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Writing Tips

Stuart McLean: A question of belief

Best-selling author, award-winning journalist and humorist, and host of CBC Radio program The Vinyl Cafe, on the hardest part of writing. 

I think the question writers most often get from people who are not writers, but think they would like to be, is "Where do you get your ideas"—which I don't mind telling you can be a frustrating question after a while. Mostly, I think, because lurking behind it is the notion, that getting ideas is the hardest part of writing. Getting ideas is not the hardest part of writing. 

Ideas, it turns out, are a dime a dozen. The hardest part of writing... well, there are lots of hard parts of writing... but without trying to be a smart aleck, I think the hardest part of writing is the writing. That is, the doing of it. I think the biggest difference between me and you, if you are someone who isn't a writer and would like to be, is a question of belief. I believe that I am a writer and you don't. And that means I am ready to do all the things you have to do to come up with something that someone will publish. And mostly that means keeping at it.

You should know that my first drafts are probably not much better than your first drafts, and my ideas are certainly no better than your ideas. The difference is I don't expect my first drafts to be any good. In fact, mostly I expect them to be lame. What I do expect is, that if I keep at it and write draft two and three and then show draft four to my editor Meg and incorporate her suggestions into draft five, that maybe by draft six or seven, when Vinyl Café producer Jess Milton starts fiddling with it, that we might come up with something... well, that will be good enough. The idea we started with is not nearly as important as the fact that we started—and most importantly, kept going. The most important thing, then, if you want to be a writer, is to find something to get you going. What usually works for me is a deadline. Sign up for a writer's class, join a writer's group, look into the Young Writer's Group online, volunteer for a local paper... do whatever you have to do so that someone somewhere is expecting you to hand them something. That will get you going. Make it as good as you can make it, and then show it to someone and listen to what they have to say and then go at it again.

If that sounds like fun to you, then maybe you are a writer. If it sounds like lunacy... if it sounds like torture, you're probably right too.

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