So you want to be a writer?

by , Friday July 31, 2015
So you want to be a writer?


Writing advice from author and lecturer of creative writing, Julia Bell!



One of the great things about the internet is that we’re all writers now. In the past non-writers might have penned a few letters or dictated telegrams, but we weren’t involved in the daily business of sending thousands of text messages or twitter feeds or status updates. We might have written journals, or secretly scribbled a short story or pieces of fan fiction, but there were no places where you could share them. Technology has turned everyone into a writer, whether they think of themselves as a writer or not. But how to make that leap from writing a witty tweet to becoming a published writer? I’ve been running an MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck for over 10 years now, below is a distillation of some of the advice I give most often to students who come on the course.


  1. Write everyday. Turn your desire to write into a habit so it becomes the thing you do first thing when you wake up and your head is still a bit fuzzy with dreams and you’re not self conscious – some of my best ideas come first thing in the morning.

  2. Edit last. Don’t start editing til you’ve got some words on the page. You need to turn out a Frankendraft which is the story you tell yourself – it will be monstrous, full of mistakes, and need editing, but until you’ve done that you’ll have no idea what kind of story you have on your hands. If you edit too tightly before you write the first draft you’ll never get into the story.

  3. Read. Other writers are your friends and teachers. You can lean as much from a badly written book as from a good one. Also it’s a good idea to surround yourself with stories so you have lots of ideas to steal from.

  4. Steal. What?! You’re suggesting I plagiarise? Isn’t that breaking the law or something? Not quite. It’s more like remixing, taking something familiar and adding your own style, filtered through your own imagination. TS Eliot said ‘good writers borrow, great writers steal’ which just means that you are aware of all the books/movies/stories/art that has influenced your work. See here this Pinterest Board of all the other works that went into The Dark Light. My book has references to all of them in some way, but it’s still very much my own book. It also refers back to point 3 – the more you read the more books you’ll have to steal from.

  5. Mix it up. Write everything – poetry, plays, stories, diaries. Why limit yourself to one genre or style. It’s only by trying out different voices and genres that you’ll find the ones that suit you the best.

  6. Get Physical. One of the things novice writers often forget is to make the world they create physical and real. Human beings experience the world through their senses, so too for your characters. Essentially I meant that you need to make abstracts concrete. Instead of telling me that you character is angry show me how that is embodied. How does that emotion affect your characters’ experience and behaviour? How does being angry make your characters act?

  7. Stories are experiences. Good stories are experiences for the reader – this means that the reader will get involved – they’ll take the characters into their imaginations, they’ll LOVE them. But for this to happen it has to happen to you too – you need to experience the story along with the characters. Thinking about the physical environment and the body of your character helps you get inside their head but your story is not an essay – it’s a story – let the meaning emerge don’t try and control it.

  8. Submit. This means entering competitions or sending your work out to agents, or putting it online for feedback or even showing it to your friends. No writer ever emerged without a reader. If you want people to read your work you’ve got to go public with it at some point even if it scares you.

  9. Take a course. A good writing course will help you improve, give you feedback, suggest writers to read you might not have thought of, and you’ll have fun. Make sure to look up all the information you can find about where you want to study. The Arvon Foundation runs great residential courses at various centres around the UK which is a great – and very sociable way – to dip your toes in the water.

  10. Keep Going. Here’s the tough bit – showing up to write even when you don’t feel like it is hard. But the difference between the writers who make it and those who don’t is bum in the seat. Persistence and practise always pay off. Often after an MA course students will quit writing but those who don’t are the ones who get published. They’ve turned the practise into a habit and they’ve got something they are burning to say.




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