Writers on Writing

Becoming a Writer

by Charles Todd

Whatever you decide to be—a nurse, a quarterback for the Seahawks, a TV anchor, a teacher—you will need two things: skill and tools. Every job you look for will require both.

Okay, what skills do you need to become a writer?

For one thing, you need to be a good storyteller. That’s what writing is all about, telling a great story. Think of it this way. Some folks can tell jokes that make everyone roll with laughter. Others can’t. The same is true of story-telling. It’s a skill. What’s more, that skill can be polished, just like batting practice makes you a better hitter. Or, volunteering to tutor can make you a better teacher. Reading also helps you see how a story is told, and sharpens you own talent. Look at Harry Potter—what made the books exciting? What made the characters people you cared about and wanted to win? Why were the bad guys such a challenge for Harry? If they’d been weak, Harry could have conquered them in the first book. Instead, they required all his skill and courage and knowledge to defeat them because their own magic was very strong. Or, look at the Twilight series. What makes the characters important? And what is there about the story line—the plot—that develops the characters and puts them in jeopardy? What you soon discover is that a book must offer something that deeply involves the reader. Nobody wants to read a boring book about boring people. It’s up to you, the writer, to learn how to make a book jump off the page and into someone’s imagination.

What are the tools you need to do that? Well, for one thing, a good knowledge of English grammar. It’s very simple. If you can’t express yourself on paper, you can’t reach your readers. If you can’t punctuate, you can’t make your meaning clear. And if you can’t spell, no one knows what you’re talking about. A good vocabulary is very important, because it makes what you have to say more interesting to the reader. These may sound like dull tools—but just try to write a story without them!

Another tool is a knowledge of people. What makes them interesting enough for others to want to read about them? When you are creating characters, they have to seem real, even when they are just your imagination at work. If they’re only puppets doing what you tell them, they’re going to sound like puppets to the reader. How do you learn about people? Be a good listener! Be interested in others and why they do things, see what happens when they make the wrong choices, or follow the wrong crowd. Try to understand the results of their actions, and how they face problems. The more you learn, the better you can create believable characters. People are good—bad—and sometimes both. Capturing human nature on paper is what it’s all about.

And here’s the most important tool of all—practice. Very few people ever write a great book the first time they put pen to paper. You have to make mistakes first and learn from them by being objective about them, not super sensitive. The whole point is to get better each time you try; to learn something useful from each effort. By the time you show your work to an agent or an editor, you’ll look more professional and less like a beginner. That will make your work easier to sell.

Finally, don’t be discouraged. Sometimes people just don’t like what you’re writing. That’s no reflection on you; it’s just a difference in taste from one person to another. Still, if the criticism is good, then listen to it. In the marketplace, you will have to compete with everyone else for readers. That’s how it works. Therefore anything that helps make you a better writer makes you a better competitor as well. The goal is to reach as many readers as you can. This brings us back full circle to being a good storyteller.


Charles and Caroline Todd are a mother and son writing team who live on the east coast of the United States. Caroline has a BA in English Literature and History, and a Masters in International Relations. Charles has a BA in Communication Studies with an emphasis on Business Management, and a culinary arts degree that means he can boil more than water. Caroline has been married (to the same man) for umpteen years, and Charles is divorced.

Writing together is a challenge, and both enjoy giving the other a hard time. The famous quote is that in revenge, Charles crashes Caroline’s computer, and Caroline crashes his parties. Will they survive to write more novels together? Stay tuned! Their father/husband is holding the bets.