17 May How to be a successful writer
About twice a week someone asks me a variation of the same question:
“How do you find the discipline to write?”
Sometimes it’s more like, “Oh, I’ve always wanted to be a writer! How do you do it?”
The short answer is that this is my career. How does a teacher stay disciplined to teach? How does a doctor find time to treat patients? How does an electrician earn a living? They study, they train, they practice, and they show up. They do their work. In my case, I earned a master’s degree in journalism. I reported for daily newspapers. I held editorial positions at national magazines. And now, I freelance write for national magazines, websites, and businesses. I’ve been a paid, professional writer for 15 years (longer if you count the pieces I published while still in college). I sit down at my desk every day, and I do my job, a job that I adore.
But, when I take a step back, I realize that’s not really what folks are asking. At the core of these questions, I believe, is a universal desire: People want to tell their stories. They don’t care how I find the time to write. Or maybe they do… but more pressing is THEIR desire to write, either for themselves or for a larger audience.
I think what they’re really asking is, “How can I do it?”
So, to that end, I’ve put together a few tips.
HOW TO BE A SUCCESSFUL WRITER:
1. Practice. Writing should become a regular habit. Daily, preferably. Don’t wait for inspiration to strike. Block out an hour (or two hours or 20 minutes…whatever feels doable) on your calendar. Turn off your mobile phone and WiFi. Tell your loved ones you’re unavailable, and start writing.
2. Let go of expectations. Don’t set goals. At least not in the beginning, because if you fail to achieve them, you may be discouraged from writing. Success can mean many things — there’s financial success, there’s recognition, there’s the success of simply telling your story or impacting one reader’s life.
3. Practice some more. No excuses. You have to just sit your ass down and do it. Set a timer, if that helps. Tell yourself you won’t stop writing until the timer goes off. Do it.
4. Write for yourself first. Unless you have an assignment to fulfill, write for you and only you. Write like no one will ever read it, and you’ll be surprised by what comes out. When we stop worrying about what others might think, our best work surfaces. The story we need to tell (as opposed to the one we think we should tell) spills onto the page.
5. Seek feedback from someone who isn’t your best friend or your mother. If you want to get better, find thoughtful readers who will be honest with you. Don’t know anyone like that? Hire an editor or join a writers group. Really listen to what they have to say. But also don’t take it too personally. Their feedback is a reaction to your work, not a reflection of who you are.
6. Read. A lot. Study your favorite authors. Read dozens of essays or books similar to the ones you want to write. Look at the way other writers work, how they push the boundaries (or how they don’t). Don’t steal their work. Instead, draw inspiration from it and think about what you want your writing to accomplish.
7. Don’t assume a writing career will just happen. Sure, there’s always an overnight success story. But the vast majority of successful writers persist for years, for decades. They study. They practice. They revise. They submit. They are rejected. They submit again. They endure criticism.
8. If your goal is to become a paid, professional writer, then you need to behave like a paid, professional writer. Don’t give your writing away for free. Market yourself and your ideas. If you get an assignment, fulfill it (on time!). Network.
9. Persevere. Yes, it requires talent to be a successful writer. But perhaps more than that, it takes grit. Persistence. Courage to keep moving forward, to keep practicing, to put words on paper every day, to face rejection, to try again.