What does it take to succeed as a writer? The answer might surprise you. You don’t necessarily need an agent, although an agent can be helpful; you don’t necessarily need to be a genius with words, although that helps, too; you don’t even need an MA in writing, although if you do have one of those, I’m insanely jealous.
How do I know what you need to succeed? Well, I don’t. Not exactly. But I do know that my personal growth as a writer has been dependent on certain key skills…and I bet you might find some of those skills helpful, too.
- Ability to take your “writer persona” seriously
This means you need to value what you do. When you name yourself a “real writer,” you give yourself permission to invest time, energy, and money in growing yourself as a writer; if you think of writing as your hobby or make it last on your priority list, it’s likely to be edged out by the rest of life.
- Ability to find joy in writing
Publication is like so many of life’s goals: it seems like the pot of gold at the rainbow’s end, but its attainment only draws you to the next goal. One day all you want it to be published somewhere—anywhere; the next, you’re trying to break into a paying market, or sell a book, or publish with a larger house…the list goes on. The road to publication is usually long and difficult. If you’re in it for the long haul, you need to have fun along the way.
- Desire to learn and grow
I’ve met two types of writers along the way: those who are looking for an audience and those who are looking for understanding. The first type wants her story to be heard, and will submit the same chapter to contests, critique groups, and beta readers without really making changes. They may ask for feedback, but what they really want is praise; and if the world of publishing doesn’t agree that their work is perfect and ready for print, they’re likely to jump on the self-publishing bandwagon and focus on marketing rather than improving their writing.The second type of writer also desires an audience—but if she’s told that her writing isn’t ready, she seeks to know why. She studies books on writing craft and goes to conferences to learn, not just to wave her manuscript at editors and agents. She may self-publish, but only after she’s crafted the best book she can.Guess which type of writer is more likely to stay the course?
- Willingness to accept criticism
This is a subset of #2, but worth mentioning on its own. I’ve grown as a writer by reading books, taking classes, and going to conferences, but I’ve learned far more by participating in a critique group. I think it’s more pleasant to learn by reading or listening to writing theory, but it’s far more effective to learn by making mistakes and then fixing them.
- Ability to observe
Writers need to develop their observational skills in order to translate the real world to the page in a meaningful way. Practice watching people, noticing different personalities and character quirks, and identify patters of conflict to enrich your writing.
- Willingness to develop writing “meta” skills
I think that many of the most successful writers move beyond the study of writing craft to the study of how they write. That is, you can improve skills such as writing speed, the ability to free write, the ability to work past creative blocks, and the ability to write in different environments—and these skills help you to be a more prolific writer.
- Ability to submit—and to rebound from rejection
Although I’ve heard stories of writers who never face rejection, I’m not sure I believe in this mythic beast. Most of us will receive tens or hundreds before our work sees print. When you consider writing a business, it becomes easier to shrug off the “no’s” and plug away on the next project—but it’s never easy.
- Willingness to work hard
Writing isn’t the quick road to fame and fortune (ha! Bet you didn’t know that!). It takes a lot of work…and a lot of practice, and a fair degree of luck as well. Unless you’re Madonna, of course. Otherwise, a healthy dose of stick-to-it-iveness is essential.
- Ability to recharge
…and precisely because writing can be difficult, time-consuming, and exhausting, you need to recognize the importance of taking breaks, refilling the creative pond, feeding the muse…whatever you call it, figure out how to refuel yourself so you don’t burn out along the way!
- Ability to celebrate small victories along the way
For me, this means treating myself to dinner for every rejection letter I receive. By choosing to celebrate each rejection as one step closer to publication, I make it easier to send out the next query/book/project.
I’m sure I haven’t covered every skill essential to writing success—have any to add?
Angela Ackerman says
Love this! <3
Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse
GREAT blog post. I especially agree that we have to be able to take criticism and keep moving forward.
Cheryl Reif says
Hi Angela and Tiffany~ Thank you! And thanks for stopping by
Leah Petersen says
#3 is so true. If you think you can't get better or that you're good enough as you are, then you probably can and aren't.
