5 Crucial Writing Lessons I’ve Learned From 5 Years of Practice
Breaking news: making a full-time living as a writer isn’t easy.
You know that, but do you?
Do you act like you know how hard it is?
I’ve spent the past five years learning how to become a better writer and make a living from it. I’m glad it took that long because I appreciate all the lessons I had to learn along the way. That’s the thing. Success without work doesn’t even feel good.
You think you’d want fast success but you wouldn’t appreciate it even if you got it. You think the frustration that comes with building a writing career is something you’d want to avoid, but the struggles are the reward. Cliche? Sure. True? Hell yeah.
Now? After spending so much time trying to figure out how to become a successful writer myself, I’m focusing more on teaching and sharing lessons.
Here are some of the most crucial ones I’ve learned over the years.
The One Trait You Need to Be a Successful Writer
I love playing basketball. When I was in college I’d go to the gym and play every single day. There was just one problem. I wasn’t very good.
I’m 5 foot 10, which is small even for a point guard. I have bad hand-eye coordination and can’t shoot. I could practice 10 hours per day and I’d become mediocre at best. Wouldn’t even make a high school varsity team.
Talent matters. I hate when people who give writing advice pretend like it doesn’t. Even when my skills were raw, I intuitively understood how to write an essay pretty much instantly. That being said, no matter how much I practice I might never hit the New York Times Best Seller list or become a legendary writer.
What’s the lesson here? Be honest with yourself about whether or not you have the aptitude to do this.
I don’t think everyone should become a writer. And I think there are levels to writing success. I’m okay being “just a blogger” and I’ll never write a novel. I’m good with that. And I’m mainly saying this to discourage non-talented writers who get into the game to make money. Odds are, you have enough talent, but that doesn’t mean talent doesn’t matter. Get it?
Focus on becoming the best possible writer you can be. The great news? You don’t have to be a legend to make a living with your words. You can be pretty good. Hell, you can even be not so good as long as your words hit an emotional nerve, e.g., E.L. James, but still, I’d argue writing ‘good bad writing’ is a skill.
I just hate to see people spinning their wheels yet I see it all the time. Either the writers have the talent and don’t do the work or they’re the equivalent of first-round American idol contestants who can’t hear their own voice.
I’m not saying this to be discouraging. It’s just the truth.
Max out your talent with the understanding that maxing out your talent might not guarantee that you’ll become the world’s greatest author or a mega-influencer blogger.
If you think you have a shoot to be good, to be great, then do it. Stop bitching and put in the work. Show us.
The One Variable That Guarantees Success for Diligent Writers
I love giving this piece of advice to aspiring writers.
Find a writer you look up to who has a blog and go through their archives.
First, notice how long they’ve spent writing, period. Most archives of the writers you look up to will be five to 10 years deep. Next, bounce back and forth between reading their older and newer articles to spot the difference in quality.
If you practice writing long enough to compare your current self to your former self, do that, too. I look back at my first few blog posts and I can’t believe I wrote them. Another human being seemed to have stolen my identity and used to blog because that wasn’t me (read one here to see for yourself).
I wish I could give you a time machine and show you what your future self would look like. Not just the quality of your writing, but the attitude and confidence you’ll have after putting a few years of work under your belt.
You realize that if you make it past a certain length of time, your odds of quitting drop to essentially zero. I didn’t start to see the light at the end of the tunnel in terms of making a living writing until three to four years in, but I knew I’d never quit after about two years.
Why would I? I had done so much by then and, at worst, I could always write as a hobby without ever making it big.
You’ll get traction. And then you’ll have an audience who would miss you if you decided to quit. Make a little bit of money and that’s the icing on the cake. From there, you build a career.
Focus on the Intersection to Find (Commercial) Success
You don’t have to write for an audience.
You know that right?
Nobody is putting a gun to your head telling you to publish your work online or try to make a living from it. You can just keep a journal. If you want to write whatever you’d like, you can. But if you want to be a commercially successful writer, you have to find the intersection between what you want to write and what people want to read.
