Professional writers are a curious breed.
What makes one writer successful while another with similar skills wallows in obscurity?
How can you make the journey from starving artist to successful author?
If you’ve ever dreamed of becoming a professional author or writer, I want to show you what the journey looks like and how you can get started on the right track.
Writers Adapt or Die
“It’s none of their business that you have to learn to write. Let them think you were born that way.”
Everything in life happens for a reason.
There are universal laws that determine how our world works.
When you drop a pen and it immediately falls to the floor, you can see the law of gravity at work.
The law that most impacts your career and finances as a writer is the law of evolution. As Darwin wrote,
“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”
I believe that every writer must evolve to adapt to the changing world and circumstances around him or her. If they do not, they risk toiling in obscurity, and the words they struggled so hard to get just right will languish unread and forgotten.
Adapting to change is the most fundamental skill you can develop. You cannot just hope and wish that you will find a way to make a livable income as a writer. If you do not change how you approach your work, your life and your income will not change.
The world is constantly changing, and changes in the publishing industry have been so numerous and so impactful that many wonder whether the traditional publishing model will still exist in a few years.
While no one can predict what the future holds for the publishing industry, we can say one thing with complete certainty: many changes are coming.
I don’t mean the kinds of changes you would see in a doomsday or conspiracy thriller. I’m talking about the usual, typical, and still unpredictable changes that life continually presents.
The world we live in is constantly changing. Trends change, ideas change, and industries change. The publishing industry is no exception. It follows the same rules as the rest of the universe.
As authors, we all have to learn how to deal with these changes.
Our ability – and openness – to change is what will allow us to evolve, adapt, and become great writers. And, our ability to change and adapt will allow us to attract fans and loyal readers.
“Survival of the fittest” does not mean that the strongest or smartest win out in the end; it means that those who most fit their current environment win. If your writing, publishing and marketing strategies fit with the current market, you will win. If your strategies are outdated or unfit for current readers and potential fans, you will lose.
Great writers don’t become great by staying the same – they become great by changing. They adapt their style, methods and approach as the industry and their audience changes.
Here are the common stages of evolution and change all great writers go through.
The Novice Writer
“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, WD
The novice knows nothing about the writing profession other than his interest in it or perhaps his desire to be part of it. And there are many people who have the interest but cannot even be called novices because they are not willing or motivated enough to actually sit down and start writing. To become a novice writer, you must have the courage to begin.
The journey to becoming a better writer starts with the desire to write and to learn how to more effectively communicate your ideas.
It’s not enough to have skills or book knowledge or even a degree in creative writing. If you do not actually sit down and work on your writing on a regular basis, you can’t really call yourself a writer. Being a novice writer is a wonderful gift, and it’s where we all must start.
Writing a book for the first time is like falling in love for the first time. It’s exciting and new and you are certain to make foolish mistakes. That’s okay.
As a novice writer, you can follow your passion for writing without regard for silly things like proper spelling, grammar, and organization. The writing profession comes with countless rules, many of which you can only learn from other writers and through a good deal of practice.
The vast majority of authors who want to see their books published are still novices. They may have completed a book and even submitted it to literary agents and publishers, but they haven’t learned all that much about the craft of writing.
The reason slush piles at literary agencies and publishers are waist high is because so many novice writers try to get their work published before they’ve honed their craft. They look for a literary agent or publisher before they have developed their work habits and polished their writing skills.
Every great writer needs experience, but experience alone is not enough to turn you from a novice into a professional. It’s not enough to merely practice writing. Your practice must bring improvement. You must learn from every typo, every grammatical error, every unclear sentence, and every inconsistency in your narrative. And you must be willing to take these lessons with you as you revise what you’ve written and when you begin each new project.
Passion and motivation are wonderful things. Maybe the world would be a better place if we had more passionate, motivated writers, but those things alone are not enough to create a great book. As Jim Rohn said, education must come with motivation. If you take an uneducated person and motivate him, you’ll only have a motivated idiot.
I’m sure you’ve seen your fair share of books and articles written by motivated writers who do not have the education or training they need to effectively and coherently convey their message.
If you’re motivated to write, that’s great. Now it’s time to learn how to become a better writer.
