One of the most important skills for a writer? Survival skills

image Over the years, my wife has gotten used to my (admittedly bad) habit of leaning over and whispering “expendable character” whenever I see someone who I know is going to die. I should clarify I only make these predictions while watching movies, and not, as a general rule, at the grocery store, in hospital waiting rooms or at family reunions. That’s because in movies, these types of characters are easy to spot.

For example, the soldier who pulls out a photo of his “girl back home” while talking with his buddy on patrol — Spoiler Alert: He’s not making it through the next scene alive. And if he mentions he’s proposing to “his girl” after getting discharged tomorrow, chances are he won’t even finish his dinner rations before keeling over from sniper fire or eating expired creamed corn. The same goes for anyone who mentions having a “bad ticker” or who has a nagging cough; anyone who says they’ve stopped wearing a bullet-proof vest or life jacket because “you can’t cheat fate”; and definitely any character who keeps a mouse or baby bird in his shirt pocket.

The same can be said for recognizing the difference between writers who utilize survivor skills and those who are setting themselves up to be “expendable.” That’s not to say they aren’t important or that their writing has less value. Any form of self expression unrelated to the Kardashians is important. But over time, writers who haven’t developed effective survival skills are easy to spot.

Let’s face it, at this very moment there are about as many writers clanking on keyboards as there are fictional characters out there. Keeping a healthy perspective on your writing and its place in the world can be tough. However, those who practice some of the following survival skills will be eating creamed corn long after it has expired.

Ok, that example may not have been particularly motivational. Especially if, like my wife, you really hate creamed corn. But you get the idea.

1) Don’t write for publication:
First, let’s talk about what I’m not saying here. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have hopes of being a published author or working toward the goal of writing for a living if that’s your dream. If your heart pounds a little faster at the thought of seeing your book in print and having people you don’t know mistake you for another writer at your book signing, never give up that dream. What I am saying is those thoughts should always be secondary to your writing itself. It’s like the old saying about putting the cart before the horse. Except in this case the horse is a pregnant three-legged Chihuahua with trust issues. Unless you’ve hitched your cart to something real that you can count on and believe in, every day, you’re not going to get very far. And there’s nothing more real than your love for writing. Put that first, and your cart will keep moving forward. I’d lose the Chihuahua, though.

2) Understand that size isn’t important:
And no, this doesn’t only apply to men.
The true measure of any writer’s success has less to do with the size of their readership, and more to do with mastering their own unique style. In the same way dating a lot of people won’t lead to a lasting relationship until you can define who you are as a person, connecting with readers interested in forging a long-term realtionship won’t happen until you can define who you are as a writer.

Survivors recognize the importance of this process, and readers recognize a writer who has taken the time to develop style and technique; and it won’t matter to them how large your readership is.

I’m 6-foot-1 with an average-sized readership, but thanks to style and technique I do OK.

We’ll just leave it at that.

3) Remember who you’re writing for:
This point really has two parts, both of which are equally important, and neither of which involves anyone related to publishing. There are really only two people you should be writing for every time you sit at the keyboard:

Your readers.

That first person you’re writing for — You — seems pretty obvious. Over time, however, it can get forgotten as more people become involved in the process. Most of us started writing as kids or teens, back when the thrill of articulating your thoughts sparked a fire that burns today. It didn’t matter if anyone else ever laid eyes on it; you were writing for you, and that excitement came from a pure love and desire to create.
To be a writing survivor, you have to remember that feeling and where it comes from. Those who can’t probably won’t survive the creamed corn.

The second person you need to be writing for is your readers. Again, it sounds pretty obvious and it is. But I take it a step further sometimes and think of specific readers as I write.

Oftentimes it’s my wife. Other times I’ll think of a reader who may have emailed me or stopped by my blog to offer a comment — positive or otherwise.

My wife, however, is the only one I picture naked. Which I admit isn’t particularly productive…

Sorry, where was I?

Oh, right. Anyone who has been involved in a theater knows how the energy level rises once you have a live audience. The same goes for writing. In this case, keeping a specific reader in mind can sometimes add a level of anticipation that will sharpen your prose and help you dig a little deeper.

On the surface, this may seem contrary to the first half of this point: Write for yourself. However, no matter who your readers are — wife, friends, complete strangers, cell mate — they are an extension of you as a result of the connection you’ve made through your writing.

Writers who take the time to define themselves through their craft remember to write for themselves and recognize the relationship they have built with readers, who are anything but expendable.

There are a lot of us out there.