This doesn’t mean you have to write self-improvement listicles at all. People want to read Murakami, Cheryl Strayed, Robert Green, and Sylvia Plath, writers who are above my paygrade to even judge. Still, people want to read them. Most aspiring writers make the mistake of thinking they’re cultured and niche when really their writing just sucks.
You don’t have to sell out to make a living writing. You have to not suck and you have to write something other people are interested in reading. Most writers don’t do that and complain when readers don’t “get it.’
It’s not their job to get it.
It’s your job to articulate your thoughts and stories properly. For myself and many others, the blogging route makes the most sense to achieve this goal.
I used to knock MFAs, but they are worthwhile and you can be a successful literary writer. I just noticed many literary writers were pretentious and didn’t write all that much, so I was turned off to the idea. Now? I realize pretentiousness, lack of writing often, and lack of trying to understand an audience’s needs is a problem that plagues all forms and genres of writing.
Yes, perhaps you are misunderstood and the universe just needs time to catch up to your bold style chalked with foresight. Or maybe the market just doesn’t want what you have to offer.
Success in writing is like success in any other marketplace. You have to meet the demand of consumers and, yes, get lucky.
Like misguided business owners, writers think they can put out any product and people should buy it just because they created it.
Iterate until you find an audience, or don’t. Your choice.
Luck Plays a Role in Your Writing Success
I was in the right place at the right time, many times. My whole writing career started by chance when a friend asked me to write articles for his website.
I discovered the website Thought Catalog because I randomly saw an acquaintance post about it on her Facebook profile. What are the odds?
I submitted my articles to the site and landed on an editor who really liked my work and decided to mentor me for 18 months. Had my piece landed in the inbox of a different editor, this might not have happened.
I learned about Medium when I randomly saw someone Tweeting about it. I joined the site at the perfect time — new enough not to be crowded, but not so new it had few users.
I’ve had articles go viral, randomly. I’ve seen writers go viral early and build entire careers from it. Sometimes, I see writers who I think I’m better than getting better results than me.
What’s the lesson here?
You have to put yourself in a position to get lucky if you want to have a successful writing career. Each time you put your work out there, you’re placing a bet on your career. Train yourself to look for opportunities.
Platforms come and go, but understand that the written word is never going to go away. You have the rest of your life to figure out how to become a writer and the odds that the profession of writing will continue to exist is 100 percent.
Sometimes luck will go your way and sometimes it won’t. Write anyway.
All Successful Writers Have One Variable in Common
Do you like writing?
Is writing fun for you?
If not, why do it?
Writing can be frustrating. The words don’t come out the way you want them to, sometimes you feel like you’re never going to be good enough, and the idea of turning your writing into a career seems super distant. Still, you have to like writing and it has to be fun for you, or else you’ll quit.
I don’t know why writing for a living has become this sexy get rich quick scheme.
It’s not a great way to make money compared to all the other options, but it’s the perfect way to make money if you really want to make money writing. Not because you want the money, but because you want to do what you love and get paid for it at the same time.
I feel like most writers who become successful feel like they were put on this planet to write. Designed for it. If you don’t feel this way, maybe you shouldn’t become a writer. But if you do, and I’m guessing you do, you have to ride that belief, hard, until you get this to work.
If you feel like you’re designed to write, but you end up not writing, you’ll regret it forever. If you honor the way you’re wired and keep writing forever, you’ll be happy, regardless of how successful you become.
I could make more money doing something else, but then I wouldn’t be having any fun.
To make a serious go at becoming a writer, stop taking yourself so seriously the whole time. Work hard, but never forget the reason you started in the first place.
You have a message you want to share, right?
Then share it. Shouldn’t matter if you have an audience of 10 or 10 million if you mean what you write, right?
Of course, you want the fans. We all do. And you’ll get them if you have fun and practice with seriousness and playfulness at the same time.
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