Make No Excuses for Lack of Writing Skills
“One thing that helps is to give myself permission to write badly. I tell myself that I’m going to do my five or 10 pages no matter what, and that I can always tear them up the following morning if I want. I’ll have lost nothing—writing and tearing up five pages would leave me no further behind than if I took the day off.”
—Lawrence Block, WD
Every writer starts with zero writing skills. We are not born with the ability to write – we must learn it from others. We are not even born with basic language skills. Without other humans to teach us language as children, we would not be able to communicate in English, let alone read or write.
Every great author started with zero writing skills. Every. Single. One.
You are not alone, unique, or special if you lack knowledge or experience. You are simply at the beginning of your journey. Those successful writers you look up to are just farther along in theirs. There’s nothing stopping you from following your path and improving your skills other than your own excuses or bad habits.
Just as we need people to teach us language as we grow, we need people to teach us writing skills as we seek to grow from a novice into a professional writer. Lacking writing skills and being ignorant is normal – it’s a stage every great writer had to go through. Lacking skills and knowledge should never be seen as an impediment or handicap. Ignorance is just a single point on an endless trail of potential knowledge.
If you want to learn how to become a great writer, you can.
All you have to do is study and practice.
Study and practice.
Study and practice…
Yes, it can be very boring. The work that goes into becoming successful is often boring. If it were all fun, excitement, and good feelings along the road, everyone would become a best selling author.
You must use your purpose and passion to keep you on the path. Study new ideas. Practice what you learn. Seek out advice and ideas from others who are where you want to be. If you stay with it and keep making progress, you will eventually get to where you want to be – if you never give up.
And that’s the rub. That’s where most authors mess it all up. They simply give up before they get there.
If you’ve ever been on a long hike and felt as if you were never going to make it, like you just wanted to turn back because your muscles ached and you were tired, that’s a lot like the experience of becoming a best selling author. You’re going to have to push yourself farther and harder than you ever have before. Many don’t make it. Many give up and turn back on the trail just before they achieve their goals and hit it big.
But if you have the courage and tenacity to stick with your writing and constantly hone your craft, you will make it.
How to Tell If You’re a Novice Writer
“Write. Rewrite. When not writing or rewriting, read. I know of no shortcuts.”
—Larry L. King, WD
I get a twinkle in my eye and a smile on my face every time I hear a writer say something like,
“I spent five years writing this book! How dare you say it needs more work?”
This is the hallmark of a novice; the novice thinks that time is what makes a great writer, but time is only a measuring stick of time itself. The true measure of a great writer is not how much time she has spent working, but how many changes she has made during that time.
Some writers never grow beyond the level of novice because they are attached to their egos. They view criticism as an insult instead of feedback. They seek to protect their own sense of importance. By trying to protect themselves they ignore crucial opportunities to learn more.
How much have you changed as a writer since you first started?
How many drafts of your book have you gone through? One? Five? 100?
When you go back and read something you wrote when you were first starting out as a writer, how many changes do you wish to make to that old piece?
Change is what makes the difference, but not just any change: it must be purposeful change. Changing from a PC to a Mac will not make you a better writer. Changing your habits, your knowledge, your research, your approach to writing – these are the things that will make you a better writer.
To advance from a novice writer and take your career to the next level, many writers become…
The Copycat Writer
“Know your literary tradition, savor it, steal from it, but when you sit down to write, forget about worshiping greatness and fetishizing masterpieces.”
At this stage, the young writer starts to emulate other writers they admire. There is absolutely nothing wrong with copying ideas from the works of others as long as you do not try to take credit for it (or break any laws).
In any profession, an apprentice will copy the activities of the master with whom they are studying. One would never shame a basketball player for pivoting the way his coach taught him. In fact, we would praise that player for being a good student.
In the same way, an author who advances from the rank of novice and successfully copies the style or methods of a writing coach or mentor ought to be praised for being a good student.
Benjamin Franklin used a copycat method to teach himself how to become a better writer, and the results of his effort show how powerful this method can be.
He took a copy of the The Spectator, a British political magazine featuring the work of some very talented writers, and followed this process:
“I took some of the papers, and, making short hints of the sentiment in each sentence, laid them by a few days, and then, without looking at the book, tried to complete the papers again, by expressing each hinted sentiment at length, and as fully as it had been expressed before, in any suitable words that should come to hand.
