature and gain sophistication?

I'm sure there are writers who don't read, but I think it's something that happens; it's not a good plan.
posted by BibiRose at 3:48 PM on August 7, 2014

I actually wonder if part of the problem is just that the weight of the expectations you (and others) place on your writing is so heavy that it squashes nascent ideas before they even have time to grow and develop. Instead of "developing an original idea," maybe try focusing on suspending judgement about whether something is "original" until after you have at least part of a draft. Instead of worrying about not having a "consistent inner voice" or "worldview" maybe just try a wide variety of stuff out and then identify the themes you keep coming back to after the fact. (As an aside, many artists actually reinvent their art over and over, so not having a consistent voice can actually be reframed as an asset: there are fans of both tonal and atonal Schonberg, acoustic and electric Dylan, Radiohead before and after Kid A, etc., etc.) Anyway, a lot of people here are prescribing practice because practice is what helps you work through these types of questions, instead of banging your head against the impossible task of deducing the answers from first principles.

The stuff about not reading does seem counterproductive to me. If it's about preference, it's true that there are some musicians who are very picky listeners (Aphex Twin comes to mind) so I don't think it's an impossible situation, just unusual. However, it occurs to me that your reasons for not reading may be more physical or neurosensory than about preference, in which case maybe there are other ways you can enjoy text, like books on tape. Also, my mom has problems with vertigo that make reading printed text hard, but text on a computer seems to be a lot easier for her to engage with. And so forth.

Re: not being able to finish anything labor intensive, I wouldn't beat myself up too much about this. A lot of people struggle to motivate themselves to do things, even when they enjoy the end product or the bits along the way where they can see it start to materialize, so you're not alone. And the other good news is that this is something you can get better at over time, though it might be slow and halting progress -- I am certainly a much more industrious person than I was in, say, college for a whole variety of reasons, but like anyone else I have days where I feel a real rush of productivity and days where it feels like I didn't accomplish shit. Anyway, "The Now Habit" is an AskMe classic (and for good reason) for working through issues about procrastination, which will serve you well no matter what you decide to go into.

Good luck.
posted by en forme de poire at 12:46 AM on August 8, 2014

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