by Meg Dowell
Here’s the thing about writing: everyone starts at the bottom. Some work their way up to the middle. A select few manage to climb to the very top. That’s how it is with any profession. You have no idea what you’re doing. You start to figure it out. At some point you probably come to a crossroads, where you decide how much of a priority you want writing to be in your life. Do you want to advance – or are you happy at the level you stand on now?
To move from the very bottom to the very top – a beginner, all the way to a expert – every writer moves through a series of phases. Like riding a bike, they start out wobbly and terrified. They start to get the hang of it. Maybe eventually they start teaching other people how to ride bikes. It’s a process. A long, frustrating process.
How does this work? Let’s break down the phases, starting with the copycat phase.
Phase 1: Playing the part
This is the beginning of the beginning. These are the days of mimicking and “do as they do.” A phase 1 writer’s style typically shifts back and forth depending on what they are reading, watching or listening to at the time. They have yet to develop their own style – ideally, they’re still learning how to string sentences together in a way that works.
As an editor, I frequently read drafts that are written awkwardly – as if the freelancer is writing something that sounds the way a writer would phrase something (because that tends to happen unintentionally). This is a clear sign that this writer may not quite be at a high enough skill level to be doing the work, but that’s what an editor is for, I suppose.
It’s sort of like being nine years old and trying to act the way you think a teenager acts. You have no idea how it works yet. You’ll get there eventually – but for now you’re acting on what you know from what you’ve seen/heard. It’s not bad writing – it’s just generic. Sentences don’t flow easily from one to the next. There are a lot of words that don’t belong. You’re a tiny human at this point, if we’re going to compare it to growth. You’re just starting to learn.
Phase 2: Finding the voice
At some point, if a writer keeps up with their hobby long enough, they move into phase 2. There is no specific moment this happens – no visible evolution in which you burst through your cocoon and start fluttering your wings. It just … happens. You read. You listen. You watch TV. You absorb. Different writers and voices influence you in different ways. You learn the kinds of writing you like – and the kinds you don’t. Everything comes together to form your voice – your style – the way you prefer to phrase things, the words you use, the formality (or lack thereof) with which you address your audiences.
Every experienced writer has their own style of writing completely unique to them. You can’t identify your own voice – it’s just the way you write. When you say, “I love the way so-and-so writes,” you’re essentially falling in love with their style. I am literally hypnotized by anything Shonda Rhimes writes. I can’t explain it – but the first time I listened to her TED Talk, I sat completely still for 20 straight minutes, barely breathing. Some writers’ voices connect with specific readers on an extremely deep level.
Sticking with it, every writer eventually develops their unique form. It comes only from writing consistently – which is how you learn to translate ideas from the content you consume and create a piece of writing out of them that is all your own, instead of transcribing someone else’s style – a very phase 1 thing to do.
Phase 3: Developing the knowledge foundation
It doesn’t matter whether you write fiction or you’re a journalist or you write essays in your spare time: everyone has their own knowledge foundation. Possibly even before a writer hits phase 3, they start to develop a personal theme – a common thread that runs through everything they write. Mine is health. I don’t know when it started or when exactly I finally figured out it was something I needed to grab onto, but it was there, and I pursued it.
So what did I do? I picked up a second college major. I landed my first position as a health writer. I eventually specialized in health communication as a graduate student. There is some kind of health-related underlying message in the majority of things I write, but I am able to back that by my education and my experience. In other words: I know what I’m talking about, I have the credibility to talk about it, I do not mess around when I am not just playing, but acting in the role of expert health writer. And that is how we advance to the fourth and final phase.
Phase 4: Earning the title
You have the right style and the right skills – now you need the experience. Experience = credibility. A phase 4 writer starts writing for free – blogging, guest posting, interning – and slowly moves into paid professional writing. And even then, they’re still the lowest of the low on the professional writing hierarchy. Many writers make money. Experts have a following – they are known for writing a specific type of thing, often. They are trusted. They are asked all the cliche questions writers hate to be asked, even though they remember what being in phase 1 was like. They never forget.
I only recently changed my profile headlines. Calling myself an expert health writer while still a first-year writing intern wouldn’t have made sense. I didn’t have the experience or the trustworthy publishing credits, and definitely not the income, to have earned the title of ‘expert.’ It wouldn’t have even made sense to expert-ify myself a year ago. But I didn’t stop at phase 3. I kept working. I dealt with rejections – or worse, never getting a response at all. I dealt with things I published reaching absolutely no one – until they started to. And continue to.
I don’t think there’s a specific time frame in which someone has to write in a specific format or genre before they can promote their expertise, but it does require moving through all three phases, as well as publishing – a lot. Blogs, websites, magazines, books, videos, podcasts – the number of ways a writer can gain a loyal following on and offline keeps growing. You have to get out there. Transform yourself into an authority figure – a legitimate one. Educate yourself. Do something so many times over that people can’t logically call into question anymore why you matter.
There’s no time frame, sure – but it takes a minimum of years to go from amateur to professional. I wrote for over 10 years before I first published something. This is why I always tell writers to be patient. You cannot go from point A to point B in a year. It probably won’t take you 10 – unless you’re 7 years old as you’re reading this, as I was when I discovered the joy of writing for the first time. But it will take time. Let me repeat that: IT WILL TAKE TIME.
What do you do in the meantime? You keep writing. You keep studying and reading. You experience the world. Writing doesn’t happen unless you make it happen. Expertise doesn’t happen unless you earn it – legitimate expertise, anyway. You CAN do it. You CAN productively wait it out. It doesn’t matter if you don’t want to wait – you don’t have a choice. That’s how this business works. It’s slow. It’s exhausting. But it’s breathtaking. Worth the effort, 200 percent.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a freelance writer and an eight-time NaNoWriMo winner with work published in Teen Ink, Success Story, Lifehack and USA TODAY College. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.