Then I compared my Spectator with the original, discovered some of my faults, and corrected them. But I found I wanted a stock of words, or a readiness in recollecting and using them.”
I will warn you in advance that this process is boring. It is not fun. It is not exciting. But it is this kind of tedious work and diligent study you must go through if you want to improve your writing skills.
But being a good student is not by itself enough to get you to the top.
You have to keep growing, learning, and changing.
Your next step is…
Finding Your Voice
“To gain your own voice, you have to forget about having it heard.”
—Allen Ginsberg, WD
After a good deal of studying, practice, and soul-searching, you will begin to find your own voice and style instead of merely modeling what you’ve seen in others.
Finding your voice is like connecting directly with the universe – you are able to communicate from a space beyond your own limited personality. It’s as if your soul is writing and your body is simply typing away at the keyboard or jotting down words on paper. This is when you get into flow; you sit at the computer and when you look up at the clock, hours have gone by without your realizing it.
I should warn you, however, that simply finding your voice and getting into flow does not mean you have gotten to a point where you no longer need to study, change, or learn. You will still have to go through numerous rounds of editing and revision. You will still need to do more research and look up words in the dictionary.
You are not immune to the banalities of writing simply because you’ve found your voice and have some experience.
If you are not constantly growing as a writer, you will not continue to achieve the level of success you have in the past – and that you want in the future.
It’s easy to think you’ve “made it” and stop trying so hard, but you must remember that it was that striving and effort that created your success in the first place.
If you can find your voice, achieve some success, and not let it get to your head, then you will become…
The Professional Writer
“A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.”
What qualities separate the professional writer from the rest?
It is a never-ending dedication to the craft. Again, I urge you not to only think about time here. You do not automatically become a professional just because you’ve been a writer for five years, ten years, or even fifty years.
I’ve seen writers go from novice to professional in a matter of weeks, while others write for decades and still make little progress.
Here are some common signs of a professional writer:
- The professional writes every week whether they feel like it or not.
Professionals do not take holidays, vacations, or sabbaticals. They travel, they adventure, they relax, but they do not turn their backs on their calling to write.
- The professional treats writing as a career or business, not as a hobby or part-time job.
Even if they work full-time doing something entirely different, they still see themselves as a professional writer first and foremost.
- If you ask them, “What do you do?” the first thing out of their mouths will be about their writing.
Professional writers identify themselves as writers. They’re proud of it, even if they don’t yet earn any money from their writing.
- Professionals are constantly learning and studying no matter what level of outward success they have achieved.
They never feel they’ve “made it.” Instead, they are focused on growing and expanding their knowledge and skills.
- Professional writers work with other professionals to achieve their goals.
They know they can’t be great at everything so they find others who are strong where they are weak. Professionals work with other professionals including great editors, book cover designers, literary agents, attorneys, accountants, web designers, marketers, and others who can add value to the writer’s work.
- Professionals accept feedback and criticism.
They do not avoid it or offer justification for their work. Professionals know they can learn a lot from some critics, and that they can ignore others. They know when to keep quiet, just listen, and weigh what they’ve heard on their own time.
Developing Writing Mastery
“We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”
Mastery is an ideal we strive for as committed writers.
The master writes as a way of life, not simply as a job or career choice.
The master writer achieves greatness not by becoming better than others, but by becoming better than their previous self. You must first master yourself before you can master your work.
Many artists destroy their writing lives by failing to overcome poor emotional, mental, or lifestyle habits. Mastery is not achieved overnight. It takes years of dedicated work at the professional level to become a master.
The master writes to improve, not merely to produce great work. The reason masters produce such great work is because they spend significant time, effort, and energy writing, and they continually work on improving by changing and adapting their writing style and skills.
- How many words have you looked up in the dictionary in your lifetime? Or today?
- How many times have you referred to a thesaurus?
- How many words have you written and never published or shared with anyone?
- How many hours have you spent putting your words on paper?
- How many stories have you created?
Whatever your answers are, there is room for improvement.
In that constant striving for improvement is where you will find the seeds of mastery.
Keep writing, my friend. Keep studying and improving. It is a wonderful journey.
If you liked this blog post, you’ll love the book Turning Pro by Steven Pressfield.
In this classic guide to the journey from amateur to professional, author Steven Pressfield shares wisdom and knowledge that will equip you with the tools to stick with your work long enough to do something great.