Yet you can improve your writing immediately by using fewer words. It might seem obvious to avoid long words, but what about small words?
Some small words reduce the flow and clarity of your writing. You might not notice them because they’re so common, they’re practically invisible. Before we look at them in more detail, make an exception for dialogue.
Writing rules are less strict when writing dialogue. Most people don’t speak properly all the time. You can make your lines sound natural is by reading them out loud.
No doubt you’ve been advised to write the way you speak, but remember that written dialogue is natural speech, polished.
Reducing the frequency of these four common words will sharpen your prose, whether fiction or nonfiction. No words are completely excluded – just use them with purpose.
That’s That, That’s All
Good writing does not come from verbiage but from words. Jeff Lindsay
“That” is a common word which you can often cut without losing the sense of your sentence.
This is the plate that she told me to wash. I can see that it’s dirty.
This is the plate she told me to wash. I can see it’s dirty.
The sentence is more direct if you reword it.
She told me to wash this dirty plate.
Try your sentence with and without that. Rewrite if needed.
The Thing Is…
I have rewritten — often several times — every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers. Vladimir Nabokov
What is the thing you’re trying to convey? Using “thing” is imprecise at best, and at worst pulls your reader out of the writing. If he’s scratching his head wondering what the thing is, you’ve lost him. Find a better way to express your idea.
The thing is, we’ll never know the truth. He may or may not have a thing for kale.
We’ll never know the truth. He may or may not love kale.
Look for thing and either define it or remove it, unless you aim to mystify the reader.
What’s the thing we all strive for? Happiness.
What emotion do we all strive for? Happiness.
Parts Of Possession
Notice the small things. The rewards are inversely proportional. Liz Vassey
This tiny word is absolutely essential – but not all the time. You can’t speak or write without using “of” and this leads to overuse through familiarity. Consider these four examples.
It’s not that big of a problem or
It’s not such a big problem or
It’s not a big problem
Which sounds better to you?
The first example sounds ‘different’ to my ear, since I speak and write British English. I can use the difference to make my American character more believable. But if my English character said that phrase it wouldn’t be authentic.
The cadences of speech spill into our written words, so think about the effect you want to produce. Ask yourself who is speaking, and what’s the context?
The roof of the house. The sleeve of his shirt. The golden colour of her hair or
The roof. The shirt sleeve. Her golden hair.
Sometimes we over-explain. The reader can follow along if the scene is clearly described, and you don’t have to assign every detail.
I present Achmael, Lord Protector of Blein, Archduke of Nimra, Third of his name… or This is Achmael Blein III.
The first example sits well in a high fantasy story, while the second suits a more modern setting.
The end of the day. The blink of an eye. The dead of night. A thing of beauty.
Watch out for clichés – overused, tired descriptions and metaphors. Rewrite the phrase and make it your own.
What Was Going On?
No words are too good for the cutting-room floor, no idea so fine that it cannot be phrased more succinctly.” Merilyn Simonds
Writers often use the word “was” paired with a verb ending in -ing. It’s natural in storytelling to say something like this.
“So I was moving away, and all of a sudden there was a loud crash behind me.”
Writing aims for a more polished delivery, and the style varies with the desired effect. Replace all was/am/were plus -ing verbs with the simple past tense, which is shorter and more immediate. If adverbs clutter the sentence, choose a stronger verb.
Thus “I was walking slowly” becomes “I walked slowly” or better yet “I strolled” “I crept” or “I hobbled” according to need.
For the examples above, a possible rewrite is this.
“I ran, startled by the crash of metal against metal behind me.”
Of This and That and Other Things
Four small words – that, thing, of, was – are indispensable in the right place. You’ll tighten your prose by hunting them down, shining a bright light in their eyes, and asking them, “What do you think you’re doing here?”
Only let them stay if you get a definite answer to that question. If not, you know what you have to do. Your clarity is at stake.
