To say that I was born to be a writer would be an exaggeration, but my high school friends remember how I’d overwrite my Form 5 English exercises. I’d write a 1000 words for a 350-word assignment – I mean, how do you even tell a story in 350 words? (This was before the age of the internet). My English teacher even jokingly begged me to keep within the word limit, so she wouldn’t have to do extra work.
But does that mean everyone who’s passionate about writing should be a writer after their SPM? Read on to find out.
1. Know your intent
You’ve probably heard people say this, but just because you enjoy doing something doesn’t mean that you’d enjoy doing it as a job. I love making cards for people and everything related to arts and craft – but to do it every day and be creative with paper and colours for the next 40 years of my life? I’m not too sure about that.
So give yourself some quiet, introspective time and ask yourself (and don’t let people influence you with “you can wan lah!”) this: Can I imagine doing this for at least 5 days a week? If you can’t, then perhaps it’s not the right thing for you.
Real passion is the kind that is unwavering, even in difficult times – meaning, you should like it so much that even when the job gets challenging, you keep at it. But if you’re not truly passionate about something, you’ll find no motivation to keep doing what you do. So ask yourself – do I really like writing? Can I stare at that computer screen for hours a day, to write and perfect my craft? If yes, read on.
2. Validate your potential, not skills
I hope you noticed that I never said that you need to have good grammar or vocabulary to be a writer. This is true, at least for when you’re first starting out. I learnt by experience that you can develop those if you have the passion for it (the kind of passion in point No. 1).
I used to write my diary in Bahasa Malaysia when I was in Form 1 – no kidding – because my English wasn’t good enough for me to express myself. But I loved languages, whether it was BM, English or Chinese, and I loved learning the origin of words and their meanings. Eventually, I studied English and learnt to write in it. It wasn’t my first language, but my love of language and writing eventually made me a good English writer.
But having passion and developing your skills alone aren’t enough. You have to also have potential.
See, even if you write with bad grammar (if your grammar is good, great!), your writing should be able to interest people. Do people find your content one of a kind? Do they want to see more of your writing?
When I was 15, I was given the topic “music”. Most of my friends wrote about the origin of music or different genres of music.
I chose to write about an ex-talent manager in a recording company who got jaded by the music industry, and decided to be a janitor. Unfortunately, since my essay didn’t belong to the “skema jawapan” (answer scheme), my teacher gave me zero marks for content. Unsatisfied, I shared the story with other people who laughed and enjoyed it. I knew since that day that what I wrote was worthwhile.
Validate your writing with those close to you, and even those who don’t know you. Strangers can give you an objective answer. Just ask them, “Honestly, do you think this is interesting?” If their answer is ‘no’, don’t give up. I’d suggest to keep writing for a good few years because potential can also be trained (a biiiiit harder than skill), but it’s a lot easier if you have both passion and potential.
Writers bring life and clarity to the subject they write about, whether you’re a news journalist, a content writer, copywriter, or a book author. Find that life in your writing.
3. Find the right tertiary education
So you’ve got both passion and potential. Now it’s time to dive into the training.
Contrary to popular belief, not all writers need to study Mass Communication, English Literature, Creative Writing, or Journalism courses, although most do.
I know many talented writers who didn’t study the courses above. One had a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics, so she had the technical knowledge needed to be a Business Writer (she knew what kind of writer she wanted to be from the start, or she just loved doing both). Then there was another writer who had a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology, and it made her writing so on point, that she never failed to pull the heartstrings. She knew her audience emphatically through her Psychology studies.
There are no right or wrong courses – only this or that direction. You can even do both. Ask yourself – what do you need to perfect first – technical knowledge of the subject, or technical skill (writing)?
If you’re a budding writer, then perhaps technical knowledge is the route to go, provided you already know which subjects you’d be interested to write about. You’ll focus on sharpening your writing skills and pick up technical knowledge later when you are working. But if finances isn’t a problem, you can opt to study both the writing-related course and the technical knowledge course (e.g. Economics, Business, Fashion) one after the other.
For me, I did a Diploma in Mass Communication, majoring in Journalism. I felt that it was holistic for me in understanding journalism and writing. I then went on to complete a Bachelor’s Degree in Linguistics, which helped to grow the meticulous editor in me. I wanted to know my subject (English) well, because I knew it was important, regardless of whether I became a writer or a teacher. Either way, learning the history of English Language, and theories of language helped me have a good grasp of what good writing requires.
4. Keep reading and writing
Once you’ve started your tertiary education, you’ll be the best writer when you graduate… not.
There’s no skill that doesn’t need practice. Even the best sportsmen in the world train themselves every single day to retain their muscle memory, diet and lifestyle. What makes a writer any different?
The three-year degree course doesn’t automatically turn you into a good writer. It’s the diligent, practicing writer, armed with supplementary knowledge from the course which makes one good. Don’t just write, though. Reading gives depth to your writing, and a good writer is often a diligent reader.
When I was in university, blogs were a hit. I used to blog every single day. It wasn’t the most interesting blog, but it kept me writing. The equivalent today could be short copy on Instagram or Facebook – learn to be creative with your captions. It’s good training.
I also wrote for newspapers and magazines while still an undergraduate. I pitched articles to newspapers like The Star and Malaysian Today (the now defunct youth paper of The Sun) while still a student. It takes a lot of courage since you’re starting as a nobody in the industry, but just do it. The first step is always the hardest. You learn to write professionally, and also receive valuable feedback from the editors. Of course, there’s also the pocket money you earn.
During my semester breaks, which were only one to two months long, I would undertake internships at publishing companies or even telemarketing jobs which required me to do communication work. Just because it isn’t related to writing doesn’t mean it can’t hone your writing skills. Writing is, after all, about communication.
5. Get in touch with writers
One of the greatest gifts in my writing life was getting to know a local newspaper columnist whose writing I adored. I was 17, naive and in my fangirl mode. I emailed her and said something like I LOOOOOOVE YOUR WRITING yada yada yada.
I am still embarrassed to this day for the way I approached her, but she was such a welcoming, friendly writer and was always in touch with me.
Today, she is a dear friend and god-sister, and I’d used to always run my writing past her when I was younger. She was my most honest critic – sometimes encouraging, and sometimes painful – but it was all necessary. (Thank you, Alex! <3)
Of course, I cannot guarantee you’ll meet a nice writer like I did. But what I do know is that people return kindness with kindness most of the time. Be sincere, genuine and open to learn, but also share yourself and what you have to offer.
Hopefully these tips help you to get started as a writer. Please leave a comment if you have more questions, and we can continue the conversation from here!
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