How to Write, Part Three

First of all, I want to again thank everyone who wrote to express their sympathy for … well, what I wrote in My Stepmother Passed Away. I’m going to wait a day or two to see if any more such comments come in; I’ll then gather them into a single document and mail them to my father. He’ll cry to read them, I know. So again let me thank you all for the role you’ve played and will play yet in my family’s processing of this sadness.

So then: Back to the writing stuff. (If you’re … new here, or whatever, first I wrote How To Make a Living Writing; then How To Make a Living Writing, Part Two; then Writing: Don’t Get Me Started; then my poor stepmother became late; and now … here we be, G.)

I’m starting to feel a little pretentious offering writing advice; already I can barely stop myself from growing a goatee, smoking a pipe, and assuming a forlorn, haunted expression. Writing’s an art; producing art is as personal as personal gets; trying to guide anyone’s who’s producing art via General Principles or (where’s my pipe!) Sagacious Insights, is like trying to show someone a rose over the phone.

Oh, wait. You can do that now.

Wow! It’s moments just like this that make you realize how soon it’s going to be before you start rethinking just how funny all the bizzaro geriatric equipment at the drugstore really is.

Okay, this could be another such “Are We Old Yet?” moment: Today, at the gym I joined about three weeks ago, I blithley walked into the ladies’ locker room.  Absolutely unbelievable. I was like Bigfoot having a heart attack in a harem.

I can’t think about it. It’s too painful. Let’s move on.

Right. Writing.

So here’s some advice I actually have given newerish-type writers. You pretend you’re a newbie writer to whom I’m giving advice, and I’ll pretend I’m a wizened, insightful writer who’s never strolled soaking wet into women’s locker room while wearing a Speedo:

“Young (or relatively inexperienced) writer! Listen to me! For verily do I have for you some top-drawer Writing Advice that’s actually real and true. Ready? Here it is: It’s not about you.

“You want to be a writer, right? Well, what people usually mean when they say that is that they’re very keen on communicating to the world what it’s like to be, specifically, them: to have their unique vision, their ideas, their sensibilities, their relationships, their experiences, their … whole thing. Right? And that makes perfect sense: What is art, if not an expression of individuality?

“Without question, a monumental part of being an artist is identifying, corralling, and ultimately allowing to dominate the process by which you express it the very essence of who you are. An artist must find his own voice, period. (And we can certainly talk about that process if … if anyone’s still reading this series.)

“But another massive, indispensable part of being an artist — of being a writer — is understanding that everything in the world has its own truth, a truth that doesn’t have anything whatsoever  to do with you. People who want to write are often so wrapped up in what they think about a thing that they never let that thing tell them what to think about it. Things — people, relationships, experiences, virtually everything — have their own integrity, their own dynamic, their own process, context, purpose, rhythm, reason. If you really want to be a writer, you have to learn to wipe out all your ideas and preconceptions about as much stuff as you possibly can, and let whatever it is that has your attention tell and show you what it is.”

Okay, that’s enough now with the quotes / fake speech-making.

Here’s the bottom line: Someone who is more interested in themselves than they are the world at large probably won’t make it as a writer. You have to be insanely empathetic to be a writer. To be a writer you have to think everything is more interesting than you.

Writing isn’t about exercising your ego. It’s about erasing your ego. It’s about getting out of the way of whatever needs to be said, so that it can be said in a way that does justice to the thing that’s telling you what you need to say about it.

Would-be writers are forever wanting to share themselves with the world. Fair enough; that’s a big part of writing, for sure. But if, in being totally honest with yourself, you find that you are more interested in sharing yourself with the world than you are with, in essence, sharing the world with the world, then save yourself the trouble, and stop imagining you’re a writer. You’re not.

Lucky you. You’re normal.

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  • Hey, wait a sec…you're beginning to make me think I could try my hand at something other than technical writing (which I can do pretty well, but is insanely boring and no one wants to read). Yes, please write about finding one's own voice as a writer…if for no other reason than so I can learn what on EARTH that means.