1. the action of working with someone to produce or create something. “he wrote on art and architecture in collaboration with John Betjeman”
2. traitorous cooperation with an enemy. “he faces charges of collaboration”
What comes to mind when you think about working in groups?
Collaboration can have both positive and negative associations depending on who you work with and for what result.
Writing is a solitary act. You close the curtains and lock the doors before exposing your inner thoughts and desires. Then comes the agonising process of deciding how much to show and how much to tuck away safely out of sight.
You set limits on displaying your truth, much like the spectrum covering those who walk around a changing room proudly naked and those who withdraw into a closed cubicle — or go home and keep their secrets.
Collaboration can feel like sharing that cubicle with a stranger, for a long time. The thought of inviting more people inside is even worse.
In the gym, people often work with one or two others or in bigger groups to achieve their aims.
Can that work for writers too?
All By Myself
Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much. Helen Keller
Working alone is great because you can please yourself. And working alone is bad because you can please yourself. Who will call you out and make sure you show up if you don’t? Nobody will. You’ll simply make excuses and move the finishing line to tomorrow, sometime, never.
Promises to ourselves are much easier to break than promises made to others. That’s why we’re advised to make our resolutions public so other people can support us when we waver.
Working with someone elsemakes you accountable.
If you’ve agreed to meet up, write something, or complete an exercise, it’s harder to let yourself off the hook and disappoint your writing partner(s). In a small group you’re more visible and under greater social pressure to finish the task.
This alone can mean the difference between moving forward and spinning your wheels without any progress. An external deadline is a great motivator. In fact, for some people, it’s the only pressure that moves them from thinking to doing.
You know how hard it can be to start writing, and it’s even harder to finish. Self-imposed deadlines can work, but even the most disciplined person sometimes runs out of steam.
Then a scheduled meeting or submission date comes into its own because you don’t want to let someone down. Your self-image as an honest, reliable, trustworthy person depends on delivering.
So you focus and produce something. Perhaps it isn’t the perfectly polished jewel of work that you dreamed of, but that only ever existed in your head. Deadlines force completion.
Collaboration means accountability. Accountability means getting things done as promised. What does that mean for writers?
One Plus One Equals One
Collaboration on a book is the ultimate unnatural act. Tom Clancy
Presumably, Clancy was talking about fiction. If a novel represents one person’s vision, how can more than one person write a novel?
One example is the successful crime author Nicci French, made up of husband and wife team Sean French and Nicci Gerrard. They chose the female name combination because their first novel had a female narrator.
They talk here about how they make shared writing work. Strict rules are essential — for example, each must accept the other’s edits, preventing a constant back and forth that would be exhausting and result in no book at all.
Writing pairs remain the exception in fiction. If you’re compatible with another writer in terms of personality and style, you could attempt it as long as you agree on the ground rules from the beginning. Each of you will bring different skills and knowledge to the work.
But there are many pitfalls in trying to create a cohesive story with more than one writer. Is there a place for multiple authors in one book?
The Sum Of The Parts
The fun for me in collaboration is… working with other people just makes you smarter; that’s proven. Lin-Manuel Miranda
A short story anthology gathers a number of pieces into a single volume, with or without a unifying theme. Each writer works as an individual but is included by group membership or success in a contest.
The editing process is a collaboration aimed at polishing your work so it conforms to external standards. If you haven’t published anything before, working with an editor will teach you how to present your writing and save you time and effort the next time.
Writing groups offer support while requiring you to produce work regularly. I’ve found my real-life and online groups invaluable. They’ve challenged me to write in different styles, to a theme and deadline, and most importantly to engage regularly with other writers.
Sharing tips and problems improves all our work. And my stories have now been published in four anthologies, with more planned this year. Collaboration means opportunity.
If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.
Writing is just you and a blank page at its simplest, but that isn’t the whole story. Collaboration makes you a better writer. It brings accountability, opportunity, and productivity into the picture.
Combine all three with your hard-won words, and you’ll go far.
Have a comment or suggestion? Drop it below and start a conversation.
