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?