“How to Become a Writer” takes the form of a self-help column, employing the second-person point of view (“you”) as if to instruct the protagonist, Francie, on the steps to take in order to become a writer. From the very first sentence, whose advice is to try something other than writing, it’s clear that the story is poking fun at the idea of a step-by-step guide to becoming a writer.
As a teenager, Francie searches for a way to express her feelings of failure and frustration in writing. She tries poetry but settles on the short story form, though her teacher, Mr. Killian, criticizes the strange plot of the first story she hands in, which depicts an elderly couple shooting each other by accident. Francie’s success as a babysitter prompts her to major in child psychology in college. In her freshman year, she finds herself in a creative writing course due to a computer error and decides not to drop it. Francie’s teacher criticizes her stories’ bizarre plots, which usually involve sudden explosions in domestic settings, while her advisor instructs her to focus on the courses in her major.
Francie continues to take creative writing courses, though her peers consistently struggle to understand the plots of her stories. Her boyfriend and roommate don’t seem to understand her desire to write—yet writing is the only thing that excites her. When a professor encourages her class to write about their own lives, she reflects on the three major events of the last three years: she had sex for the first time, her parents divorced, and her brother returned from the Vietnam War severely injured. She addresses the first two events in her writing, but when it comes to the third, she can’t write anything.
Francie’s mother comes to visit and despairs at Francie’s choice to switch her major to creative writing. Francie continues to write stories featuring seemingly random explosions. Eventually, she applies to law school but then decides not to go. Over the next few years, she continues to write while taking temporary jobs. She drifts away from her friends, breaks up with her boyfriend, and begins to date men who enjoy rough sex. Though she insists to those around her that writing was never one of her ambitions, she withdraws her savings and quits her jobs to focus on writing.