Without leaps of imagination or dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibilities. Dreaming, after all is a form of planning. Gloria Steinem
As December ends and we leave the holiday season behind, our thoughts naturally turn to the new year. Like the two headed Roman god Janus, patron of doorways and transitions, we look forward and back at the same time.
It can be a time of regret for missed opportunities, unwanted challenges faced, and unfulfilled dreams.
It’s also a time to look forward with hope, taking the lessons we’ve learned forward to do better in the new year. Here are 19 uncommon goals to improve your writing. Let’s do the WRITE thing in 2019.
Write More, Write Better
1. Write a manifesto
Companies write inspiring mission statements to express their aims in a few words. Write out your personal manifesto. What do you believe in when it comes to life and your creative work? What principles guide you? Condense the ideas into a single sentence that captures the essence of your vision. Use it in your bio on Medium, Twitter and your blog.
2. Set a monthly word count and track your output
What gets measured, gets done.
Daily word counts work well for some people but with busy lives sometimes a weekly or monthly target is better. This allows you flexibility to vary the count according to life events and the unexpected.
You might favour a fancy bullet journal, but a cheap desk diary works too if you like analogue records. If a spreadsheet works better for you, use that. The format doesn’t matter, as long as you complete it.
Set aside fifteen minutes each Sunday to record your word count and plan your week. If you’re falling behind, revise your goals. Schedule it in your diary and show up.
3. Finish that project — create a timeline
Unfinished projects derail you in three ways.
You waste time and energy feeling guilty and anxious.
You deprive yourself of the satisfaction of completion.
You deprive the world because it never sees your work.
You know that thing you started but never finished? Its time has come.
Whether it’s a novel or a blog post, pull up the document now. Figure out the minimum needed to complete it. Start writing. Keep going until it’s done. Don’t think, write.
Don’t stop, even if all you write is “blah blah blah and then they were abducted by aliens, The End.”
When you finish, breathe a sigh of relief and hit delete. You never have to look at it again. And you never have to let it drain your mental energy again, unless it is to edit and publish — if you want to.
4. Build or update your website
Everyone who hopes to send work into the world should have their own blog. It’s a place to build your portfolio, to connect with readers and clients, and to express yourself. Having all your work in one place is unwise, unless you own the platform.
If the platform vanishes, your work will vanish with it. By all means publish on Medium or elsewhere, but also have your own site where you can start to build an email list.
Make a free website this year with WordPress or Blogger.
If you have a blog already, refresh it with a new theme. Rewrite your About pages. Ensure you’re collecting emails for your subscriber list.
Read Something Interesting
It is well to read everything of something, and something of everything. Joseph Brodsky
5. Read a craft book
There’s a number of classic books on the craft of writing. You probably have one unread on the shelf right now. Here’s a list to get you started.
Pick one craft book and read it. Make notes on the new things you learned. Commit to using at least two of them in your next month of writing. It’s not enough to read and understand, you must also apply and assess results.
6. Read one book in a less favoured genre
You know what you like, right? And you avoid what you don’t. But you can learn new skills from different genres. Those skills are transferable to any genre.
Mystery shows how to write foreshadowing and twists. Horror shows how to write suspense. Fantasy shows how to write worldbuilding. And romance shows how to write dialogue.
Pick a book in a genre you never usually choose. Then read like a writer. You might need to read through and then go back to dissect how the writer achieved their aims.
If you could improve in the areas where you are weakest, imagine how much better your writing would be.
You can experiment with something new, or see what the competition is like in your chosen niche. It might give you ideas.
If you like a book, leave a review. That’s the best way to support a fellow writer, apart from buying their books.
8. Choose new authors on Medium and elsewhere
We live in an age of algorithms and filtered results tailored to our preferences. You can end up in an echo chamber where everyone holds the same views and no dissenting voices appear. That’s not good for discourse or for empathising with other people.
Instead of clicking on the same few names in your Medium email, try searching the tags you’re interested in. Pick a new author and have a look at their posts. Leave an intelligent comment and vote when you like a piece. You might find a new favourite.
