As a father to two young boys, I often find myself employing the “tough love” approach when it’s necessary.
For example, if my wife and I are sitting at the kitchen table with big bowls of chocolate ice cream, and my 5-year old wants a few bites, but he didn’t eat his dinner? He’s not getting a taste.
On the surface, it sounds harsh. And it feels harsh sometimes. But I’m not denying him delicious ice cream because I’m selfish or a mean dad. I’m doing it to teach him a valuable lesson: you don’t get treats if you don’t eat your dinner. Eat the healthy stuff first, and you’re allowed to reward yourself once in a while.
Tough love can be super important, and effective. But as a writer? It’s even more important.
We all want the “delicious rewards” of writing: the feeling of accomplishment, a completed work of brilliant prose, and possibly an audience of thousands throwing money at you for more of it.
However, we don’t get those rewards without doing the “healthy stuff” first.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t have a “writing father” standing behind me to hold me accountable for those things. It’s not like sitting at the dinner table: I’m by myself out here! You probably are, too.
In place of a parent, we ought to look to those who have already achieved great things in writing. And fortunately, successful writers are often very forthcoming with their advice and tips to help you get on the right track.
Below are ten essential lessons to learn if you want to be a successful author, blogger, poet, or content creator of any kind. And oh boy, some of them are tough to hear.
Yet, that’s the point. To these authors, you can’t have success without understanding these truths… just like my boy can’t have ice cream without finishing his dinner.
- 1. Writers read. A lot.
- 2. You have to practice.
- 3. The only thing that counts is words on the page.
- 4. Writing won’t get easier until you start doing it.
- 5. You will have critics.
- 6. There are a lot of ways you can feel like working – but the only way to work is writing.
- 7. Your writing could be a lot better.
- 8. Writing is hard.
- 9. Real writing is not romantic.
- 10. You are your own worst critic, now and forever.
1. Writers read. A lot.
“Read a thousand books, and your words will flow like a river.” ― Lisa See
I want to be a unicorn.
No, I don’t want to literally be a horse with a horn growing out of his head. But I do want to be a writer that doesn’t have to read. I would much rather sit down and bang out a few chapters of amazing words every day, then go about the rest of my life doing other things.
But that’s not how it works.
If you want to learn more about good writing, you have to be reading good writing! It doesn’t necessarily have to be in the genre you’re writing in, but learning how to put together and structure quality stories – and even sentences! – means consuming a lot of it.
Just like in school, you can’t pass the test without studying first. If you’re a writer, you better be reading.
2. You have to practice.
“You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.” ― Octavia E. Butler
When I was in high school, I was stocking shelves at a small grocery store. It was early in my time there, so I wasn’t quite sure what I was doing yet.
Standing in the same aisle as a notoriously-grumpy and often-angry store manager, I was doing my best to “face” the shelves (“facing” means turning the products so their labels are facing out, and stacking them so they look pleasing to the eye).
For whatever reason, I was fiddling with a row of cans, not really doing anything, because I thought I should look like I was working hard. I was terrified to ask my manager any questions.
He walked up to me, confused. “What are you doing?”
I stuttered out an answer. I don’t even know what I said, but I put my hands on my hips and pointed to the cans, mumbling a bunch of nonsense that I couldn’t even repeat. I was like Chris Farley in Tommy Boy: “I was just checking out the specs on the… rotary… girder…”
This manager, who I had been told by everybody was angry and crabby at everyone, laughed and patted me on the shoulder with a big smile on his face. “Come on, let’s go.”
I think I apologized as I followed behind him, and with the smile still on his face, he told me something that I have always remembered to this day: “You’re not born knowing how to face shelves. You have to learn. It’s okay if you don’t know what you’re doing yet.”
While you can – and should – apply that to just about everything, let’s look at it in the context of writing.
Yes, you should know how to write, right? You’ve read a bunch! You know what good writing looks like! It’s just putting words on a page. Easy!
Not so much.
You can watch an NFL quarterback throw a perfect spiral, but you can’t do it yourself without actually throwing a bunch of footballs poorly and adjusting your approach. And that’s okay.
Put in the reps. Write. Then write some more. It’ll be garbage in the beginning. You aren’t born knowing how to write. You have to learn.
3. The only thing that counts is words on the page.
“You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.” ― Jodi Picoult
I’m a classic edit-as-I-go writer. I want to get the perfect word every time.
That might work some of the time, but more often than not, great writing happens in the editing process. You can’t get there unless you write it first.
Get the words down first. You can make them better later. There is no shortcut to this – write a bad page and improve it.
The longer you sit with a blank page, the farther away you are from the final page.
4. Writing won’t get easier until you start doing it.
“Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.” ― Louis L’Amour
There’s one step you can’t skip: starting.
You can plot. You can outline. You can plan. You can eat a good breakfast, light a candle, set up your writing app just right.
In other words, you can do everything right. The words might still not come.
That’s the bad news. The good news is, they will if you start.
For me, that line is 500 words. Once I get to 500 words, it feels like the faucet starts opening up. I have to fight, claw, scratch, pull teeth, and do whatever I physically have to do to get those 500 words out of my head and onto the page. It could take an entire hour.
But once I get there, the words start flowing.
You can’t get flowing until you get started. One drop at a time until it turns into a stream.
