Back when I was your age, I had to walk 20 miles to school and churn my own butter. I only had one pair of shoes and got a new dress at Easter––which I wore to eat the goose I plucked myself…oh, good Lord! I’m not from the Downton Abbey or Mad Men era waxing nostalgic for “the good ol’ days.” In fact, I’m Gen X like the most of you, and hoping good days are coming.
We were all young once, but something has been happening recently that makes me want to slap the kids of today. It’s not ubiquitous Snapchat videos, the Instagram cappuccino shots, or fascination with tattoos.
It’s confusing passion for grit.
Several sweet, hopeful Belgians have announced at the tender age of mid-twenties that they want to be English-language writers and asked me for advice. To which I say, go for it! But some of them have stated wanting to do it–because they really, really want to–as their business model.
Here’s the deal: You cannot replace hard work and experience with passion (I use that dreadful word deliberately). Loving something intensely is the motivator, the raison d’être for working hard—not the substitute.
So when you ask me “What do I have to do to be a good English copywriter/journalist/scriptwriter?” And I say (condensing what my amazing, well-known English professors taught me for the price of a home mortgage):
- Read Some More—This Time, Critically
- Write Every Day
Do not answer with “Ugh, I hate reading” or “Everyone thinks my English is terrific.”
Your English sucks—like it’s supposed to in the beginning. That’s the magic! You never perfect writing. It’s a struggle that improves but can never be mastered. There is no perfect painting, no perfect song, no perfect film and no perfect writing; it’s a perpetual aspiration. Thank God! You will never get bored.
If you LOOOOOVE your profession, then you’ll do the work that comes with it. Imagine if artists said, “I hate going to exhibitions, museums and galleries,” or if aspiring rockers said “Who needs to listen to guitars?” Writers (including this one): your job is reading, writing, subjecting your work to cruel editors. In short, exposing yourself–the sucky, imperfect writing–to better yourself.
Wanting to so badly is no vaccination against inadequacy.
If I sound smug, it’s because I’ve been battered so long, I know the other side. The peace (and paycheck) that comes with paying your dues and accepting English mastery is a long process is a gratifying realization. And this comes from someone who had all the advantages: 18 years of English-language education, growing up in omnipresent English language environment and 2 writer parents who doubled as the Oxford dictionary. But even those privileges didn’t excuse the papers I had to write, the critique I had to receive, and the rejections.
Reading, studying and practicing are part of the craft. And by reading I don’t mean blog posts or LinkedIn updates. If you want to write in English, surround yourself with English. Subscribe to The New York Times, The Guardian, The Financial Times, read fiction (short stories are good places to begin) and study. Get Strunk & White and immerse yourself. That’s right. Artists have to learn color theory. Guitarists practice chords. Knuckle down and learn like the rest of us. Learn grammar and em dashes. Practice tone of voice. Delete ruthlessly. Passion won’t cut it.
For one blog post that resonates (shared 21 million times) listen to someone who has written one of the best advice posts using letters of the alphabet to string together a sentence.
It’s harsh, but it’s gold.