Improve Your Skills
9. Take a course
The knowledge you need is out there. Commit to completing a course this year. Paid options include Udemy and CreativeLive. The latter offers some free to view content.
Free content is available as a signup bonus for some blogs like Jericho Writers as well as formal paid courses.
If you learn better with feedback or with demonstration, taking a course might suit you more than reading a book. Take your professional development seriously.
10. Retreat from the world
Writing retreats vary from simple to luxurious, local to exotic, with price tags to match. The opportunity to focus on writing can jumpstart your project or your mindset.
If you can commit the time, you’re halfway there. A retreat could consist of eight dedicated hours on Saturday with the kids sent to a relative or friend and the phone switched off. Or it could be a Caribbean cruise with well-known writers and cocktails.
Award yourself some time to write.
11. Join a Twitter pitch event
Each year, a number of writers find their agent through Twitter. Events are organised regularly by genre, using hashtags for authors to describe their books. Agents read the pitches and request pages, and some authors get signed.
Condensing your book into a 140 or 280 character pitch requires discipline and economy. The same skills are needed for writing blurbs and synopses. If you can’t condense it, maybe your story isn’t ready for an agent. Find tips and advice on winning twitter pitch events here.
12. Make an ebook for download
Ebooks are often used as incentives to sign up for an email list, and it’s good to offer your new readers something valuable in return for their time.
Include your best blog posts, or new stories not published elsewhere. Having your own mini book is another signal that you take yourself seriously as an author.
Use free resources from Canva or LucidPress to make professional looking booklets with ease. Then link it to your sign-up form using a mail program like Mailchimp or Convertkit.
There’s an undeniable sense of achievement in saying “I made that.”
Talk and Connect
13. Leave a meaningful review or comment
Be the change you want to see in the world.
You want people to read and engage with your words. Commit to doing this for another author at least once a week. Leave a review on Amazon or Goodreads. Reviews are hard to get and vital to a book’s success.
Write a comment that goes beyond ‘good job’ and shows how the words impacted you. Claps and reads and votes are marvellous, but a thoughtful comment is gold. And you can start a conversation that becomes a real relationship, without having to make small talk or even get dressed.
14. Join a group — genre or other
Writing is solitary and people in real life don’t get it. Join a group of people who do. Facebook has hundreds of groups organised by genre, gender, location, and philosophy of writing.
Writing conferences happen throughout the year and all over the world. Most offer workshops, sometimes with well-known authors, and the opportunity to meet agents and others in the publishing world. You can practice your pitch and chat with other writers. Self-publishing is also covered.
Cost will determine your choices here. Weekend events sometimes allow day visitors, which reduces costs of accommodation and catering.
16. Attend an author event
Attend a book signing or reading that’s local to you. Ask Google, or your local bookshop or library might have a calendar of events.
Have a sensible question for the author, but don’t monopolise the conversation or make it all about your book.
Like number 13, this is about good karma and being supportive, as well as learning by observation. Make good connections, because one day it could be your turn.
Entering a contest sets a deadline, which encourages you to finish your piece. You might have to write to a prompt or theme. And if you win, it will take your self-confidence to the next level as well as giving you bragging rights for your bio — and hopefully some cash too.
18. Milestone rewards for writing goals
Celebrate your successes and remind yourself how far you’ve come. Set some goals with a time limit, and write them out. You’re going to attach a reward to each milestone such as number of blog posts, finishing a project, hitting your monthly word count or whatever.
This reward will be something meaningful to you. Getting your 100th follower might mean more than hitting a word count, so let the rewards show that.
Big milestones deserve big celebrations. You got an agent? Finished your 120K epic saga? Wrote for 100 days without a break? Take a bow, choose a prize.
This is when your writing group gives another benefit — having people to celebrate with you. Don’t look for credit where you know it won’t be given, that’s just self-sabotage. Be happy for yourself.
19. Publish a book
The joy of self-publishing is that it gives you total control. There is no gatekeeper. You can write and publish a book with your name on it this year — if you want.
