Eight years ago, I started my journey as a professional writer. I won’t lie, it was a rough go. But I stuck with it. I stumbled, failed, muddled my way through, and eventually started to find a path.
I don’t feel like I’ve “arrived” – whatever that means. But I do feel like I’ve gained a certain amount of information or wisdom from hard experience. Sometimes in my flights of fancy I’ve thought about what I would tell newbie professional writer me that could’ve made the pathway less fraught with peril.
After I turn this topic over and over in my mind, realizing it will never help me but could help other writers, I’ve hammered out this list. My hope is it helps others to not fall into the same pits I did, and find a path to true success.
Failure Is What You Make of It
“An essential aspect of creativity is not being afraid to fail.” – Dr. Edwin Land
“If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.” – Elon Musk
How you fail tells so much about who you are. If you don’t want to deal with failure, a career as a writer is the wrong thing to pursue. It’s a pathway fraught with failure, and you better learn to embrace it. Some writers keep all their rejection letters and go through them periodically, because they’ve learned to not run away from their shortcomings.
You’ll always deal with the editor who seems to hate everything you do, readers who’re overly critical, and even sometimes other writers who focus on “taking you down.” Learn grace under fire, because it intensifies as you progress. Those who can’t take the heat shrivel and sometimes stop writing. Remembering on a regular basis why you started this arduous journey will propel you forward.
Writer’s Block Is a Fallacy
“I encourage my students at times like these to get one page of anything written, three hundred words of memories or dreams or stream of consciousness on how much they hate writing — just for the hell of it…” – Anne Lamott
If you’re dependent on what to write to literally keep the lights on, suddenly writer’s block melts away. The fact is you can always write – there’s nothing physically stopping you from it (at least, I hope there isn’t).
The real issue might be focus, or a lack thereof. The best way to hone that is to write until it comes to you. If you’re not sure what to write, just start writing out ideas and force yourself to continue until you have something decent.
When I first started out, sitting and writing for two hours straight was difficult. Now, I can write for eight hours straight and want to keep going. Building that focus is like weight lifting – you only cultivate it by regular and repeated effort.
Editing is the Real Work
“Editing might be a bloody trade, but knives aren’t the exclusive property of butchers. Surgeons use them too.” – Blake Morrison
Your rough drafts will suck – get over it. The real work is in revising and editing. Expecting perfection out of the gate not only is unrealistic, it will only serve to frustrate and demoralize you.
If what you wrote isn’t what you’d hoped for, when revising and editing you can reshape it to achieve the vision you have. Or you might find the new product is far better.
Track Everything – It Doesn’t Squelch Creativity
“If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.” – Peter Drucker
Some writers and creative entrepreneurs think tracking the hours they work, what they make, contacts with clients, etc. squelches their activity. Knowing what you’re doing, tracking it like an actual business, doesn’t kill your creative side. It means you’re acting responsibly. Hopefully you also take out the garbage, scrub the toilet, pay the electric bill and do other non-fun things. Ensuring you make enough helps so you can write more, instead of having to take on another job just to keep food on the table.
There’s a reason why successful businesses track everything, and measure progress regularly. Whatever isn’t measured cannot be improved easily, partly because you might not even know there’s a problem until it’s too late.
Brush off your Excel skills and keep habitual notes about what you do when, and the results. Even if the information you see in front of you is depressing, it will help you recognize where improvement is needed. Meticulously tracking the results will help you to see how your efforts at improvement are working or not, so you’re not making adjustments blindly.
Time is Money
“Time is money, especially when you are talking to a lawyer or buying a commercial.” – Frank Dane
Tracking your time helps you understand its value, because time literally is money when you work for yourself. Since you don’t have a boss standing over you, it’s vital you fill in the role of demanding that you put in enough hours to net the right results – whatever that may be.
While I can go see a movie in the middle of the day, I can tell you how much income I forfeit if I don’t make up for that excursion earlier or later. It makes me more accountable.
Balance Is an Illusion
“I have an amazing spouse; we’re a team. He works, and I work, and we sort of do this dance with each other so that we can be present to our kids. But I think the whole ‘balance’ thing is an illusion; we just embrace the imbalance.” – Sarah Rafferty
You’ll never achieve a perfect balance in work or life – it’s an illusion. Chasing after balance will leave you feeling inadequate and depressed.
Sometimes, you’ll have quite a few deadlines and work will be a huge priority. Other times you’ll go on vacation and time with family dominates. It’s okay to let some things take over more than others, as long as the pedulum swings the other way at different times. Always letting one thing win out will throw you off, and lead to a dissatisfying life.
Eat Well, Exercise and Sleep
“I love sleep. My life has a tendency to fall apart when I’m awake, you know?” – Ernest Hemingway
Even when you’re super busy, you must take care of yourself. As the old proverb says, you can’t pour from an empty cup. Your body needs sleep. Not getting enough sleep has some serious health consequences. I know the temptation is to cut back big time on sleep to get more done, but I can also tell you from experience the measure backfires.
Eating real food and exercising will stimulate your brain, and you’ll be more productive and creative. Get out into nature and exercise as much as possible, because it’s good for your very soul. In the end, you must take care of yourself, because you are your greatest asset.