  • samwrites2


    I think you're ready to teach J-School. Roy Hamric, now a freelancer in Thailand, drove the same points you made above (well, not ALL of them – but the 'It's not about you one') when he taught persuasive writing/magazine writing at University of Texas at Arlington and Baylor University.

    Once he had all his neophyte students write a pursuasive piece in first-person. Then he had them go back and re-write it, striking out every "I." Tough one.

    Thank you so much for bringing memories like that back.

    The point about telling others' stories to the world is well-made. That's what attracted me to writing – being the first to get needed information out or writing a profile about an interesting person – such as your excellent, moving entry about your late step-mother.

    I aspire to your level of writing.

    Thanks again,


  • I've never taken a writing class or read a book on the subject. I'm not proud of that at all; I think I would have learned a lot if I had, and imagine I'd have saved myself years upon years of struggle. But I was just always … really stubborn/arrogant that way. Stupid. Or not. I'll never know, of course.

  • As a professional journalist, I agree. It's really hard to write an article in the first person and say anything that anyone wants to hear, unless of course, you have a Name. A wise old editor once told me that first-person writing, unless it's done really well, engenders a "who cares?" response from the reader. Bottom line: It's all about them: the readers. They're thier own favorite subject, and the second you stray from offering them information of value, or that entertains them, you're toast. An article can't make little squeaking noises or a loud honk to get their attention back. They've turned the page or turned on the TV. Now, students, isn't it interesting that John's writing, though strongly first-person (in that his personality pulses through every line), is invariably entertaining and/or relevant to us, his readers? Well, almost always. I didn't read his blog on "top ten qualities to look for in a wife." Eh. Who cares?

  • Well, now, if you didn't READ the "Top 10" thing, how do you know you DON'T care about what it says? (And it feels … obnoxious to say this, but that particular post has proven to be my most-read one yet.)

    But thank you, of course. What you've said is very kind.

    (Hey! I just noticed! The above comment was from FAMOUS WRITER DEBRA LEE BALDWIN!

    I need to go put her on my link list right now.

  • tam

    Can we please read more about the lockerroom incident?

  • Wait! Come to think of it, I did read the top 10 wife things, and even forwarded it to my husband. It was really good. Sorry, John, I meant that the one I didn't read was about finding Mr. Right, because, well, I already have. To make the point that no matter how good the writing is, if if doesn't have relevance to the reader, it won't get read. Unless it's entertaining. And you, John, are amazingly entertaining. Thanks for the compliment, btw, and if what I have to say has credibility, then I think all your bloggees should know that I think you're one of the finest nonfiction writers on the planet, because of your engaging style, humor — oh, humor is SO hard to do! — and because you're wise. You can basically blather on, and it's all good. I bow to the master.

  • Whoa. That was …. blush-inducing. Thank you so … extremely much. And it's very kind of you to call me "the master." But I think we all know whose books are actually SELLING more, don't we, Ms. Master?

    Tam: No, we canNOT read more about me not even REALIZING I was in the woman's locker room until I was practically wearing a bra and panties. No. NO.

  • sheryl

    "It’s not about you". OUCH, that hurt Mr. Shore. Your advise has given me a lot to think about. What I got from your words is that you are asking us to think outside the box (sorry for the chiche), to have an open mind, and to put ourselves on the backburner (sorry for another cliche). I'm wondering if I have what it takes, and fearing that maybe I don't. The only one I know how to write about is myself. And I'm as opinionated as they come.


  • Writing does come in a variety of flavors and writing for the sake of art is often different than writing for a living. The need to please a client or to reach a specific audience demands that the writer care more for others than himself.

    I learned this the hard way by getting fired form the only real writing job I ever had. In the end it was my ego that got the better of me.

    Looking back, the thing that ended up getting me was my unwillingness to accept criticism. I fought my editor, thinking that she was the enemy when in fact she was the one thing that might have saved my job.

    Anyone out there who wants to be a professional writer must teach ego to stay out of the way. A successful writer must understand that constructive criticism is their best friend. In the hand of a talented editor, the red pencil ultimately leads to a better product, and that is what matters.

