I originally was going to write a post about advice to anyone who wants to be a writer, but there are a lot of different types of writers (I work in a few different areas of it myself). Instead, I am narrowing this down to people who want to write a book--both non-fiction and fiction works.
Before I get down to the meat of this post, a few disclaimers/qualifiers. First off, I give some of this advice hypocritically and completely admit doing so; as a writer I am not perfect and am trying to improve on some of these same points. Also, this is completely my opinion. I know some other writers might not agree with my views and that is great. I have received a lot of conflicting advice throughout my career as a writer, and that is just life.
1. Write, a lot. I cannot believe how many wanna-be writers I run into who tell me they write on the weekends or when they have time. Writing is like sports: if you want to become good you need to do it a lot. If you want to go to the Olympics in the 400 meter dash you do not just run and lift weights when you have time. You do it pretty much every day (okay, athletes do take breaks). The point is that you should be writing a lot, and I'm not talking about just a page in your journal each night.
2. Read, a lot. You saw that one coming, didn't you? This one is just as necessary as writing a lot. Reading a lot helps you see what other writers are producing, which helps with your own language usage. An old professor of mine always said the best way to increase your vocabulary is to read a wide variety of materials. As my wife can attest to, I read a lot. I don't just read books, though, but I also read blogs, news articles and pretty much anything else I can get my hands on. I pay attention to words I am not familiar with, sentence construction, word choice and usage, tone, transitions, etc. It's kind of like a quarterback studying film to become better at what he does (for those of you who know about football--I guess the reference is lost on everyone else). Reading a lot about a lot of different things can also help generate ideas for your own writing.
3. Read through language books. Oh yes, more reading! I have a selection of nerdy language books I have picked up throughout the years, which are an invaluable resource. One such book is Index to English. There are many, many others such as the AP Style Book or even a good dictionary (Oxford is excellent) that help clear up any language questions you have, and further polish your style.
4. Set solid goals. Too many people who are writing a book really avoid this one. I suspect the reasons are varied. Some people who are creative types (I am one) really shrink away from concrete goals because something deep in their nature tells them to. Other people are just goofing off as they "work" on their book. Many people self-sabotage their efforts to write a book--this one I have experienced firsthand. If you set a solid goal--and by solid I mean a certain number of pages completed or words written by a certain date--then you will actually finish your book. If you don't set solid goals, chances are you will get mired down and disoriented, and your book will remain an unfinished product for a long time (or maybe the rest of your life).
5. Avoid writers' groups. I know I just opened a can with this one, but I feel strongly about this. I have spoken to other authors who swear by writers' groups as a way to get great support and feedback on their work. My experience with such groups has been less-than-positive. I have found that most writers get into these groups and then gripe about how hard their life is, make excuses about not achieving more and generally just act negative. The feedback from many members of these groups is also suspect, since there are so many authors and wanna-be authors out there who try to sabotage others in a nasty campaign to spread misery (I know about this one firsthand as well). I am not alone in this opinion--Stephen King agrees with me. He and I both agree that feedback from readers who don't necessarily write might actually be more valuable.
6. Get some good readers. Speaking of readers, you need to collect a good group of readers around you. These people need to be literate and honest with you. You use these people to read over your manuscripts and give you feedback. Someone who reads over your work and says "that was really good" but cannot tell you why is not really going to help you improve (like the girlfriend in the movie Orange County). On the other hand, someone who gives non-constructive criticism is also not going to help you improve, but instead is only going to tear you down. It can be hard to collect a good group of readers, and the process can involve some trial and error. The feedback you get from honest readers is invaluable.
7. Grow some thick skin. I'm not going to lie to you: this is a tough business. When you are a writer, you are serving up a portion of yourself for others to consume. Some readers are very kind in their feedback and will shower you with praise, even if your writing is not stellar. Other readers are always looking for something wrong with another person's writing as a way to make themselves feel powerful or superior, and then they try to rub whatever is wrong with your writing in your face. You might be called names. You might be treated like you are stupid. Oh, and there are some editors out there who I swear revel in ruining writers' day. These editors are very much in the minority, but they will make any super critical reader look like Mary Poppins. You need to grown a thick skin, which is something that is hard to do. Having honest readers is one way to grow this kind of skin. Writing for local publications can help as well. Really it is something you build up over time. Stopping your writing because of a critical review is foolish.
To end on a lighter note, here is a great scene about Shakespeare and high school English teachers from the movie Orange County: