The writing life can be unglamourous and difficult, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I’ve been writing since before I started kindergarten. Despite many frustrations along the way, I suspect I’ll be writing for a long time to come.
Want to know what it takes to stick it out for the long haul? Here are my top five tips:
Develop a growth mindset
No matter how much talent you have, you will experience failure and rejection as a writer. Your dream publication will send you a form rejection letter. Someone will leave you a nasty one-star review. You’ll spend months revising a story only to have your critique group tell you it’s still not working.
This is all part of the writing life. You can choose one of two responses to failure and criticism: either you embrace it as an opportunity to learn and grow or you take it as confirmation you’ll never make it.
The latter comes from a fixed mindset, or a belief that talent is innate. Talent will betray you if you let it. Sure, it makes us feel warm and fuzzy to hear someone say “you’re such a good writer,” but the high fades quickly in the face of criticism. Instead of focusing on talent, focus on effort. Develop a growth mindset: a belief that you can succeed at anything with enough persistence and hard work.
Natural talent won’t make you a great writer. You also need a thick skin, an open mind, and a heck of a lot of patience and grit.
Seek out critique
My time in art school gave me one of the most valuable lessons of my professional life: it taught me how to process critique. I got used to showing my work in progress, even when it was still ugly. Our professors didn’t allow us to give vague feedback like “I like it” or “it’s really good.” I was surrounded by talented artists. They gave articulate critiques and didn’t sugarcoat the truth when something wasn’t working. Sometimes it felt brutal and demoralizing, but I learned to crave critique as a vital part of my process.
Over a decade after graduating with my BFA, I run a critique group full of strong writers and readers. We’ve all become better writers as a result of each others’ feedback. I can’t imagine my life or my writing without them.
If you’re showing your work for the first time when you self-publish or submit it, it’s too late. Look for people who can critique your work at a level that will force you to grow. Find out what isn’t working before you get those rejection letters and one-star reviews. You will grow in ways you never imagined.
Write even when it isn’t fun
Some days the words flow freely and I remember all the reasons I love being a writer. Other days I stare at the blinking cursor and think I’ll be lucky to write a single sentence today.
Like any long-term relationship, our feelings about our writing ebb and flow. But writing is a verb. Something you do. When your inspiration disappears, don’t wait passively for it to return. Keep writing. Keep showing up.
Every project hits a point where it no longer feels fun. Don’t let this discourage you. It’s part of the process. Keep writing, even if you only get one sentence onto the page today. Eventually you’ll emerge on the other side and remember why it is you keep going.
Take a writing retreat from time to time
While I’m a big proponent of daily writing habits and attainable word count goals, I need more than a daily grind. I occasionally need to remove myself from distractions and give myself time — and obligation — to get deep into my writing flow.
I’ve finished two books at my grandmother’s beach bungalow. It’s quiet, I have nowhere to go and many fewer responsibilities around the house, and there’s no internet access. When I go there, my brain knows it’s time to write.
Plus, I’ve asked my husband to adjust his schedule to accommodate my absence for a few days. Even if the words aren’t flowing, I feel more pressure to hit my goals. I appreciate his support and I want to have something to show for myself when I return.
If you can’t get away for an overnight retreat, take your laptop or notebook to your local public library or a quiet coffee shop. Take a day off work while your kids are in school. Set aside chunks of alone time specifically for your writing. Take your work seriously and expect others to do the same.
Help other writers
In a world where so many people seem to achieve viral success, it’s easy to forget what a small percentage they represent. Your success will likely depend on other writers. Remember this in your interactions with the writing community — especially when someone else needs a favor.
Writers help each other in many different ways. We signal boost and promote each others’ work. New authors ask more established voices to read their work and provide blurbs. Critique partners help prepare each others’ stories for submission and publication. Book reviews on Goodreads, Amazon, and blogs spread the word about an author’s work to new audiences. The writing community is a vast and interdependent ecosystem.
At some point another writer will help you get ahead. Once you’re in a position to help someone else, don’t think yourself too busy or too important to pay it forward. Never assume a fellow writer isn’t worth your time because they aren’t famous. Your writer friends often provide some of the best support and signal boosting.
Lastly, be nice. Keep putdowns and trash-talking to yourself — or at the very least, to offline conversations with a close writer friend. Before you put anything on the internet about another writer, whether it’s a Goodreads review or a tweet, read it as though someone has written it about you. If it only hurts and doesn’t help, think twice about hitting Send.