    Thanks for the series. I hope you continue!

  • Kath

    Hmmm… my favorite stuff to read is usually first person nonfiction — the locker room incident, for example (since we all just read about it — hope you’re not trying to move on from that, John).

    But I think keeping the reader’s interest is getting to be harder and harder. I’m working with an editor who wants increasingly sensationalistic stuff. Obviously she thinks that it’s got to be pretty far out there to get read. Anyway, that’s where I think we’ve wound up (realizing this means I’m old enough to have a perspective on “we” and “wound up”) — interesting is not enough, well written is not enough, surprising / clever is not enough — it’s got to be almost shocking to get attention, to rise above the noise.

    Hmmm… I’m discovering I have some pretty deep feelings on the subject. I wonder what you think about this — any experiences of the same?

  • samwrites2


    I echo John's comment on your situation. The "if it bleeds it leads" mentality irks. The other comment I've heard frequently in newsrooms is "Too bland. Sensationalize the hell out of it."

    But there is some hope.

    Remember the Branch-Davidian incident back in Feb.-April 1993? I worked at the Waco Tribune-Herald.

    Since then, two of the assistant editors on the desk at the time – Michael Copeland and Lisa Neslony, and the photographer I worked with Brian (can't remember last name – Sorry B) became pastors. They grieved over the spiritual war that was going on and especially over the children that died April 18.

    I grant you that there are editors out there with nothing more on their minds than meeting a publisher's mandate to boost circulation to bring in more ad revenue.

    But for every fearmonger I've met there has been at least two genuine human beings working as editors who were more adamant about putting the list of Red Cross relief centers high on the page than showing a photo of someone left homeless by a tornado.


  • Writing's not about me. Living a Christ-filled life is not about me. My relationship with my families is not about me. Jeez, so what is about me?!

    I guess some answers would be pride and arrogance and those aren't good things. Maybe I should just keep the focus off myself…

  • Kath

    Sam, thanks so much for telling me about the editors/photog who became pastors as a result of their experiences in Waco. Wow!

  • Hey John! First-time visitor, first-time commenter. Nice shave!

    I couldn’t agree with you more about perspective, but I have a different way to say it.

    When a student told me she had no material, I advised her to remember the most humiliating moment she could think of and think hard about how it made her feel, then tell the story from the perspective of the person who humiliated her. Worked for her.

  • David: Thanks for stopping by and leaving this MOST excellent writing excercise. What a good one. I’ll bet that DID work for her.

    imabbb: Good stuff. Thanks.

    Kath: I hate your editor.

  • John, I just happened accross your blog this morning and had to read all that I had missed in your ‘writing’ series. It was very interesting. I appreciate all the advice you’re willing to give. I too would like to read more on ‘finding your voice’.

    While I am not an aspiring writer like a lot of your other commentors, I do write a couple of blogs and would like to write something worth reading, at least to someone. I hope you continue with this series as it is a lot easier for me to read a post at a time than picking up a whole book.

  • samwrites2

    Realized gave wrong date of Branch-Davidian conflaguration. Correct date should be April 19, 1993. Sorry. Should have checked the gold memorial letter opener Cox Communications awarded us with the dates inscribed.

  • just happen to pass by and came in because of what i saw in the window….great post…just started writing myself and have no formal education…other than an imagination…. a lot of what you say is true…and enlightening…thank you…btw, sorry to hear of your stepmum's passin…but you probably already know…absent from the body is present with the lord…amen

  • namesake

    Keep going, John! The inspiration and possibilities are mounting as I digest your thoughts. Who knows, I might even find my voice someday! Don't quit on me now.

  • Trace

    Hello. My name is Trace. And I am a doink.

    So, it's my ego that's been in the way all along? I wish I could tell you that's the first time I've been told that. I just never realized it applied to writing. Duh.

    Truly eyeopening. Thank you. Please tell us more.

  • I barged into the girls restroom at a high-school sporting event. Since everyone waited until the break to run to the restroom, it was packed! Must have been like 20 set of eyes on me. The young lady right in front of me gasps and blurts out, “Is this the men’s room?” I feel bad not taking the time to properly respond but humor and terror are hard emotions to merge. Well, for me.

