Why you need to start writing yesterday

It may come as a shock to you to learn that you are not the only writer in the world, or in your country, or – indeed – in your neighbourhood. In fact, it would seem that every other person writes. I keep bumping into people who tell me, ‘Oh yes, I’ve written a novel.’

So, what’s the difference between one writer and the next?

Well, some writers are committed, and some are not. Some write every day, and until the sun goes down. Some have objectives, and some do not. Some prioritize their writing, and some drop tools to do other things… go out with friends, work late at the office, chat to people on social media. Yesterday they decided to write something, but today they’ve decided to go to a movie or to go out for a meal instead. You’ve got the idea. The writing isn’t going to happen.

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Meanwhile, you need to hear a few statistics. In the United States alone there are over 200 MFA writing programs (Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing). In 2016, more than 20,000 people applied to these programs. Every year these MFA courses produce 3,000 writing graduates. A few of these have some moderate successes. Many more go on to teach… usually on MFA programs.

In short, there’s a lot of competition out there. While you’re sitting around thinking that you might like to be a writer, and that you might start writing seriously tomorrow or the next day, you’ve actually already been left behind in the dust of others who are a whole lot faster and a whole lot more committed.

But, if you still want to be a writer, here are a few things you need to do:

  1. Give up your socializing.
  2. Decide what you want to write, and plan your writing projects.
  3. Commit to and prioritize your writing.
  4. Stop talking about what you’re going to write, and write.
  5. Read like a writer. In other words, read to learn.
  6. Keep writing until you’ve completed a first draft, however terrible that is.
  7. Rewrite and improve, using the ideas and insights gained from your reading.After that if you are still not making any progress, consider that writing may not be for you. Think about trying your hand at some other art form. How about painting?
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Why you should stop exposing your clunky writing to the world

If you have the time, I strongly urge you to listen at least to the first half of this podcast from The Guardian newspaper of an interview with two traditionally published first-time authors.

What we learn, amongst other things, is how long it took these authors to write their books and the process they went through in the editing of them. One author spent three years on her book, the other seven years. One spent three months just doing a line edit of her novel, going painstakingly through the text with a ruler under each line, re-reading, correcting and adjusting. ‘Writers’ often hand me stories that they proudly tell me they finished just the night before… and, of course, it shows.

Another interesting piece of information from this podcast concerns the results of the last ALCS survey on author earnings in the UK. The average amount they earned was 11,000 GBP per year. This leads us to reflect on why we write and what we want from our writing. From talking to many would-be authors, I find that there is still a desire for and a belief in overnight success. Publication, they believe, will bring them the kind of glory and recognition that they are unlikely to find in other fields of work. What they do not put into the mix is that, for experienced critics and the discerning reader, the faults of their work will be on display for all to see. So, instead of showcasing their remarkable imagination and insights, they may well, through haste, and careless or the absence of editing, simply be demonstrating their ignorance and incompetence.

Everyone who can think can write, but not everyone who can write can produce work of quality. My advice for anyone publishing or hoping to publish traditionally or by self-publishing is 1) keep writing, 2) put in the work, 3) learn from your mistakes, 4) read books that have been professionally edited in order to learn, and 5) build your life around your writing, not your writing around your life.