Always Be Promoting Yourself
“Self-improvement is the name of the game, and your primary objective is to strengthen yourself, not to destroy an opponent.” – Maxwell Maltz
There shouldn’t be a single day that goes by where you don’t do something to promote your brand. It could be cold-calling potential clients, pitching an idea to editors, writing a blog post, connecting with key individuals in your industry – whatever.
In this business, you’re always moving forward or back. There’s no standing still. If you’re not looking to be landing the bigger, better deal every day, guess which direction you could find yourself traveling?
It’s easy to put this off when you’re up to your eyeballs in work. I don’t care if you just spend fifteen minutes some days promoting yourself, and other days you spend two hours. The important part is you’re consistently doing it.
Real Artists Ship
“Real artists ship.” – Steve Jobs
The man who rocked the tech industry understood one important fact: the proof is in the pudding. If you don’t make any pudding, that’s some sobering proof.
You can have a thousand trunk novels and never receive any royalties, acknowledgements, etc. In the end, if you really want to be an artist, you must ship or produce finished works. They don’t have to be perfect, because that’s not realistic. Perfection is boring and overrated anyway.
Ultimately, you decided how often and how much you ship. But if you’re a real artist, you’re producing finished works for others to enjoy.
How Info Is Presented Is Everything
“When I was 14-years-old, I made this PowerPoint presentation, and I invited my parents into my room and gave them popcorn. It was called ‘Project Hollywood 2004’ and it worked. I moved to L.A. in January of 2004.” – Emma Stone
Think of a beautiful cake. Someone slices off a piece, places it on a plate, and hands it to you with a fork -that’s good presentation. If a person were to grab a wad of the same cake and slap it on a paper towel, then shove it at you, you’d probably throw it away. It’s the same cake, but the difference in presentation is everything.
I’ve learned there are many ways to present information. Some are better than others. Some are horrible and should be avoided at all costs. You should always be looking for the best methods to present whatever information is in your possession.The audience you’re writing for will dictate how you present the information. The purpose of your message also feeds into the presentation method. This isn’t an easy skill to harness, but to be an excellent writer you must master it.
You’re More Than a Writer
“Musicians play the instruments. I play the orchestra.” – Steve Jobs
You wear a lot of hats as a writer, so stop acting like all you do and all you’re good at is writing. The days of writers sitting in a remote cabin with a typewriter and a bottle of whisky, sending finished manuscripts by mail to publishers is over.
As a writer, you’re an entrepreneur – you work for yourself. Don’t forget that. You’re essentially a small business, and you must act like it. You need to fill in other roles, otherwise you’ll spend large sums of money hiring others to do those tasks for you. That cuts into your profit, and squeezes you. This means you might be doing at least some of your accounting, marketing, etc.
If you don’t know how to do those things, learn. Writing is all about becoming an expert on a topic in little time, so you should be able to pick up these skills in short order, if you put your mind to it.
Focus On Incremental Victories Instead of Big Wins
“Those who celebrate the small victories and simple pleasures win the game over and over again.” – unknown
Don’t dream about the million-dollar book contract, because those don’t happen very often. Instead, focus on making incremental progress. Celebrate your small victories, because that will propel you forward and help you get out of bed each day feeling ready to take on whatever comes your way.
This doesn’t mean you can’t have a lofty goal. It does mean if you’re always dreaming of achieving that big goal, and not focusing on the tasks at hand, you’ll have a tough time achieving that goal.
Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously
“To make mistakes is human; to stumble is commonplace; to be able to laugh at yourself is maturity.” – William Arthur Ward
If you can’t laugh at yourself, something’s wrong. Always take your work seriously, but when it comes to you, just don’t. This means nothing is “below” you, especially as you’re starting out. Remember that Doctor Seuss used to write ads for oil companies, because he had bills to pay.
Trust me, editors are sick of working with prima donna writers who act like everyone’s lucky to be graced by their wordsmithery. By being able to laugh at your mistakes, realizing you’re only human, you’ll win over others. Taking yourself too seriously becomes tiresome for everyone around you.
You can still have swagger and not take yourself too seriously. I’m not talking about disparaging yourself. This is about turning down your ego’s intensity level.
Original Ideas Are Only Part of the Equation
“Most people miss opportunity because it’s dressed in overalls and looks like work.” – Thomas Edison
You can have the most original, awesome ideas, but if your execution sucks you won’t get far. I’ve read books and articles where I can tell the genesis was a great idea, but things went downhill from there. I’ve also read books and articles where they don’t contain many original ideas, but they’re written so well I can’t help but be captivated.
Of course, the best books and articles I’ve read start with an original idea, and are crafted so exquisitely they’re absolutely enthralling to read. This should be every writer’s goal.
Also, see above about my advice on how information is presented .
Others Will Always Be Better
“Start telling the stories that only you can tell, because there’ll always be better writers than you and there’ll always be smarter writers than you. There will always be people who are much better at doing this or doing that – but you are the only you.” – Neil Gaiman
Focus on you, not on how some writer for the New York Times is doing things you feel are beyond your abilities. Only you can tell the story you have in your heart, only you can show your perspective. You’re unique. If you’re true to who and what you are, that’s your greatest strength.