20 Things Experienced Authors Wish They’d Known When Starting Out
There’s an old joke about how making good decisions requires experience, and gaining experience requires making bad decisions.
Like most good jokes, its humor comes from its fundamental truth. But there’s a workaround: those bad decisions don’t have to be your bad decisions. As long as we listen to and internalize the lessons, we can avoid the mistakes of others and go on to make new and exciting mistakes of our own.
With that in mind, here are 20 things experienced authors have said they wish they’d known, so we can go into professional writing knowing what they didn’t.
1. Read Consistently
If you don’t read consistently, and read deeply in the genre where you write, you won’t succeed and you won’t deserve to. Reading keeps you abreast of what’s happening in your market, and helps you improve your writing by seeing what the best and most popular authors are exploring with their prose, stories, characters, themes, and structure.
Don’t forget to read bad books, too. Cringy older works, popular-but-terrible new publications, and all other examples show you what not to do in ways that are at least as useful as the top-tier works that show you what you should emulate.
2. Create Patterns and Rituals
Patterns and rituals are part of many religious and folk traditions because they access parts of the human psyche that help us succeed.
Every writer’s life has different places where rituals and patterns can make things easier and better. Mostly they help in situations where you don’t want to take the next step. For example:
- In the first minutes of your writing time
- Before sending work to an editor
- Before you pitch a project to somebody
- When approaching a scene that triggers you
- Before diving into difficult research
- Before starting sales and marketing work
There’s also power in creating rituals to celebrate victory or completion. From cleaning your desk in a certain way at the end of your writing time, to drinking the same celebratory wine each time you finish a book, to buying a small but valued gift for yourself when making sales benchmarks, rituals and patterns can help cement your feelings of success and fight imposter’s syndrome.
3. Write Different Things at Different Times
Later on this list, we talk about writer’s block and how it’s a myth to be ignored and overcome. That said, some days and times you just don’t have it in you to do a certain kind of writing. When that happens, it’s not cheating to shift focus and write something that’s easier on you in a given day.
For example, if you sit down to work on a chapter but just don’t have it in you for that kind of heavy lifting, shift gears and outline your next section instead. If you need to write an emotionally intense scene after a bad night, write the funny dialogue in another part of the book, or an action scene you’ve been looking forward to.
This works even better as you get to know your writing and personal rhythms. You’ll be able to schedule different kinds of writing at different times of the day and week, to maximize the chances that you’ll be able to write what you planned during any given session.
4. There Is a Fine Line Between Research and Procrastination
And other kinds of preparation like cleaning your desk, arranging your notes, petting your cat, and choosing between two almost identical fonts.
This is also true about focusing on writing you find easy and fun instead of writing the parts of your novel that have been challenging you for weeks.
The best defense against this is scheduling. Identify the writing that’s hardest, and set focused time to do that writing. Even if you can only manage twenty or even ten minutes of the heaviest work, make it happen. Don’t pretend that nibbling at the edges is the same thing as eating the whole cookie.
5. Write Drunk, Edit Sober
This is famously attributed to Ernest Hemingway. Unlike most famous Hemingway quotes, there’s a good chance he actually said it.
We’re not here to encourage you to become yet another famous writer with a drinking problem, but the sentiment is excellent advice. When you write, be as free and spontaneous as possible. Shut off your internal editor and focus on momentum rather than perfection. This helps fight writer’s block and keeps you going, feeling good about what you’re putting on the page.
When you edit, that’s the time to put on your more serious and detail-oriented hat. Writing and editing require different mindsets, and it’s best to acknowledge and work with that fact.
6. Better Yet, Don’t Edit At All
Nobody can effectively edit their own work, for a lot of reasons. Our voice is in sync with our brain, so we fill in gaps and slide over errors others wouldn’t miss. We understand exactly what we meant, no matter what we wrote down. By the time we reach the editing stage, most of us are so sick and tired of our words we will only skim them instead or really dig in and edit.
Hire somebody else to edit your work, or exchange the service with another writer you know.
You can revise and rewrite. In fact, you’re the only person who can revise and rewrite your work. But have somebody else do the editing. You’re not qualified for that.
7. Professional Writers Don’t Get Blocked
Famed detective fiction writer Robert B. Parker once quipped to an interviewer who asked about writer's block that his “plumber never cancels because he gets plumber’s block”. Although there are good writing days and bad writing days, it’s important to remember that professional writers act like professionals.