    Thanks for continuing this series John. In my poems I tell stories from different points of view. So I write first person as someone or something or some group of people. Is this kinda what you’re talking about here? Or are poets just too weird?

  • First time visitor/commentor. Great thoughts on writing. I've been trying to "find my voice" in a manuscript, but so much of what I've written sounds like a freaking autobiography by a not-famous person. (If I'm bored with it, and I wrote it, what will other people think??) I actually started a blog to process my thoughts and get some feedback. I'm going to add you to my favorites and keep reading (and add you to my blogroll when I have enough "friends"). If you have time to check my blog, any advice on how to improve would be welcome. Meanwhile, I'll process this entry and try to reduce the number of times I say "I", "me", or "my".

    Death to the ego. 🙂

  • tam

    I am still holding out for more info on the lockerroom… you were almost in a bra and panties before you realized? This is getting good.

    Ric… feel free to share more info about the restroom incident.

  • nrichie2345

    great tips! you’re right on the dot in stating that writers need to step outside of themselves and self-absorbed views and see the world head on.

  • I came across your blog this morning like LittleWing ("what I saw in the window") and am wowed! THIS is EXACTLY the writerly blog I was hoping to find on wordpress. I wanna RSS it and add it to both my blogrolls as well as add a link to your blog from my main web site. I've gotta read your earlier entries in this series. In all my "How To Write" library, I don't recall a more important piece of advice than what you give right here. And you presented it in an engaging manner that takes some–but thankfully not all–the sting out of it's slap to the ego. Thank you, John!

  • Tam: Okay, so you’ve definitely cleared up the mystery of why your blog is called Bare Thoughts.

  • tam

    It was a mystery? 😉

  • Thank you, John, for your help. I have started my own blog a couple of weeks ago. There I tell stories of my life that are really personal I have a tiny amount of readers but they seem to be interested. I only tell about me and my experiences. Am I wrong?

  • ann

    Wow, I typed ‘how to make a living as a writer’ into Google and your articles landed at the top of the search engine. You write this book and I’ll write “How NOT to Make a Living as a Writer” because I’m an expert.

    Actually, I haven’t been trying to survive as a writer, yet, so I’m not allowed to complain. I’ve been surviving as something else and getting up before dawn to write. Only recently it occurred to me that people do this during normal business hours and still pay their bills. Where are these mysterious people? What’s the secret handshake?

    Having some sort of portfolio seems a reasonable requirement, like having a resume. Sending articles to the local newsrag and free periodicals in my neighborhood is a BRILLIANT idea. Thank you so much!

  • Wow. A good post. But I felt like you came right to the edge of the point…and then turned around and went home. True, it's not always about you. But it's also not always about the art. What writing IS about–always, regardless of the genre–is the reader. For any writer, I believe, the reader should be first in mind. This is why the concept of "literary fiction" or "high art" disgusts me, because most of the time those products are beyond the understanding of 99% of the people who experience them. Just tell a story that's enthralling and understandable. That's what makes a good writer.

    -Mark P.

  • Yeah, but there's a whole universe in that "just," isn't there?

  • Pam

    I just read your first article on How to Write, and your statement that a good writer must think that "everything is more interesting than" himself was the most encouraging insight I've been given. Thanks.


  • Thanks, Pam. And I do think that's the thing. Because otherwise the passion in which your writing is grounded is YOU, which … always fails. Being fascinated by something/everything that's NOT you creates the basis from which good writing can grow: humility, passion, care, respect, a desire to share. That's what it's all about.

  • Manuel

    A little off topic. The discussion here and the things you wrote about made me want to go ahead and publish the books I wrote as I have them in my computer for years. I am also an aspiring writer and I appreciate if you could tell me where I could find a good agent to represent my books to the publishers. Thanks!

  • Latoya

    I suddenly feel wierd calling you “John”. You are now the wise person now that I have to call Mr. Shore. Great article, looking forward to reading the rest.