5. You will have critics.
“I would advise anyone who aspires to a writing career that before developing his talent he would be wise to develop a thick hide.” ― Harper Lee
If you’re writing privately, this might not apply to you. But if you have any aspirations to write publicly in a book or a blog, or even in a Facebook post, be prepared.
Sometimes it’ll be constructive, and you’ll feel bad but thankful that you have something that you can improve on.
Other times, you’ll get stuff like this review that I recently received for one of my books:
There are just people in this world who are negative. They’re angry, critical, and thanks to the internet in 2020, they want to use their platform to tear down as much as possible.
Thanks to my years of being a copywriter, I can laugh off reviews like that one. I think it’s pretty hilarious, and more hilarious that they refused to put their name on it. This is extremely common online.
But if I were starting out? And if I didn’t have 60+ five-star reviews ahead of that one? I can see how it would be devastating to my self-esteem. Writers quit over feedback like that!
Rise above it. If there’s constructive criticism in there, take it and learn from it. If it’s ridiculous, recognize that and move forward. Write more. Write better.
You can’t shield yourself from criticism. All you can do is learn how to handle it.
6. There are a lot of ways you can feel like working – but the only way to work is writing.
“When I say work I only mean writing. Everything else is just odd jobs.” ― Margaret Laurence
This one is pretty straightforward, so I’ll be brief.
Answering emails. Improving your website design. Adjusting your auto-responder funnel. Outlining your story. Designing your cover. Formatting your book. Cleaning your desk.
There are a million ways you can “work” without writing.
If you’re not writing, though, you’re not getting the most important job done. Get to writing.
7. Your writing could be a lot better.
“Substitute "damn" every time you're inclined to write "very." Your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” ― Mark Twain
A lot of the words you write are probably unnecessary.
This quote is my favorite because of how applicable it is. Your writing is likely bloated with words and phrases that you use too much, and it’s crushing the quality of your writing and turning off readers.
Instead, find a way to clean it up, streamline it, and edit it out. The more efficient your writing is, the better it will be.
(Plus, you don’t actually have to do this trick – there’s a tool out there that can scan your writing and help you clean it up automatically…)
8. Writing is hard.
“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” ― George Orwell
There’s a weird parenting trend out there where we tell our kids how great they are at everything, and when they think something is hard, we try to convince them that it’s easy and they’re already brilliant at it.
I think it’s garbage.
When my son is unhappy with a picture that he draws, he asks me to draw it for him. I tell him that I won’t. I want him to try again.
If he tells me that it’s too hard, I agree with him. But then I tell him to try anyway. Why? Because it’s important that he learns life is going to throw hard problems at him, and he should try to solve them in spite of it.
Every writer needs to learn this lesson.
It’s hard. Improving a character arc is hard. Making your writing more accessible to readers is hard. Creating a world from scratch is hard.
It’s all so, so difficult. But it’s worth it.
You don’t get to the other side of the difficulty by thinking it’s easy. You get there by knowing it’s hard – and doing it anyway.
9. Real writing is not romantic.
“People on the outside think there’s something magical about writing, that you go up in the attic at midnight and cast the bones and come down in the morning with a story, but it isn’t like that. You sit in back of the typewriter and you work, and that’s all there is to it.” ― Harlan Ellison
Let’s ditch the ideal for a moment.
Yeah, it’s cool to work from a hip coffee shop while sipping designer coffee and typing away on your fancy Macbook, music blasting away.
It’s a nice idea to lie in a hammock in the shade of a palm tree, getting the work done while drinking lemonade.
Those things are awesome. And once in a while, they happen.
Most of the time, however, writing is sitting at the same old desk you always sit at. You haven’t showered yet. Your headphones are blasting music to distract you from the kids running around on the other side of the door.
You have a stomachache from some bad dinner from the night before, so you’re stepping out every 15–20 minutes to go to the bathroom. You didn’t sleep well either, so your head is bobbing at the desk.
Nothing romantic about it.
If you follow alleged writers on social media, then you’ve seen inspirational posts with clean desktops, steaming mugs of coffee, and sunshine streaming in the window.
It’s difficult work. Please just admit it to yourself and be okay with it. It doesn’t always look cool.
And it’s still worth it.
10. You are your own worst critic, now and forever.
“The work never matches the dream of perfection the artist has to start with.” ― William Faulkner
You’ll never be “happy.”
Yes, this sounds like the harshest truth of all. And maybe you’re the unique soul whose work matches their high expectations. Good for you. The rest of us can’t stand you.
For the majority, we’re going to sit down at our laptops, dreaming of life-changing quality. We’ll hit the keys with enthusiasm, imagining that we are assembling the seminal work that creates superfans and builds empires.
Then, when it’s all said and done, and we’ve finally typed THE END, we lean back to look at what we’ve created, and it’s… okay.
Let me be clear: it may very well be unbelievable and a paragon of quality. It’s just not going to feel like it.
There will be flaws. Nothing is perfect. And it might just not look like the beauty that spun around in your head.
You might feel like a failure, an impostor, and somebody who should quit writing and go sit in a cubicle farm and answer phones all day.
William Faulkner – The Sound And The Fury, As I Lay Dying William Faulkner – says your work won’t match up to your standards.
Don’t torture yourself. The feeling is as universal as it can get.
What the Harsh Truths Tell Us
Looking back over these quotes, there’s one final lesson that I think covers all of this: Write often. Read often. It will be hard, but do it anyway.
It’s hard for everybody. There’s no avoiding it.
It might be tough love, but it’s comforting to know, right?