One of the biggest differences between a professional and an amateur (besides getting paid) is that professionals do the job whether or not they want to.
I’m not saying that writer’s block isn’t a thing. I’m just saying that professional writers find ways to make their desire to write, and write regularly, bigger and more powerful than writer’s block. It takes practice and discipline, but you’ll get there if you want.
8. Everybody Outlines, Even Pantsers
There’s a dichotomy within the writing community, between planners and pantsers. Planners like to plot and outline their stories before they put words on the page. Pantsers like to start writing and see where the words take them.
But here’s the thing: everybody, even the most chaotic and committed pantser, outlines. That outline might just be a vague notion of where they want the story to end up. It only be a character they have in mind who they would like to introduce…but if they’re looking ahead at all, they are planning.
Once you accept that you’re planning a little, and that planning isn’t the enemy of creativity some folks have claimed it to be, you can start using the myriad writing tools available to use with outlines. Wherever you fall on the planning spectrum, those tools will make your life easier and your writing better.
9. The Vibes Are Never Perfect
Writing is a study in focused concentration. For a lot of us, it’s hard to find a time and place that allows for it. If you’re lucky enough to have an office with a door that closes, there’s still worries from the day, the sounds of family outside, and a dozen other distractions. If you’re not that lucky…well, let’s just say it can be a challenge.
Heck, Ray Bradbury tells a story about having to go to the library to write Farenheit 451 because it was summer and his kids wanted to play with him, and he couldn’t resist.
The thing is, there will always be an excuse not to write. Some distraction, or priority, or mood, or setback that makes you feel like you can’t write. But you can. And you should. Conditions will never be perfect, so we have to practice writing in imperfect conditions.
10. Eat the Frog First
There’s a temptation to do the hard, intimidating, emotionally laden work later in our work cycle. We tell ourselves we’re “warming up” to the heavy lifting, as though writing is the same as a workout. We set aside the perfect hour to do the thing, because we tell ourselves it’s right after lunch and distractions are minimal.
Whatever exact reasons we give ourselves, it’s better to ignore them.
I’m not sure where and when “eat the frog” came to mean “do the hard thing you’ve been putting off”, but if you do it first thing in the day you give yourself immense power. It removes the stress of that thing from the psyche. It crosses a major item off your list. It means you get the thing done, instead of other things in your day preventing its completion. Whatever that big thing is, just do it first thing during your writing time.
Eating the frog in writing works the same muscles that let you dive right in to cold water, rip off the bandaid, and have the hard-but-necessary conversation. Once you turn it into a habit, it begins to feel like a superpower. Very few people make it part of what they do and how they do it.
11. Exercise Pays Dividends
Richard Branson once said that a half hour of moderate exercise in the morning gave him four hours of extra productivity for the rest of the day. I’ve seen exactly zero research supporting that wild claim, but he does have a point.
A bit of moderate exercise, say twenty to forty minutes at a level where you can talk without gasping but couldn’t defend a thesis, gives you increased focus and energy for hours afterward. If it’s cardio, it also gives you time to lightly think about your writing in a different mindset.
On top of that, regular exercise improves your overall health. You will have more motivation and get more things done throughout your day, take fewer sick days, and simply feel better. All of this helps with your writing, and your life off the page.
12. Hang Out With Writers
This one is short, simple, and sweet. Writing can be lonely, so make time to hang out with other people who write. Talk shop. Share horror stories. Hold each other accountable. You can do this online, or in person, but make it a regular part of your writing life.
Also take time to attend one writer’s conference every year, and stay at the hotel. There’s something irreplaceable about that quality time with your colleagues, and access to instruction and networking. It can cost a bit, but make it happen.
While you’re at it, attend one conference or convention or expo about the topic you write in. If you write nonfiction, find the industry event. If you write fiction, find a fan event. In both cases, you’ll be in a room full of your core customers and one of the only writers in that room.
13. Set Short-Term Goals Low…
One thing a lot of us do when setting goals is we do it when we’re excited. We get all jazzed about a book and promise ourselves we’ll write 2,000 words every day, and spend an hour on social media to promote it, and reach out to experts twice a week, and…and…and…
…and it works out well for the first little while, but then real life intrudes. The goals we set aren’t sustainable for the long haul. We start missing benchmarks, then we get discouraged, then we get distracted. Often we give up.
Although it’s good to get excited and motivated, it’s not great to let that excitement and motivation push you to make unrealistic promises to yourself.
