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So, you want to be a paperback writer?

Posted by Delia Cabe  November 2, 2010 12:04 PM

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I have one word for you: read. Writing is not just about spewing words onto a page. Yes, November is National Novel Writing Month. Picture 30 days of writers all over the country typing madly. The challenge: 50,000 words over the next few weeks and—voila!—a novel that will need editing. Heavy duty editing, that is. But writing is so much more than word count. It’s a sensibility.

My best writers in my magazine and journalism classes have been readers. They live with their eyes wide open. They observe, examine, think and are attuned to small and big worlds. They are fascinated with the power of words, on the page and in conversation. They are entranced by the thoughts and voices of other writers. They cannot help but talk about what they’re reading.

P4141656.jpgEach semester, I ask my students to introduce themselves and talk about what they like to read and why they want to write. I can spot the readers right away. They speak with depth and feel comfortable talking about stories—fiction and nonfiction. They ask questions. When they speak, you listen because they have something thoughtful to say. And they don't wear earbuds 24/7.

Those who do not read for pleasure seem lost and out of touch. They lack spark. I have had journalism students who do not read newspapers—print or online—and do not get news from television (not even news-ish from Jon Stewart on The Daily Show) or radio. Their idea of a journalism career? Standing on a red carpet, microphone in hand, interviewing celebrities, before a camera.

Several years ago, one student told me she didn’t understand why she lost points on grammar, punctuation and spelling on assignments. She said that she had no interest in writing. She wanted to be in broadcast. I explained that she would not escape a writing requirement in any jobs. What about your resume and cover letters? Emails to fellow professionals? Scripts? She dismissed all that because, she said, her demo tapes would show her talents. Thinking and writing, I replied, are so closely tied. She was more concerned about her clothes and hairstyle. She complained all semester.

Some students sign up for my magazine writing course as back up—as in something to do until their novel is published. A few have been irritated with my course because I require research. “I’m a creative writer. I don’t do research. I make stuff up,” one girl told me.

Surprise, my dear novelist wannabe, fiction writers do some research, too. They get ideas from things that happen in the world. They visit possible settings for their story, taking notes like field researchers. They go through archival material—old newspapers, books, diaries, etc.

If magazine writing is your Plan B, though, you have no choice. (These days, I wonder about that. Some magazines have devolved into nothing but pictures with bullet points. That’s fodder for another Creative Type post.) The same goes for writing for online media. You’ll need ideas for articles, and you’ll need to know how to expand on them through research and reading. Want to go into publishing? Ditto. You can’t write or do other aspects of your job with any depth if you live in a vacuum.

A fellow writer recently asked several of us about our writing process. Mine: I write every day, but I also make sure I read every day. I cannot separate the two. They nurture each other. Reading feeds my writer’s soul and brain.

Whether you’re a student enrolled in a journalism or other writing program or a participant in this month’s NaNoWriMo writing frenzy, take time away from the computer and your word count today. Just read.

When I saw these two videos, "Can You Help Me Get Published? (parts 1 and 2) on the Xtranormal website, I laughed because they rang true.
This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Delia Cabe's work has appeared in The Boston Globe Magazine, Boston Magazine, Self, Prevention, Scientific American Presents, and other publications. In between posts, you can read Cabe's tweets at!/DeliaCabe, More »

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