I find myself in the bizarre situation of getting lots of questions about how to succeed at writing, or how to get paid for writing. I normally demur. But my nephew recently asked, so I answered. And I realized that it wasn’t that bizarre and that I have learned a lot. What I told him is below; see if you find it helpful.
Normally, impostor syndrome rears its ugly head: “I’m only a part time writer.” “The only professional writing that I do is about IT, for god’s sake, why are you asking ME?” But ok, I guess I’ve been writing professionally (aka getting paid to do it) for 15+ years. I have definitely learned something from that. And, I’ve been writing my InformationWeek column on a weekly or biweekly basis for 3+ years. I have definitely learned something from that, too. Again, I hope it’s helpful to you. Please let me know!
1. Keep writing.
It sounds obvious, but the one thing that you must NOT do is decide to write and then start doing everything BUT writing. The phenomenon of the columnist who writes 2 or 3 columns and then peters out is something I hear about from my editors. One problem is the “infinite loop” problem that I describe below.
Another problem is impostor syndrome. I think if you are stuck and doing everything but writing, you need a dose of Stephen Pressfield’s War of Art, which, in short, tells writers and artists that this isn’t a damn game or a hobby. It’s a job. It’s a battle, every day, that you need to show up for. Show up. Do it. Be a machine that doesn’t care about what people think (at least while you’re drafting).
2. Get out of the infinite loop.
Do not fall in love with one project, obsess about it, and spend the rest of your life on it. I see so many people working on “their novel” or “their book” for years. Literally. Hello? You are caught in an infinite loop. This is not helpful to growth or success.
3. Make time.
You can’t write if you don’t make time to do it. Schedule it. Similarly, if you are grabbed by an idea, DO NOT WAIT. Carry a notebook. Spend the 5 minutes to get that mother down onto paper. It probably won’t be as brilliant at 9am as you thought it was at 9pm, but it may be the germ of an idea that you can rough out later, during your scheduled time.
4. Get it out, edit later.
You must give yourself permission to write a crappy rough draft, instead of expecting yourself to produce polished prose instantaneously. Most people have more of a problem with being blocked than they do with editing skills. It is far better to get 2500 so-so words out and then edit it down to 900 good ones later than to stare at 100 words for 5 hours because they must be perfect. No! The words must first get out of your head and on to paper or your screen. Perfect them after you get them out. This is the only way to be productive.
Move on. This is the path of growth and success. When you stick with one project, you reach a point of diminishing returns. When you start new things, you aren’t limited by your skills a year ago. You can use TODAY’S skills. Finish, then start something new. I became a far, far better writer when I started writing a weekly column, because I had to finish; there was no excuse for procrastination.
6. Put it out there.
Make sure to put your project out there for people to read. That’s WHY you write. So people will read it! Again, obvious, but I see folks with a hoarder mentality. “One day it will be good enough. But today is not that day.” No! Today IS that day. Get it out there for two reasons: putting it out there (sometimes) declares “finished,” which is a hugely important part of getting out of the infinite loop. And, putting it out there allows you to get the feedback you need to improve your next thing. You want to be awesome? Have the courage to put it out there so that people can help you become awesome.
The worst thing is writing something which is ostensibly for public consumption, and then letting it sit in a drawer or on your private laptop. What was the point of that, exactly?
7. Stop worrying about someone stealing your writing.
The most ridiculous thing in startups, writing, or probably anything else is when someone worries about someone else stealing their idea or their manuscript. DO NOT WORRY about someone stealing it. Especially at the beginning of your writing career, it will NOT be the finest thing you ever write.
There is a concept in role playing games called “skilling,” where your character has to do something a lot in order to advance in level to be able to create something worthwhile. In other words, the character must create 100 suits of leather armor before moving on to plate mail. You’ll get to plate armor, too, with your writing, once you write 300,000 or 500,000 serious words worth of work. My columns after 10 years were far better than my columns after 10 weeks.
At the beginning, it is MUCH more important for you to get feedback and gather fans than it is for you to protect your initial few years worth of serious writing. I wrote for free, a lot, at the beginning.
You have the rest of your life to protect the fruits of your labor. Right now focus on the magical process of writing, editing, putting it out there, and seeing what reaction you get.
A quick thought experiment: pick your favorite author. If your favorite author had his or her first book stolen, don’t you think he or she would have written another, even better, more successful novel? YES. Whereas, the thief/pretender would not.
If you listen to ONE thing I am telling you, please believe me on this one.