14. …and Long-Term Goals High
One of the worst things about setting short-term goals too high is that it eventually robs us of our belief in the power of goals. Too many cycles of a powerful start followed by tapering off to nothing teaches us that we can’t do amazing things.
And that’s a lie.
We can do amazing things if we set amazing long-term goals, with reasonable short-term benchmarks. If you write a page a day for a year, the book is over 300 pages long. If you lose a pound a month for a year, you lose more than ten pounds. If you sell a book week for $10, in a year you’ve made over $500 in sales.
Dream big for the long haul, then chop that dream up into manageable smaller sprints. It will turn you into a superhero.
15. Maintain Momentum
Few things cut into writing time like getting stuck on a sentence. You might be having trouble wording it just right. You might need to look up a fact, and fall down a research rabbit hole. You might have forgotten a small detail of continuity and not found it quickly in previous chapters. Whatever it is, it can grind your progress to a halt.
Maintain momentum by making a short note about the sticking point, then move onward. This can be as little as XXwhat year did this happenXX or XXConfirm her sister’s name is Elena and not HelenaXX. It can be as big as XXput a long car chase hereXX. The point is, don’t get stuck not writing. Make a quick note and get back to writing. Preserve your momentum.
Another great trick here is to resist the temptation to finish a sentence or paragraph at the end of your writing time. If you quit mid-sentence, you know exactly what to write first when you sit back down the next session. As all writers know, figuring out what to write first is half the battle for starting your writing day. This little hack solves it immediately and forever.
16. Take Criticism Like a Boss
Writing professionally means getting edited and critiqued. Getting editing and critiquing means taking criticism. If you’re already thick skinned, you have a talent that will help you with your writing. If not, it’s time to develop that skill.
There’s not much else to say about that. You will have to learn to hear rough things about stuff that’s close to your heart, then you will have to learn how to turn those rough things into something you can use. You’ll even have to learn how to hear rough things that contradict each other, while keeping your emotions and ego sufficiently in check to figure out which one you should listen to.
Nobody promised this was going to be easy. We just said it would be worth it.
17. You Have to Write a Bad Book
You have to write a bad book before you can write a good one. If you’re really, really lucky it will be the same book.
Beginning writers should forgive themselves for being beginning writers. Experienced writers who aren’t yet masters should forgive themselves for not being masters. Masters need to forgive themselves for not being Terry Pratchett or William Shakespeare.
Write what you can on a given day. On the next day, make what you wrote better, or start writing something new with what you learned earlier. You and your writing are works in progress. Don’t blame yourself for that. Celebrate it.
18. Keep Promises To Yourself
View your writing goals as promises you make to yourself. That’s what they are.
Then think about what lengths you would go to if you made a promise to somebody you love. You would stop at very little, accept no excuses. To keep a solemn promise made to friends or family, you would move heaven and earth.
Apply that same level of love and commitment to the promises you make yourself. You’re worth it….we promise.
19. Ignore 5-Star and 1-Star Reviews
Reviews in the 2 to 4 star ranges are useful. They help you identify things about your work, your strengths, your flaws, and what your market wants. One and five star reviews don’t.
One star reviews are almost always one of two things. The reviewer has an issue with you personally, and is taking it out on you because they dislike you, or you said something that offended their ego. If it’s not that, they have a problem with the book, usually in the form of wishing it was a different book. There’s nothing helpful in either of these, and they’re not worth exposing yourself to the vitriol.
Five star reviews are good for reading when you feel bad about your writing, but little else. They seldom have any workable things for you to change, or any challenges you can rise to. Keep them for rainy days and promotional blurbs, but don’t spend much time with them.
20. Heck Yes, or F*&# No!
Time management is an issue for almost every writer. If you’re working a regular job, or parenting full-time, you have to do your writing in the corners of your life. Almost every full-time writer I know has far more ideas than they have time to write on. In either case, adopt the Heck Yes or F*&# No philosophy.
If you have an opportunity to work on something, is your response along the lines of an enthusiastic “Heck yes!!!!”? If not, the answer is “F*&# No!”, with all the weight and commitment that phrase suggests.
Only do what you’re really, really excited about. It’s the only way to keep enough hands off your time to successfully make the hours to write.
How About You?
You don’t have to be a twenty-year veteran writer with two bestsellers to have gained insight and wisdom about writing?
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned about writing in the time you’ve been at it? Come over to our Facebook group and share your hard-won knowledge. Your fellow members will appreciate it!