So You Want to Be a Writer? 10 Hard Truths You Need to Accept Now

by Zawn Villines on Jan 27, 2015

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Everyone wants to know how to become a writer, but the hard truth is that few would-be writers are even marginally qualified for the demands of this job. Most people who contact me through my website do so seeking tips on “breaking into” the field — as if a single step will ever make anyone a writer. Not a week goes by where an acquaintance doesn’t regale me with tales of their plans to become the most successful writer who has ever lived. Most of these people haven’t read a novel in years. Many of them do not know the difference between a verb and a noun. And almost all of them will fail. Writing is an extraordinarily competitive profession, and no one succeeds out of sheer luck. You have to be good at it. Good, though, is rarely sufficient on its own. If you think you might have a career as a writer ahead of you, you need to accept, understand, and fully internalize these immutable truths about life as a writer.

No One Cares That You Love Writing 
When I work with a doctor, all I care about is that she knows how to properly diagnose and treat me. I have never asked — nor cared — whether my dentist enjoys looking at mouths all day, and I don’t for one second believe that my accountant got into the business of taxes because he finds the Internal Revenue Code so fascinating. When it comes to writing, though, people seem to think that loving writing translates into being good at it. I love lots of things at which I am terrible, and though writing is my profession, I often find it frustrating, demoralizing, and extremely draining. If you want to be taken seriously, don’t begin your queries, cover letters, and pitches with proclamations about how much you love writing. Real professionals often hate writing for hours, days, or even months; your “love” of writing does not mean anything about your ability to actually write.

Your Writing Probably Sucks 
It doesn’t matter what your third-grade teacher, your mother, your best friend, or your sweet grandmother think of your writing. These people are committed to building you up. The writing world is more likely to tear you down, spit you out, and stomp on your charred remains, though. Many people want to enter the field of writing because they believe they’re “good writers.” No one is innately a good writer. Writing is a skill, and one that must be constantly honed and sharpened. If you haven’t written anything since last year or last decade, you are most assuredly not a good writer. The problem is that few people will tell you if your writing is terrible.

The digital era makes things even murkier for would-be writers, since anyone can get published somewhere. This makes it easy for people who are gawd-awful at writing to pat themselves on the back, certain they’re one more blog post away from becoming the next Jorge Luis Borges. If you really want to know if your writing is good, pay another writer or editor for their time, then ask them for honest feedback on your work. If you are unwilling to do this, then you aren’t committed enough to become a writer, and your lack of critical feedback means your writing will never get better.

Even If Your Writing Doesn’t Suck, It Needs a Lot of Work 
Even if your writing is good, it’s not good enough. “But,” you protest, “My work has been published! I have an MFA in creative writing!” Color me completely unimpressed. Millions of people have managed to get something published, and they’re giving MFAs out like candy these days. The only difference between a good writer and a bad one is practice. Good writers practice constantly. They edit their work. They ask others to edit their work. Bad writers, by contrast, are self-congratulating. They believe their work is excellent as-is. They turn down offers for assistance because they are afraid of criticism. Every writer needs an editor. Every writer needs to meticulously proofread her own work. And every good writer will eventually become a bad writer without lots of practice and the assistance of lots of good editors. Why? Because if you’re not steadily working to get better, then you’re learning bad habits that will only cause your work to worsen over time.

You Need to Master Grammar 
Pop quiz: Did my parents give presents to my husband and me or to my husband and I? What changes about verbs in subjunctive tense? Do you affect change or effect it?

Grammar isn’t exactly thrilling. But it is the cornerstone of excellent writing. Sure, the best writers routinely break the rules of grammar. They end their sentences with prepositions, or write needlessly long or complex sentences. This is because they know enough to know when to break the rules for effect and when to stick with them because the rules exist for a reason. If you are not absolutely confident in your ability to produce sentences that are free of grammatical errors, it’s time to dust off a grammar guide and get cracking. Oh, and read Strunk and White until you have it memorized. Then read it again.

You Might Not Get to Write What You Expect to Write 
If you want to be a successful writer who makes a lot of money, you need to write non-fiction. More specifically, you need to hone your blogging, journalism, and copywriting skills. Yes, a handful of writers get rich off of fiction each year, but fiction is dying. The Internet, though, means massive demand for news, web copy, and other non-fiction pieces. You’re probably not going to get to write a ton of purple prose rich in metaphor and overly wrought with emotion. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be every bit as creative as that starving novelist who lives in a cardboard box at your local park. You just need to know what your audience wants, then give it to them.

You Have to Work. And Work. And Work. And Then Work Some More. 
I wrote 14,000 words today. Are you willing to do that? Can you do that? If not, you’ve chosen the wrong career. Writing is a volume-based profession. Until you win a Pulitzer, no one is going to pay you $50,000 for a single essay; and even then, it’s unlikely they will. So if you want to make your living as a writer, you have to master the art of writing quickly and well. That means researching and editing your work, and never, ever, ever missing a deadline. Successful writers under-promise and over-deliver.

You Probably Won’t Make Much Money 
Many people want to become writers because they’re under the misapprehension that writers are rolling in dough. Most writers, though, have to work a second job to make ends meet. I had to work for three years before I could quit my day job. I finally broke into six-figure territory, but it was not easy. And I was only able to do it because I had realistic expectations, a realistic budget, and a plan. Without these important elements — not to mention a lot of luck — you’re basically doomed.

You Probably Won’t Get Famous 
Few writers ever get famous. And those who make the most money almost never do. I make significantly more than most writers ever do, but few people will ever know me. Why? Because I focus on small, niche markets, offer ghostwriting services, and frequently write pieces to which my name will never be attached. If you seek a career in writing because you want everyone to know who you are, try something else.

You Have to Read. A Lot. 
When was the last time you read a book? If you cannot remember, then you are not — and will never be — a good writer. Good writers read a lot, because seeing writing done well is the only way to truly master the craft. Moreover, why would you want to write if you don’t like reading? That’s a bit like a designer producing clothes she hates. Read more and you’ll be amazed by how quickly your writing improves.

You Need to Know How to Run a Business 
Unless you end up working for a magazine — a dangerous undertaking in its own right, since print journalism is dying and print journalists are increasingly making poverty wages — you’ll have to be self-employed as a blogger, copywriter, or some other specialty. Do you know how to market yourself without being obnoxious (hint: it does not involve lots of gorgeous pictures on Instagram or motivational posts on Facebook)? Do you have access to a network of potential clients? Do you know where writers go to find work? Can you write a pitch? Do you know how to file estimated taxes? Do you know that it’s generally illegal to use photos you find on Google Images? If the answer is no, you’re not ready to go to work for yourself just yet.

Sure, it’s a lot of work. But it’s pretty cool to do something you love every day of your life, and if you have a knack for words, you really can make a career of it. It can be hard to accept that our dreams won’t come to fruition easily, and that they may not ever come true. But there’s some comfort in knowing that the only thing standing between you and a career as a writer is yourself. Get to work. You can do it.

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