Scott Hipsher

So you want to be a writer?

You'll need to develop a thick skin and actually enjoy being lonely


Many teachers of English or other subjects have ambitions to become writers. In this month's blog piece I will give some advice for those thinking of spending some of their time putting pen to paper (or more likely fingers to keyboard these day) with the idea of sharing their thoughts with an outside audience.

There are a few lucky individuals who were born with a talent for writing in a manner in which is appreciated by others. But for the vast majority of writers, writing is a talent that is constantly being nurtured and never perfected.

Let me get self-indulgent for awhile to tell my story. I started my writing "career" later in life. Writing was something I had always wanted to do but never felt I had the talent nor the ability to market my work. However, while studying for my PhD I was getting an awful lot of practice writing, published my first article in an academic journal and felt I had many ideas I wanted to share with the world. Therefore, I set myself a goal of getting a book published within the next five years. Shortly after setting this goal, I ran across a call for proposals for books for an Asian Studies Series from a publisher in Oxford in the UK (I am not sure why as an American I have only been able to sell my ideas to publishers from Oxford); so I decided to start my collection of rejection slips (rejection e-mails these days) that nearly all writers and experts seem to claim is necessary to accumulate before finally getting a book published.

So I put together a proposal primary as a method to learn about the process and to my surprise and delight, the proposal was accepted. I ended up bringing in two co-authors, Dr. Songporn Hansanti and Dr. Suthinan Pomsuwan to help with the project. The book that we wrote was titled, The Nature of Asian Firms: An Evolutionary Perspective. I later wrote another book for Chandos Publishing (Now part of Woodhead Publishing Limited) titled Expatriates in Asia: Breaking Free from the Colonial Paradigm. My most recent book was published by Routledge Publishing, and is titled Business Practices In Southeast Asia: An Interdisciplinary Analysis Of Theravada Buddhist Countries. I have also written a number of chapters for edited books, academic journal articles, conference papers, Internet articles and a few short pieces for newspapers.

While remaining a great distance from being a "successful" writer, I have formed a few opinions which I would like to share with other ajarns (or anyone else reading this) thinking of becoming writers.

1. Forgot any dreams of fame and fortune. I suspect most writers dream of being the next JK Rowling, Dan Brown or Stephen Covey. The reality is book sales are on a downward trend and the number of jobs for journalists, a notoriously low paid profession, continues to decline. Yes, there are plently of opportunities for writing on the internet, like blogging, but making any substanial money from writing for internet sources is uncommon. For the average author of a book, living the high life off the royalties earned is nothing more than a pipe dream. The vast majority of "professional" writers have full time jobs and while writing my be one's passion, it rarely pays the bills let alone allows one to live in luxury.

2. Think Marketing. As a sometimes university instructor in marketing (as well as management, international business, economics, and any other subject someone will pay me to teach) I realize marketing is all about segmentation and targeting. Nearly every author I have heard interviewed gives the advice to aspiring writers to write about what one knows. Good advice, but one always needs to realize that to sell a book or article, one first needs to sell the idea to a publisher or editor. The writer of a book needs to know what market segment the book is targeted at the convince a publisher or editor to publish the work..

For example, I mostly write for an "academic" audience and I understand the need to use academic conventions to meet the expectations of the target audience and targeted publishers, editors, and peer-reviewers. The down side ot this style is it prevents most publishers from attempting to market and sell the books to the general public. Fiction writers also need to understand the market to understand what publishers are looking for. Many people dream of writing the next great literary novel, but the majority of fiction publishers know the size of the market for literary fiction is very small and therefore one sees greater opportunities in the writing of genre fiction (mystery, romance, sci-fi, horror, etc... ). Write what you know, but identifying the market segment the work will appeal to and writing with that audience in mind will increase the probability of getting the work published and read.

3. Develop a thick-skin. I remember one time, I had heard a lot about the book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey, and therefore checked the book out from the university library to see what all the fuss was about. A colleague saw me with the book one day and started in on a harsh criticism of the book. I quickly joined in, as I also found the book to be overly simplistic and filled with flaws. After a few minutes of this, we looked back down at the cover of the book where was written something in the order of "Over 7 million copies sold" and we had ourselves a good laugh at ourselves. I may still believe the book is flawed, but Stephen Covey is rich and famous, and I am not, and I suspect his millions allow him to get over the hurt from the criticisms of his work.

When you write, you put your thoughts and ideas in a permanent form for the world to see and criticize. Stephen King, Dan Brown and Mickey Spillane all have had more than their share of critics, yet all these writers have sold a large number of books. Another example Geert Hofstede, the Dutch scholar who has been the most influential writer on the effect of culture in business settings has had his work severely challenged as has Michael Porter who is probably the most influential scholar/writer in strategic management over the last 50 years.

