If Writing Comes Easy, You’re Probably an Amateur

By Jack Limpert

Screen Shot 2016-06-30 at 8.22.07 AMLegendary DC gossip columnist Diana McLellan once told a new Washington Post columnist, “The best advice I can give is collect info sober, write drunk, and edit after coffee.”

I worked with many magazine writers and none ever said drinking was a strategy that worked. Alcohol apparently has helped many book authors cope with deadlines; if you Google “writers and drinking” you’ll get lots of links. Here are 10 famous authors who battled the bottle while writing their novels.

The Chicago bureau of UPI had what the wire service thought was the best rewrite man in the business and he often would disappear for three hours during the day and come back seeming almost drunk but still able to write beautifully. A rare talent.

For the magazine writers I knew, smoking was the big crutch. When DC banned smoking in office buildings in 1985, more than one writer said, “If I can’t smoke I can’t write.”

One of those writers recently told me, “Writing has always caused me great anxiety, up there with standing on the edge of a thousand-foot cliff at the Grand Canyon. Writing exposes the self, including lots of insecurities, in the deepest way. After all the reporting and thinking, the writing stage has finality that can be scary. I guess I thought smoking helped manage those emotions. Now it’s lots of pacing.”

I asked him if there was added pressure because he made a living from his writing. He said, “The standards or expectations are higher for a professional, both external and self-imposed. When I hear someone at a party say that writing comes easy for him or her, I always suspect I’m in the presence of an amateur.”

Another writer I worked with developed the worst writer’s block I’ve ever seen. One day he came in and said, “I’ve been seeing a psychiatrist and we’ve figured it out. It’s either fear of success or fear of failure.” He went on to write and edit for weekly magazines and did very well, suggesting that the less often the deadline the harder it is write.

As an editor, I often talked with writers about their work but usually not about their work habits. Most staff writers we had at the Washingtonian closed the door when they wrote. Some liked to wear headphones and write to music. One wrote only on weekends when no one else was in the office—he also may have smoked. Another rigged his computer so he could write standing up. Several claimed they did their best work sitting in coffee shops.

A number of Washingtonian writers wrote best at home. One says, “I’ll take a shower, make a cup of tea, and sit down at  the computer.  Every hour or so I take a short walk and do a little stretching but stay focused for seven or eight hours on the story I’m writing.”

As for how an editor can help a writer, here’s what baseball manager Dusty Baker said today about how he helps his Washington Nationals players:

“Some guys you’ve got to kick them in the butt, some guys you’ve got to pat them on the back, some guys you have to leave them alone. That’s what being a teacher and a coach is and what makes the world go around, everybody is not the same.”





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