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Guest Blog: How to be a writer

From time to time twentysix likes to open their doors to the marketing stars of the future by providing internship opportunities to students and graduates. One recent intern who impressed us was aspirant copy writer Jess Dixon. Here’s a piece she wrote for us about the art of good writing –  a cracking read for anyone with dreams of being the next Hillary Mantel, but also packed with good lessons for professional content writers. Jess made a great impression during her time in the office and we’re sure that we’ll be hearing a lot more about her in the future…

I was a writer as soon as I could read – perhaps even earlier. I do not remember a time when I wasn’t making up stories, even if they usually stayed in my head. I was the child who was constantly told off at school for gazing into nowhere instead of working.

Words are powerful. Words are what get politicians into office, what make or break relationships, what make us want to buy the products we see in those oh-so-cleverly-worded advertisements, what make us laugh or cry or lose ourselves in fantasy worlds.

What do the 10 most successful advertising campaigns of all time have in common? Words, of course. A pretty picture of the product you’re trying to sell is all well and good, but it’s the words that make the difference, whether it’s a snappy one-liner (“Everything you ever wanted in a beer. And less.”) a question asked of the viewer (“Does she… or doesn’t she?”) or a clever pun (“Absolut impotence.”) The words are what stick with you, what make the campaigns so compelling.

Ask almost anybody, and they will be able to quote at least one memorable advertisement. Writers will always be in demand in the marketing world, because they are the people who know how to get into the mind of the target audience. I believe that writers are born. If your imaginary friends as a child were unusually vivid, if you reach for the journal to share your deepest secrets, if you can think of no greater joy than crafting a sentence that makes you shiver, a trail of words so beautiful you can barely believe it came from your own head, then you might be a writer. But like a painter, a musician or a sculptor, a writer must learn and study and practice to develop his or her craft. The desire to write cannot be instilled if it is not there; but writing itself, contrary to popular belief, can be taught. And this is exactly why, three years ago, I enrolled on a degree programme in Creative Writing.

I was lucky enough to study with some brilliant tutors, all practising writers in their various fields. What I learned turned me from somebody with the raw material of lots of ideas, to a potentially publishable author. While it is often said that the greatest rule of writing is that there are no rules, I thought that I would share some of the most important tips I picked up during those three years. Perhaps they will make you a better writer. I know they did for me

  1. Always think of your reader. If your aim is publication, you must let go of your own ego and think about who will be reading your work. That passage of endless description might be some of the most exquisite prose you’ve ever turned out, but your reader might be nodding off as they wait for something to happen. Picture your ideal reader, and keep them in mind. Even better, find someone who fits the profile of this reader and ask them for an honest critique.
  2. Show, don’t tell. A cliché, but for good reason. The reader doesn’t want to be told “he was angry,” “she was happy.” They want to see the character, feel the emotion. You need to paint the scene on the page with your words.
  3. Your life experience is valuable. Use it – wisely! This is a slightly altered version of ‘write what you know.’ Each of us has a deep well of experience upon which to draw for our writing. This is not to say that everything you write has to – or even should – have autobiographical undertones, and be very careful of the Mary Sue (a character which is clearly a thinly disguised version of the author.) But mine your experience for ideas. Use your emotional memory to create believable, sympathetic characters and situations. You never know when a moment might spark a novel.
  4. Don’t be afraid of controversy. “You can’t write about that!” I’ve been told, more than once. Ignore anyone who ever uses these words. You can write about whatever you like, no matter how controversial or shocking. In fact, controversial and shocking are good (as long as they’re not purely gratuitous.) Write about the difficult moral questions. Write about the things that hold an uncomfortable mirror up to society. One of my favourite tutors once told me “no-one wants to read stories where everything is happy and fluffy all the time!”
  5. Edit, edit, edit, edit. Even the greatest authors in the world have, at some point, churned out a terrible first draft. Your first draft is supposed to be awful – that’s why you never, ever, under any circumstances, submit it for publication. Write it, immerse yourself in it, and don’t edit as you go along. Get the raw material down on paper, then go back and chisel away at it until you’ve created something beautiful.

But above all, believe in what you write. You must have absolute conviction in the essential truth of what you’re writing – even if it is fiction. Believe me; your audience will know if you don’t. All the technique in the world cannot put heart into something if it isn’t there. Don’t write anything that doesn’t fire you up, excite you and make you burn with the need to get it all down on paper. You know you have struck gold when the ink flows as freely as the blood in your veins, and the words seem as essential as the air you breathe.

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