When I was in college, and just starting to understand how to write, I emailed columnist Leonard Pitts in response to an article he wrote about the mother of Emmitt Till, a young black man whose death was a key point in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. I thought Pitts's article was so well done I had to ask him how I could write like that and how maybe one day I could have my own general interest column. Although I think his assistant sent a canned response, Mr. Pitts's advice was some of the best I ever received - actually, it may have been the only advice I ever received on the art of writing. Anyway, here is what he wrote:
As for advice...practice your craft. Then practice it some more. After you're done with that, take a little more time and practice. This is the only sure route to learning your craft. There is, in other words, no trick, secret, or magic formula that will make you good. Unfortunately for them, most writers are very good at finding excuses not to write. This is because writing is not enjoyable. As some sage once put it: "Writing is not fun. Having written is." So what is required of the would-be writer is that he or she first develop the discipline to apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair and start putting words down on the screen. You will be awful at first, then a little better. In time, perhaps, you will become good. And sometime after that, assuming you possess the basic gifts for it, you will become great. Time not spent writing should be spent reading. Read constantly and promiscuously. Read writers whose work you admire and try to figure out how they do what they do and what it is in their work that makes it achieve whatever effect it does. Read writers whose work you dislike and try to figure out what they're doing wrong so that you can avoid making the same mistakes. Also: It's important to invest in the tools of your craft. In making an investment, you prove - to others and, more importantly, to yourself - that you are serious about this thing. To that end, you need a workspace - doesn't have to be fancy, but it ought to be yours and accessible to you on a regular basis. You need a word processor or computer; a good dictionary, an almanac, a copy of Strunk and White's Elements of Style, and a thesaurus. You need a copy of Writer's Market, which is a directory of magazine publishers. It lists the kind of material they're looking for, the contact persons and the prices they pay. Also, get yourself a subscription to Writer's Digest; it's a monthly magazine that deals with the craft of writing, but also the business of it. The magazine provides a great crash course for young writers. Finally, assuming you have any cash left over, you might want to pick up a copy of Stephen King's On Writing. It's a memoir of the craft that I found inspirational and instructive.I still haven't picked up that Stephen King book yet. I might want to do that.