Laura Pauling says
Terrific and so true. If we never submit or never get past the rejection of submitting then it will be really hard to even write!
Cheryl Reif says
Hi Leah & Laura–It's a conundrum: writers have to have enough humility to accept criticism and improve their writing, but enough self-confidence/chutzpah to believe in themselves no matter what.
Kenda Turner says
It took me a long time to embrace #1, and I'm living #2 and #3. Where I'd like to improve now is #6! Fantastic post–thanks I guess a tip I'd add would be the willingness to play with words just for the fun of it and not always with an eye toward publication. I find that gets the creative juices flowing…
Cheryl Reif says
Hi Kenda, Yes, I think an ability to play with words is key…maybe that's part of taking joy in writing? On Twitter, @inflatableink also added the ability to complete projects!
Kris Yankee says
Cheryl, This is a great list!
Great list. Your point about the two types of writers though, I think that's partly a function of how nonwriters view the craft.
The same writer can fall into both groups at different times in different moods.
Support, critique and criticism are three different things.
Anyone doing anything lengthy and difficult needs some support. Most of us face tons of social rejection just for being writers. Daring to do it in the face of people who gave up and hate them for following their dreams is a good way to acquire unexpected, unhealthy criticism. Sometimes criticism can be outright sabotage.
Critique is useful and helpful. Critique is when your friend the English teacher red-pens all your grammatical problems and explains those points so that you can fix them yourself next time. Critique will talk seriously about technical points and ask "Were you trying to slow down the pace at this point? If so, this can work. If not, you might want to shorten the sentences and eliminate passive voice."
That leaves it up to you what to do with the observation. Good critique isn't insulted when the problem they flagged gets handled in a way other than the way they suggested.
Support is hard to find and as necessary to writers as anyone else. The best way I've found to get it is to measure quantity. Posting on Facebook when you finish a chapter gets nonwriter friends congratulating and cheering you on as easily as you'd compliment them for clearing out their garage.
That's a vital antidote to all the people who routinely discourage anyone from the arts. There's a strong anti-intellectual bias in this country and an equally strong social tendency to personal criticism – of everything.
No matter who you are or what you believe, people will attack you for it constantly in brutal personal terms. It helps to have a support network.
So if you recognized yourself in the first group, seek support as such. Learn to distinguish critique from criticism. I have no use for personal criticism at all, that has no purpose other than to make me feel bad. I don't need to agree with every negative statement. Real critique is gold. It doesn't hurt nearly as much.
One sure way to tell the difference. Save your original draft, make the changes and read it. Ask yourself if you actually like the story better with the changes. If it helped, you've got real critique even if your friend's manner is brusque or abrasive. If it made it worse – you still have the first version and can talk to someone skilled in your genre and style to help you get it to what you wanted it to be.
TL Conway says
Your #1 really struck a chord with me. The simple act of self-identifying as a writer is huge and one I struggle with. I still keep it locked down, like it's a secret hobby that I'm not ready to share with others.
Great list, Cheryl!
All great points, Cheryl. #2 spoke to me, because I was just reading a blog post earlier today by a writer who basically hates writing right now. I've been there, I'm sure we all have, but it's important to hold on to the joy it brings, and remind ourselves it's a long road.
Great list. Loved #2. The joy of writing keeps me going through tough times.
Cheryl Reif says
@robertsloan–Great suggestions for differentiating critique and criticism. I'd add that good critiques include what the reader LIKES about your manuscript plus suggestions for improvement, not just attacks on what isn't working.
@TL Conway–identifying as a writer took me a really, really, really long time. I think it's a process, but one we can accelerate by choosing to take on the label :). You're definitely a writer!
@artists_road & @readingkidsbooks–Joy in writing is a big one for me, too. It's easy for me to lose sight of it; when I do, it's usually a red flag that I'm working too hard and not taking time to enjoy the process. May you both find joy in your craft today!