Writing Lessons from Author Susan Shapiro

Writer Susan Shapiro, author of "Only as Good as Your Word," offers writing advice for beginners.

By Wendy Rodewald
In fact, I teach how to write personal essays, and I say that if anybody has never written before and they want to write, there are about 15 places that are very big markets for first-person essays. You don’t have to be a published writer; you just have to have an interesting story. To name a few, the big ones are Newsweek’s My Turn column, the New York Times‘ Modern Love column for relationship pieces, and the Lives column in the [New York] Times‘ magazine. And women’s magazines and men’s magazines publish great [first-person] stuff. What I do with my students is I have them read a hundred first-person essays. So first you read them, and then you try to emulate them.What’s really great about wanting to reinvent yourself [as a writer] [is that] it’s one of the fields where the older and smarter you are, and the more life experiences you have, the better you are. It’s one of the very few fields where 20- and 25-year-olds are never as good as the 40- and 50-year-olds. All the older people [in my classes] have the most fascinating experiences, whether it’s medical, or going to war, or somebody dying in their family, or divorce. And if you’ve ever done another field, you write about that other field.The beauty is that all you have to commit to is three pages. I always say to my students, three pages can change your life. And it’s not hard to write a three-page essay at all, especially if you’ve already read a bunch of them and you have some system in place of getting feedback. Publications are really much more open than you think if you tell a heartfelt, good story. Q. At this stage in your career, now that you’re a mentor and have your own crop of proteges, what do you get out of giving back? A. It’s a way to channel everything I’ve done and everything I’ve learned — and every mistake I’ve ever made — into helping people and making them excited about what I love, which is writing. It’s kind of a family. And I do feel like it’s payback for all of the mentors who helped me. For more information on Susan Shapiro’s books, classes, and upcoming appearances, visit her Web site: susanshapiro.net Buy Only as Good as Your Word Originally published on MORE.com, November 2007.

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