I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. The writing life has taught me a lot of lessons, most of them the hard way. While those lessons could probably fill an entire book by now, here are five of my favorites.
It’s never done the first time you call it done.
Several years ago I trotted off to a big writing conference with a manuscript I’d spent years honing to perfection. I’d made a big push to get it done before I arrived. I wanted to get the most out of agent meetings I’d paid for as conference add-ons.
And in those agent meetings I had an epiphany: the book wasn’t done. Not even close. I started writing new sections on the train ride home. Those sections eventually added 30,000 words to the novel previously known as “finished.”
Most of my drafts go through at least one round of me thinking it’s done when it’s really not. Subsequent drafts spring from critique feedback, rejection letters, and plain old passage of time. We all need to bite the bullet and call a piece done eventually, but it’s a good idea to hold off on submitting to dream markets until you’ve had at least one “it’s not done yet” moment.
Progress happens in small doses.
If you spend any time on writing Twitter, you may notice writers cheering each other on and sharing word counts. It’s a very supportive community. However, I’ve learned to ignore all of the following:
- How many words other writers write in one day
- How long it takes another writer to finish a first draft
- Other writers’ process for getting that first draft done
I can write a heck of a lot in one sitting, but I never set high daily word count goals. I use tiny goals — think 50-100 words — to tempt myself to my desk, then I do as much as I can. Hundreds of thousands of words later, I can tell you it works.
How I balance my family, writing, and other work is my business. It’s tempting to compare ourselves to other writers, but everyone writes books the same way: one word at a time. The most important factor is consistency and writing at a sustainable pace. It’s okay if that pace is not 3,000 words per day.
If readers say it’s not working, it’s not working.
It hurts to see our favorite scenes and chapters fall flat, but sometimes they do. If one person suggests I rework or even cut a scene that doesn’t work for them, I may talk myself into keeping it. I never ignore more than one person telling me a scene doesn’t work.
Soul-wrenching though it may be, there’s no use defending a choice that weakens your story. Sometimes that means cutting a precious chapter. In those cases I observe a moment of silence in its honor before copying it into a “deleted scenes” file for that project.
Critiques are not step-by-step instructions.
When people give feedback on a piece of writing, they often provide a “what if” scenario or some specific examples to illustrate their point. What if you moved this event earlier in the book? Or perhaps, you use a lot of dialogue tags and it can get distracting.
It’s easy to get burned out on edits and take these suggestions as instructions. However, you’ll only feel more frustrated when your writing group tells you they don’t know who’s talking because you removed all your dialogue tags or your pacing still feels off. You might think, But I did everything they said!
Critique can take time to digest. Sometimes the fix is simple, but big structural or character development issues can require significant problem-solving. Don’t rush to check all the boxes and bring your story back to your critique group for a gold star. Let the path forward appear out of the mists of your creative brain. Then implement that critique feedback in a way that fits your vision for the story.
There’s no glory in self-sacrifice.
Sometimes it seems like every successful writer has a story about the sacrifices they made to get their books into the world. J.K. Rowling famously said she finished the Harry Potter books as a single mother by “living in squalor.”
That’s not me. It never will be. I don’t stay up half the night to write. I don’t neglect housekeeping for months on end while I finish a big project. If I did, I wouldn’t be happy.
I do whatever it takes to maintain my productivity and mental health. That means different things to different people, but for me I know it means getting enough sleep and keeping my home in order. It means taking care of myself and setting reasonable goals to avoid burnout.
No one gets an award for running themselves into the ground for a book. All that matters is that you finish the manuscript. How you get there is up to you, and it doesn’t need to be gnarly.