If you write, the only way to avoid being criticized is to not let anyone read what you have written, There is no such thing as perfect writing which is universally praised, even the best selling book of all time, the Bible, has legions of critics. Writing is an "art" and what appeals to one taste does not necessarily appeal to another's. On the other hand, to improve as a writer one needs to keep an open mind and should evaluate the criticisms of others in order to work on improving one's skills. The trick is to separate constructive criticisms from criticisms that you did not write for the target audience the critic thinks you should have written for and the inevitable barbs thrown by those motivated by envy as opposed to being helpful. Writing is like being a politician or football manager (coach) in that it is much easier to criticize others doing the job than it is in actually successfully accomplishing the job. If you are easily offended, writing for public consumption may not be a very fulfilling use of one's time.

4. Write. Writers write, and writing is time-consuming and often quite tedious. Many people want to have been published, but do not necessarily want to go through all the work and trouble of doing the actual writing. Non-fiction writing, especially academic non-fiction writing, requires a tremendous amount of research which eats up hours of one's life. From what I have heard, I assume fiction writing also often requires research in addition it often requires extensive plotting and character development which are neither easy nor quickly done. Furthermore, unless one is writing a straight-forward and short journalistic piece, good writing requires extensive and time-consuming rewrites. Some writers may be able to write something brilliant, well-organized and grammatically correct in the first draft, but I surely do not fall into this category and I suspect neither do the majority of writers. Each chapter of each book I have written was rewritten at least five times before going to the publisher, and then was rewritten at least two more times before being ready for the printers.

Along with being time consuming, writing is a solitary endeavor. Most writers have a bit of loner in them. Writers are often more observers of life than participants. If the idea of sitting alone with your own thoughts for hours on end while ignoring your family and friends does not sound appealing, writing might not be for you. Writing a book takes A LOT of time, and one needs discipline to complete the task. There is always something more enjoyable (good show on TV) and more pressing (I need to wash and iron my shirts) to do than to sit down alone and write. A person with a job, a family, and a life, does not have time to be a writer. But a writer somehow finds the time to write. For example, before becoming a successful writer, Stephan King worked as an English teacher in Maine and lived in an old second hand mobile home with two children. Every night he would lock himself into the laundry room and place his typewriter on his lap and write, usually well past midnight, even though the vast majority of his stories, before Carrie was published, were rejected. Anyone can want to be a writer, but a writer is someone who actually takes the time to do the writing.

PS. I am currently working on a new book on international educators, and if anyone wants to share their experiences which I can include in the book, please contact me

Scott Hipsher is the author of
Expatriates in Asia: Breaking Free from the Colonial Paradigm,

The Nature of Asian Firms: An Evolutionary Perspective,

Business Practices in Southeast Asia: An interdisciplinary analysis of Theravada Buddhist countries




Comments

Good day!

I am very interested to hone my writing skills. Lately, I have been doing research papers for the college that I am currently working with. I have realized that a higher education like a Masters Degree and a Ph.D develops a person's skill in writing.I wonder if enrolling online for Masters Degree is a good idea.

Cheers!

By nadine, (22nd May 2010)

Great article Scott, just what I was looking for. I'm writing a book at the moment and am taking a Laurel & Hardy / The Simpsons approach to it by trying making every page funny at least once.

Let me know if you'd like me to email you a draft. All the best!

By Geoff Richards, Isaan (2nd February 2010)

Jeeem

Thanks for the comments, and I will take my own advice and wear my thick skin . Yes, this article was quite a departure from my previous ones and my normal writing style.

But one of the reasons I starting writing these little pieces for Ajarn was to experiment with writing in different styles and on different topics. I take it, the style used in this piece wasn’t what you found interesting. Note taken.

Another purpose of writing these articles was to plug my works to one of my target audiences (educators in SEA). These days publishers do very little marketing and leave most of the marketing work to the authors (unless one is a famous writer or a celebrity). So hopefully you can forgive a little self-promotion from someone trying to earn back a little money from all the hours he spent writing his books.

In my own defense (what would a day be without at least one little justification for our own behavior) was while I realize I did not really have anything brilliant or original to say on this subject, I did think the readers might want to hear from “one of us” ajarns who is engaged in writing. My first job in Southeast Asia was teaching English at a three-letter language school for 220 baht an hour, so my background may be quite similar to that of many of the readers of this site.

Thanks again for the comments, I will take them onboard and hopefully you will find the piece I have in mind for the next article more to your tastes.

By Scott, On the way to Bangkok today (2nd February 2010)

Mr. Hipsher,

I have a sincere interest in reading articles and books about writing and about writers, their trials and tribulations, and their tips and suggestions, however, with all due respect, in your article, after you state, "Let me get self-indulgent for a while," your excessively rambling piece went off on an "I" tangent.

I fear your self-indulgence, ran a bit rampant.

There are so many articles, books, biographies, instruction manuals, etc., both online and available at Amazon.com, on this very subject, and I've read many of them. But your piece, I fear, is not so much about helpful information, as it is about you.

It's probably a good thing that you have volunteered to write a piece for Ajarn.com, however, perhaps you should begin practice with writing articles that are less about you and more about the subject at hand.

By Jeeem, Thailand (29th January 2010)

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