Exactly 500 Words on How to Write

One of my favourite distractions from writing – the kind of distraction I actually embrace with a whole heart – is being invited to speak at schools, universities and colleges on my career as a writer. Plenty of young people live in their heads, and to hear from someone who actually makes a living from doing just that is, I hope, an affirmation.

Often, variations on the following questions come up:

Where do you get your ideas from?
How do I get started as a writer?
Why do you write?

The answer to all three questions is the same: sit on a chair in front of a computer, and write a thousand words on your project. The ideas come from having to fill those thousand words with interest and meaning. If you want to be a writer, this is what you must do. If I do this, I feel good at the end of the day. If I don’t, I feel lousy.

That’s all: the only way to write is to write. And write, and write, and write.

The daily word count is King. Graham Greene (author of Brighton Rock) used to do a modest 500 words (but what words!) before lunch, then go for a swim in the sea by his home in Mallorca. Stephen King gets up early and does 3,000 words to the same deadline. On a good day, I will write a thousand words on each project I have running (usually two) and go to bed planning the following day’s thousand words.

If the physical act of writing a few thousand words in a day feels like too much (and as a writer, it will happen: you enter the zone, the wind is in your sails, and you’re teeming with ideas for your project – or you have a deadline and a mortgage), then try it. It isn’t like having to hand in an essay; you can, and perhaps sometimes should, write a load of twaddle you can cut later. Cutting crap before anyone else sees it is a joy.

If you want to write but are dyslexic, bad news: you don’t get a pass. Two of the best writers I know are dyslexic, so you’ll just have to work as hard as they do to make sure your work is legible. I’m not dyslexic: my grammar and spelling are splendid, but it doesn’t stop me writing absolute rubbish content sometimes. Oscar Wilde used to get his woulds shoulds and coulds in a muddle, which gives all of us hope.

You will either write or you won’t. It’s up to you. I don’t mind that ‘writing a novel’ is something that reasonably well educated and perfectly nice people claim at parties to be doing with their spare time when they patently aren’t, but don’t lie to yourself. You’re either making the word count, or you’re not.

Finally, look after your back. Writing is no fun if it hurts, and is very difficult to fit between trips to the osteopath.


Speaker, author, conference moderator & coach


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