As the popular image of writing would have it, writers sit around sipping coffee and pouring beautiful words onto pads of paper with expensive pens. They don’t have to work for those words, except perhaps to rephrase something now and then. They get to do whatever they want; their fans adore them; and publishers throw lots of money at them.
Or maybe not. Various misconceptions about writing color this image; they involve a lot of hard lessons that many writers really don’t like to learn.
Lesson #1: Writers Need Bad Drafts and Editing
Sometimes stories pour out almost fully-formed. If you do this too often, though, it can turn into a trap. Eventually you come to believe (or maybe you started out believing) that if a story doesn’t come out right in the first draft, it sucks and needs to be thrown away wholesale. Truthfully, stories need a lot of revision. Your second draft will probably look totally different than your first. Maybe only a few ideas survive from first draft to second, or a partial scene, or a character you like.
Until you can come to terms with the idea that your writing isn’t perfect, you won’t make the necessary revisions. Writers struggle through draft after draft on their way to that final version. If you don’t make the revisions, your story won’t live up to its potential.
Give in. Allow yourself to write bad first drafts. By relaxing and giving yourself permission to mess up, you’ll probably find it easier to get words onto paper. You won’t want to keep all of them, of course. But you’ll have a lot more raw material to turn into finished product via the philosopher’s stone of revision.
Lesson #2: Writing for Yourself vs. Writing Professionally
Many people have the image of a writer that comes from writing for yourself, but the expectation of publication that comes from writing professionally. They assume that every story or book they write is meant for publication, but they approach things as though they write for themselves.
Writing for yourself means that you write on your own schedule and in your own way. You don’t have a pre-arranged contract for what you write, although you might have hopes of finding a publisher when you finish. Writing professionally means that you have some sort of a contract or assignment, whether for your own planned book or someone else’s outlined material. (Or at the very least you have a track record of being able to sell your work to magazines and other venues and you plan to continue doing so.) You have a deadline and hopefully a pre-arranged payment. You have a reasonable expectation of publication. These two ways of writing don’t have to be entirely incompatible, but in the ways that many people approach them, they often are.
When you write for yourself you tend to have different concerns than when you write professionally. When you write for yourself you can choose how and what you’ll write, how often, and in what manner. If you feel inspired to do something different than what you originally had planned, you can do that. If you feel stuck, you can put something aside for a while. When you write professionally you need to stick to a schedule, write what you have to, and move on to the next thing when it comes time to do so. If someone hires you to write a thousand words of non-fiction, you can’t give them 3,000 words of fiction instead. If you plan to sell your stories to a high-paying magazine then you need to get your grammar right and plug your plot holes.
You can choose to write for yourself and not for publication. You can choose to write what you want, in the way that you want, with the full realization that the market might well not want the results. You can choose to ignore grammar, characterization, and a solid plot. But if you do this, you need to understand that you write for yourself, not for the market, and that the odds that you’ll find someone who wants to buy it are about the same as the odds of your winning the lottery. It’s okay to write for yourself. But you need to separate out the romantic image of the lone writer from the expectation of the results that a professional gets. You need to decide whether or not you write for publication.
Lesson #3: Write for Yourself Before Publication
Now, all of that said, both writing for yourself and writing professionally have their place in the professional’s life. Learn to write for yourself before you dive into a professional career as a writer. Don’t push yourself to publish before you should.
You need to spend time writing for your own enjoyment. You need to build up the understanding in yourself that, whether or not you sell a given piece of writing, and whether or not it turns out perfectly, you can still get satisfaction out of having written it. Developing that understanding first will help to keep you from burning out later on.
For that matter, make sure you still write some things for yourself no matter how much professional work you do. It will help to keep you happy and satisfied with your writing. Learn to balance writing for yourself and writing as a professional in your life.
Lesson #4: Craft Takes Time and Practice
Far too many people think that being able to write and being able to write well mean the same thing. If you like what you write it must be good, right? To you, sure, but not necessarily to everyone else.
Like many other things, writing breaks down into skill and talent. You may have some natural talent (or maybe not), but that doesn’t mean that you have the skill yet (and if you don’t have the talent, that doesn’t mean you can’t develop the skill). Skill takes time and effort to develop. It involves developing an understanding of everything from proper grammar and spelling to pacing and metaphor. David Gerrold, in Worlds of Wonder, says that your first million words count only as practice. In The Pocket Muse, Monica Wood suggests that writing requires a 10-year apprenticeship. There exists no hard-and-fast rule, but it helps to understand that it takes time to learn to write well.
Don’t expect perfection from yourself right from the start. Accept that you have things to learn, and learn them.
Lesson #5: You Learn by Doing… Partially
There are some things you will have to learn from other people. You can do this by reading books by authors you enjoy and paying attention to how they do what they do; taking classes and workshops; getting evaluations of your work from editors, teachers, and peers; reading books, magazines, and web sites about writing; and so on. You must do at least a little of this, because you can’t objectively judge your own work and find every flaw in it without at least a little guidance and training. Other writers have a great deal of wisdom to share with you; don’t ignore that.
However, none of this will help you learn what works for you. Writing is a very individualistic thing; what works for one person won’t work for another. You figure out what works for you by writing. Teachers and books and classes can only tell you what has worked for other people. They can only give you certain people’s opinions of what works and doesn’t work in your writing. Only by writing can you take that advice, figure out which parts of it have value to you and which don’t, and turn all of that into a beautiful piece of prose or poetry.
So don’t ignore the advice of others, but don’t take classes and read books to the exclusion of doing your own writing and self-evaluation.
Lesson #6: Someone Hates Your Work
Someone somewhere hates your work. Oh, maybe not yet, particularly if you haven’t had anything published. But they will someday.
Why? Well, think about it for a moment. Think about your parents, siblings, and friends. Think about the books they love. Do you totally agree with any of them? Can you think of books they love that you abhor? Does your sister devour trashy romance novels that sicken you? Does your brother like juvenile space opera that irritates you? Does your mother loathe those detective novels that thrill you? Have you ever had the experience of wondering how on earth a certain novel could have made the best-seller list?
We all like different sorts of writing. So no matter how good your writing, no matter how brilliant your prose, someone will hate your work. You should understand that now rather than later. It will help to get you through the inevitable negative reviews that happen when someone reads your work, decides they don’t like it, and says so to the rest of the world. It will help you to understand that these reviews won’t endthe world or your career. It will help you to understand that you shouldn’t give up based on someone else’s opinion of your work, nor get angry at these people or say nasty things to them. It will help you to understand that negative reviews and rejection happen to every writer,big or small, famous or unknown.
After all, if you can dislike romance novels, or space opera, or detective novels, then someone else can dislike your work. Allow them that privilege. You wouldn’t want someone to take it away from you.
Lesson #7: Writing Will Make You Poor (In All Likelihood)
I remember a survey not all that long ago that said your average professional writer makes $4,000 a year. A year. Not month. Certainly not week. And in order to get anywhere, you have to spend way too much of your time doing market research, publicity for your own work, and a whole lot of other things that have nothing to do with the actual act of writing that seems so romantic right now.
So temper your dreams of fame and fortune with a dose of reality. Remember that most writers linger in poverty and anonymity; only a rare few skyrocket up to wealth and fame.
So many people fall in love with the romantic image of the lone writer, doing everything for art and saying “screw you” to anyone who tells them to do something differently. It’s a perfectly valid way to write, but it isn’t a perfectly valid way to write for publication. Make sure you consciously decide whether or not you care about selling your work. And if you do care, be prepared to handle the realities of the professional writer–not just the romantic image.