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Why Survival Skills Are So Important For a Writer

by Ned Hickson (originally posted on

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 relationship 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:

Yourself. 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.

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.

Guest post contributed by Ned Hickson. 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, Amazon.comor Barnes & Noble. Also check out his blog and other articles.

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