But please; keep the creamed corn to yourselves.



Ned Hickson is a syndicated columnist with News Media Corporation. This has been an excerpt from his upcoming book, Ned’s Nickel’s Worth on Writing: Pearls of Wisdom from 16 Years as a Shucking Columnist. His first book, Humor at the Speed of Life, is available from Port Hole Publications, or Barnes & Noble.

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Ned's Blog

I was a journalist, humor columnist, writer and editor at Siuslaw News for 23 years. The next chapter in my own writer’s journey is helping other writers prepare their manuscript for the road ahead. I'm married to the perfect woman, have four great kids, and a tenuous grip on my sanity...

59 thoughts on “One of the most important skills for a writer? Survival skills”

  1. What a GREAT post! It fits into the theme of what I’ve been reading all week. Do you care if I embellish? Okay, thanks!

    From “Crafting the Personal Essay” by Dinty Moore”
    “Self-expression may be the beginning of writing, but it should never be the endpoint. Only by focusing on these anonymous readers, by acknowledging that you are creating something for them, something that has value, something that will enrich their existence and make them glad to have read what you have written, will you find a way to truly reach your audience.”

    For me, personally, this is the subtle difference between writing to be read and writing to be published. This is what YOU do so well and why I read almost every single thing you write.

    As for expendable characters? George R R Martin wrote the book on that. I’m still recovering from season 3 – Game of Thrones.

      1. I know, right? Who REALLY has a name like that? That said, you’re talking to the girls whose college boyfriend’s name was (is) Dusty Trail. Not even kidding.

  2. Haha! We do the same thing. It’s pretty well split who says it first- I usually say, well he’s dead. Hubby usually says, ‘he should be wearing a red shirt.’

    I’m going to have to work harder at number 2. I really try to keep numbers out of my head and just write. The more I write I do feel myself developing a voice that is mine. I struggle with finding a happy middle because my voice is weird sometimes and not good weird. That’s the only time I’d say that I edit myself. Then the next day I put it back.

    1. So very glad to hear that. As I mentioned to someone else, I just had a feeling this was needed today and couldn’t explain why. Now I know 😉

  3. There are really only two people you should be writing for every time you sit at the keyboard:

    Your readers.

    Exactly. My harshest critics are my two cats. I never write for them because they see their role as critics and thus can never be satisfied. In that sense, they are like actual literary critics….except they eat better.

    As for expendable characters, our state (Minnesota, where else but..) has set up an Office of the Ombudsman for Fictional Characters to combat their mistreatment.

      1. Great Ned, I’ll enroll him in our University of Minnesota Advanced Feline Studies Program. They teach cats how to make humans feel guilty. It is something that comes natural to all cats, but they take it to a new level. Gotta go now…. I have litter boxes to monitor.

  4. Yup, as usual, your timing is impeccable – I am so glad to know another man who follows his instincts. Stuff is happening everywhere at a faster than usual pace; I can see why this one has struck a nerve for many. You’re so Ned, and I like it.

  5. I am in writing hell once again. I blame end of the semester burnout. Wait…where was I going with this?

    Um, let me just say: NAILED IT.

    My readership is small and comments few and far between most days. Most of the time, I am okay with being a little fish in a big ass pond. Other days, I feel like useless pond scum that no one gives two shits about. It’s rough out there.

    But, I still love writing and nothing can change that. I’ll keep writing and banging away at my keyboard until arthritis kicks in when I’m 90 and I either keel over or have to speak my words. Course, by that time we could be part robot and have machines that read our minds. Now that is some freaky sci-fi shit right there.

    1. I think “readership” is an important thing to remember. Honestly, how many people can actually claim a readership at all? This doesn’t count Facebook, Twitter, etc — that’s not a readership. The fact that you have people who read what you write — without being paid or blood relatives — is proof that YOU nail it on a regular basis.

      Don’t overlook that.

      Or the potential threat of some freaky sci-fi shit happening… 😉

  6. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a tin of creamed corn, let alone eat the contents, whether within sell-by date or not!

    Great writing tips Ned!
    Now, whom am I writing for? Me and which person out of my tiny select band of followers?
    I really like that thought, write for someone. In my case the one person I won’t be thinking about is my ex-husband!

    1. Yeah, your and my ex are both off the radar unless we’re writing horror fiction. As for who to write for… *looks skyward and puts hands in pockets*

      Seriously, though: I have been inspired to write “for” several of my followers over the years. Either because of a comment they left, or something I read of theirs — or a piece I knew would strike a cord with them.

