Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Reality Check: 5 Tough Truths about the Writing Life

Image: Francesco Marino /
The Writer's Life is sometimes glorified and envied by those who don't have the drive to write, or who wouldn't even consider it because they feel they are lacking some mystical factor that would allow them entry into the Writing World. Those who do venture in with unrealistic expectations (ie. "I so identify with Carrie Bradshaw--I could be a rich writer just like her!") are likely to come face to face with a "War and Peace"-sized hit of reality.

Instead of setting yourself up for failure, be aware of what it takes to be a Writer with a capital W. Here are some of the (possibly not-so-pleasant, depending on your attitude) truths about the writing life you should prepare for.

Writing is Work, A Lot of Work

I hope you are one of those writers that has copious words dripping of your fingertips and onto the awaiting screen so fast you can't keep up. If you are not, then you have the challenge of creating something out of nothing, and some days, all you are grabbing onto is the Nothing. Even if the writing part comes easy, you still have to deal with "what comes next" in the writing life: making time to write, editing, finding places to submit your work, marketing, etc.

Decide what kind of writer you are going to be, and act like it. If your goal is to support yourself financially with your writing, plan for that. Do you have the money to keep you going until your writing starts to pay off? Are you willing to sacrifice to make it happen? If you are working another job in the meantime, are you prioritizing your writing time appropriately? There is nothing wrong with deciding to write as a hobby, or just as a way to share your creations, but even then, schedule time for it. So writing is not the thing you are hoping makes you rich or famous, but it's still a passion that you have, and you owe it to yourself to honor your dreams.

 Writing can make you Worry

Rejection is as common to the writing life as ants are to a picnic. Are you ready to put your heart and soul into something only to have a faceless editor somewhere tell you it's not good enough? Are you confident enough not to over-think a "not for us at this time" rejection, and humble enough to take a helpful critique to heart? Prepare yourself, build up your armor.

There may be times when you write yourself into a corner, causing you to worry that you have been wasting your time. Be ready to scrap a whole day's or week's (or more) worth of writing because it's not working. The trick is to honor your "scrap pile." Like it or not, it was a place you had to go through to arrive at your destination (kind of like that crowded, hot flight you took to make it to the beach). Don't bury those scraps too deep, though, you may discover down the line that they can be useful after all.

 Failure can Cost You

Rejections can wear on your soul, no matter how prepared you are. The time and effort spent on your writing can chip away at your self worth if you are continuously giving without feeling you are getting back anything in return. Make sure you can afford the losses. Build up your Writing Defense fund with gratitude for what you have achieved, joy for the miracle of creativity, and perseverance so you will keep trying.

 Being a Writer = Being your own Boss? Not Exactly.

You are in complete control of those glorious first stages of a writing project. You get to decide the pacing, the characterization, maybe even the overwhelmingly sad ending. If you keep it for yourself, you don't have to relinquish any control--you've decided how much time you are giving it and exactly the direction it will go. But once you decide to share your work, your grip on it starts to loosen a bit.

Sharing your work means you want an audience. Your first audience may be your writer's group. You may consider changing some of your story based on their critiques, but not always. It becomes more difficult to ignore the suggestions, or the demands, once an agent or an editor is interested in your writing. Your creativity is now a potential product, and your audience becomes its potential consumers. Are you flexible enough to find a way for your original work to fit the market? Are you brave enough to survive carving out your own niche, even if it goes against those "in the know"?

If you have decided to take some freelance writing jobs, your audience is your client, and you need to adjust your writing accordingly. This may entail writing sales copy when you would rather be finishing your sci-fi novella or editing for someone who confuses 'there, their and they're' so much you can't follow the story. Of course, keep pressing on for those dream assignments, just remember, when a job is no longer just a dream, it is more likely to be weighed down with some hefty reality (stringent word counts, no kill fee if they don't use your hard work, etc). Even Carrie Bradshaw dealt with some bad bosses when she wrote for Vogue.

Writers Make Mistakes
Guess what? Nobody is perfect. No matter how many times you've read over your submission, there still may be something you missed. You may miss a deadline, and with it your chance to break into your favorite magazine. You may send off your next-to-last-draft instead of your final draft and get a note back wondering who Jeff is and why he suddenly showed up in chapter 15.

If you are obsessed with perfection, you will get absolutely nothing done, so it is important to take action. But realize, with action comes a chance to mess something up. Will a wrong turn devastate you, or are you willing to learn from it and move on? Take one of the best things about being a writer, the ability to create, and compose a new story for the day after the mistake. It's all up to you, as long as you keep trying.

Hopefully these warning signs are enough to keep you vigilant in your writing pursuits, but not scary enough to make you turn around. Buckle your seatbelt and enjoy the ride!


  1. Seatbelt buckled and I think it's too late to get out of the car now. Seriously, these are good reminders even for those of us who faced up to the realities a while ago. I'm sick of being faced with writers who don't edit and think it's going to be easy to get their first draft published. They should all read this!

  2. This is definitely a profession for people who feel called to it... for them, they really can't do much else.


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