Become a Better Writer: 5 Things the Theater Taught Me About Writing

The smell of popcorn takes me back…backstage, that is. On Fridays and Saturdays during most of the years between 1998 to 2007, I played a variety of entertainers from 1950’s, ’60’s and ’70’s popular music. My husband and I, along with several other talented individuals, performed thousands of shows to enthusiastic crowds in two small-town Texas theaters. The experience taught me enduring lessons about creativity, professionalism, and making a living through the arts. These tenets apply to your writing life and other creative endeavors, as well. Here are five things the theater taught me about writing, in no particular order:

1. Word of mouth is the best publicity

Our audiences, though small, were passionate. We provided quality entertainment and our most ardent supporters talked about us…a lot. They brought groups, gave their friends tickets, and sometimes drove hours to see us. Local merchants also talked about the shows and encouraged tourists to catch a matinee or evening performance. Though we bought print ads, paid a few publicists, and had a large email newsletter, the theater’s best advertisement was—without a doubt—word of mouth. 

It’s the same with promoting your writing. Today’s readers are consumers, just as our season ticket holders were. They long for quality and consistency. They’re busy, and they need a reason to keep reading past the first few lines. And when they are delighted by what they’ve read? They’re the most loyal, vocal folks around. Because we live in an instant-communication society, bad word-of-mouth spreads fast. Make sure your writing product is stellar, and great publicity will follow.

2.      Give the audience what they want

One of the owners of the first theater in which I performed often said, “Give ‘em hamburgers!” He meant that we shouldn’t mess with success. If tickets sold quickly for a 1950’s music revue, we wrote another similar show. Of course, we also experimented and pushed boundaries (otherwise, all of us would have grown bored). However, we changed our product in small increments. We also created special experiences—behind-the-scenes tours, holiday packages, giveaways—for avid supporters. Cast members even called our VIPs (those folks who came to the theater over and over) on their birthdays and anniversaries, which the VIPs greatly appreciated.

In your writing, think about creating a memorable experience for the reader. How can you provide extra value (giveaways, incentives, free resources) in a professional, winsome manner? In what ways could you creatively and tangibly thank those who willingly support you and talk about your books?

3.      Leave your ego at home

Most of the performers I worked with over the years have been gracious, humble, and diligent. A few, however, turned me off with their arrogance, over-the-top demands, or lack of discretion. The most successful artists, long term, are those who go out of their way to thank people and who treat the sound technician as well as the venue’s owner. Those are the performers who are offered more opportunities.

Since the beginning of my publication journey, I’ve had the opportunity to meet many of my fellow authors and a few of my literary heroes. Most of them have been more wonderful in person than I expected. A couple, however, acted like spoiled children. Guess whose books I stopped buying? Yep. Ask yourself: am I approachable, warm, and thankful for the opportunities life has given me? Or I am on a mission to impress everyone I meet, in order to “build my brand”?

4. There are no small parts, only small actors

So said Constantin Stanislavski. When you perform a small role with professionalism and excellence, the people in charge notice–and they’ll eventually give you more responsibility.

The same goes for becoming a better writer. If an editor asks for a 400-word piece, I’ve learned to take it seriously and do my best work. In this age of instant access, anyone can read your work at any time, from anywhere. Who knows what small beginnings might lead to larger opportunities?

And, finally, in related wisdom…

5. Know When to Stop

On stage and in writing, creatives need to develop an important skill: how to bring a something to a close. In the theater, we say that last line, spin on our heels, and exit, stage left. In writing, we find the right moment, the right phrase, the right word, and that’s it. The end.

Photo by Claire Burge. Used with permission. Post by Dena Dyer.


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  1. says

    Look who’s here!

    I like your No. 2, because it goes against my nature. But sometimes people want something because it’s good. That’s why I’m still doing my occasional dog posts. My readers helped me to see the value.

  2. says

    There’s hope for me after all since I’m warm and short, and even though I’m a vegan, I make a mean burger too. 😉

    All kidding aside, this is a great vantage point. Thanks so much for sharing this side of you. I appreciate how you’ve mingled your past with your present.


    • says

      Thanks for the kind words, Miss Darlene. It was fun “seeing” you–and my other friends on TSP. I’m honored to share about my theater life here.

  3. says

    Great lessons, Dena.

    One thing I witnessed while working summers at Wolf Trap Farm Park for the Performing Arts: the passion and love and fun of performing always comes through. The performers are on stage because they can’t imagine being anywhere else doing anything else. I think the same of people (and I count myself one of them) who say, “I write”. It’s what I do, and I can’t imagine doing anything else.

  4. says

    Dena, these are all fine things to remember when writing. Number four is especially true in theater. And in writing, though we strive to be original and make something uniquely our own, editing is a talent and an important part of original writing, and often it takes more than our own eye to see where something can be improved. Thanks for sharing your theater experience and bring it to bear on writing.

  5. says

    As Megan said… Look who’s here!

    I really like #4. We can’t all be a star. Some of us are supporting actors or maybe even just “extras.” We might not run like a river, and maybe we’re a mere drop. But, like Madeleine says, we all feed the lake.

  6. says

    I think #2 is the death of the artist, personally, though I can see its value and allure. With Lewis Hyde, art is a gift I pass on; sometimes, often perhaps, we don’t always get what we want.

    • says

      Anthony, I see your point; however, I didn’t mean to sound like we always give the audience what they want. Sometimes, we give them what they need or what we need to say. However, if we ignore the reader, we do so at our peril…in the world of publishing, anyway.

      Thanks for your input. I really appreciate you taking time to read and comment!


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