      Think about that the next time you have a glass of wine and strum the keyboard 😉

      1. So you’re not always writing with the same person or group of people in mind. Hmm…women seem to be in my mind when I write. Perhaps my next post I’ll write with particular men in mind.
        Be interesting to see if there is any difference! 😉

  7. “There are really only two people you should be writing for every time you sit at the keyboard:

    Your readers.”

    Excellent news! That means I only have to please one person.

  8. great advice, ned and i am constantly ‘annoying’ (euphemistic understatement), those who watch shows and movies with me, as i talk to the characters, warning them, questioning their choices, offering my opinion, etc. perhaps i should just write it instead.

  9. Remind me to never watch a movie or TV show with you. And you can keep the creamed corn (yuck!). Even though I don’t currently have a goal of being published (never say never), I always appreciate your Fridays NWOW. It’s funny how I’ll be writing something and my father’s writing advice will pop into my head. He was my first and probably best writing teacher. As for why I write, I think I’m mostly in it for the community… because I live in the sticks and we have more deer and rabbits around here than people.

  10. I love creamed corn. My parents used to cook it up with water (or milk?–can’t remember), so it was like cream corn soup or something. Less awful than it sounds, but still, WTF, right? Probably a “children of the Great Depression” thing–make the food last longer.
    I write for me mostly. Sometimes others like it. Don’t you ever have a (don’t know how to describe this) feeling, when you see your stuff in print, a feeling of, “Oh crap, there’s my stuff, don’t I think I’m something special?” Obviously self-confidence, and knowing that your writing is of quality and is entertaining, helps, but I, for one, am torn between wanting desperately to be “in print” and never wanting to do such a presumptuous thing. Blogging is easy, because none of my, I mean neither of my, readers are local, so I don’t have to look them in the eye the next day when they tell me they liked it (or that it sucked). I just saw that the local paper finally printed a letter I wrote to the editor, about something I feel very strongly about (a local-government money-wasting thing), and I can’t stand the thought of looking at it (or of anyone I know seeing it), so I don’t know how I’d ever handle seeing a book of mine in a bookstore (no worries about that yet or any time really soon, ha ha). I’d like to be Charles Dickens and save children from the poorhouse with my books and take a young mistress, but not be dead for over a hundred years already, but on the other hand, I’d just as soon be anonymous most of the time.
    Another. Long. Damn. Comment.
    By the way, it’s only 40 minutes into the show, so the cops obviously have the wrong guy.

    1. Admittedly, I am a fan of any kind of corn except candy corn. Can’t stand it. Even if I add cream.

      And yeah, there are certainly days where,when my column hits the newspaper here in town, I eat my lunch at home instead of out. Especially when it’s something laced with subtle innuendo or, occasionally, a bit of a rant. But I’ve discovered, more often than not, most people are respectful of the fact that you put yourself out there. The fact that you wrote to your paper about something you feel strongly about takes courage and conviction — qualities that are getting harder and harder to find these days.

      Don’t ever lose that. Or doubt its importance.

  11. Hey Ned. This is a wonderful article about author survival skills. Do you mind if I feature this on my blog, A Writer’s Path (6,100 subscribers)? I usually have on guest posts from various authors 1-2 times a week. I would, of course, announce credit to you and include a link where my readers can find your blog and check out your other articles. Before I even considered, I wanted to ask you first.


  12. I’m a little late to the party here but I definitely liked this post. And I didn’t bother to read all the comments from your awesome readership because I have this vision of your wife in my head now… Which is bad for my imaginary stalker Cyndi (she gets pretty jealous…tell your wife to watch her back).

    Again, very good post!

    1. Better late than never, Kevin! And we can keep things on the down low with Cyndi. Although my wife is Latina, so she can handle herself pretty well 😉

      Thanks for reading!

  13. This is great! I am new at the whole blogging thing and I am sure that I am making mistakes at record pace and that is OK. I have stories in me that are screaming to get out so I just release them one little post at a time. I have also become obsessed with the stats page on wordpress and I get way too excited when the number of visitors exceeds 2. Other bloggers have told me this is “normal” so I’m not checking myself in anywhere……yet.

    1. Thanks, Bryce! I generally have something inside of me screaming to get out at about 6:15 each morning, but that depends on what I ate the night before. But as you’ve no doubt discovered, blogging is a terrific way to practice your writing craft at your own pace, oftentimes with great feedback and support.

      Welcome to the blog-o-sphere, Bryce! And thanks for reading!

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