Like many things in life, the most successful authors are not necessarily the most visible. There are independent authors making millions, others following a hybrid self and trad publishing path, and others just thrilled to hold their own book in their hands. It’s not all about money.
Collect your best blog posts and add 25% new material. Collect your short stories or poetry by theme. Polish up your novella.
If this seems like an impossible stretch target, remember everything that exists was once no more than a passing thought.
Think of yourself as a published author. Then act like a published author. Ignore the disparaging comment “self-pub isn’t real publishing.” It is real, and if you’re going to be the next Kindle millionaire you’d better get started.
Putting the 20 into 2019
Most of us have heard of the power of affirmations. And most of us don’t really believe that repeating positive phrases will change our reality.
But we’re mistaken.
Thinking things into being is what creatives do.
So I challenge you to take your wildest, most precious, most secret wish for your creative life. Write it down, for your eyes only, on real paper. Tell it like it’s already real; say I am… or I have…
Now choose a physical object to symbolise your wish.
It could be a talisman like a crystal or a lucky pen. Maybe you’ll roll up your wish on a tiny scrap of paper and hide it in a locket.
Hold your wish in your hand once a week. Say it out loud.
Dream first, because that’s where everything real begins.
Then get working to make it come true.
When you do the things in the present that you can see, you are shaping the future that you are yet to see. Idowu Koyenikan
Good luck with your writing goals in the coming year.
You want views, and reads, and fans for your writing. We all do. You’ve been posting for a while now, but not seeing the results you want.
You’re not too discouraged yet, but you definitely feel like there’s something missing, and if you could only find out what to change you could move forward.
Perhaps you’ve fallen into the trap of believing that if you build it, the readers will come. That depends on what you build and who you hope to attract.
Getting readers to come, stay awhile and return isn’t easy, no matter what the latest guru might say. And if they don’t come, the swamp of suck will get you.
If you can’t build and keep momentum, loss of motivation will soon follow. Like running headlong into quicksand, discouragement slows you down and pulls you under. Avoid that by making your writing more engaging, regardless of subject.
Make Them An Offer They Can’t Refuse
The purpose of the headlines must be to convey a message to people who read headlines, then decide whether or not they will look at the copy. John Caples
The headline is your shop window. The world is a noisy place and you have to work hard to catch readers. That might mean tricking people into looking your way; lure them with the candy of an eye-catching banner, then feed them the wholesome food of your content.
It’s fashionable to sneer at so-called clickbait headlines that so often lead to worthless content. But looking at their structure can teach you what attracts attention. Then you can get your good content in front of more people.
Your potential reader will make a decision to stop and read or scroll on based on the offer in the headline. Copywriters and advertising have a lot to teach writers about headlines. We often spend little time on them, but they are as important as the content. If the reader doesn’t stop, he can’t be persuaded by our words.
Sell the benefit of your piece. Mention the value or learning that readers will get from reading, and then deliver. There is one reason that “How To” headlines and lists are so frequently used; they work. They draw people in.
The CoSchedule headline analyzer is a free to use resource that scores headlines based on an extensive database. The results can be counter-intuitive, especially for writers used to crafting beautiful prose. Save intrigue and wordplay for later. The headline has a job to do, and it has to be effective, not beautiful.
This example shows different versions of the same idea. The very simple headline scores best, showing the power of “How To” even though for me it’s not the most attractive.
Better writing is one step away = 63/100
You can become a better writer = 67/100
You can become a better writer now = 71/100
How to get better at writing =78/100
Write and analyse several versions of your headline. It’s hard but you’ll learn what actually makes a better headline, rather than what you think is better.
How Hard Can It Be?
So you’ve got your reader hooked. She’s looking forward to learning something or being entertained. But instead, she clicks away because your piece isn’t readable. Don’t let her go.
Hit the Wall
Few things are more off-putting than a wall of unbroken text on a screen. The words go on and on without end, and there’s nowhere to pause.
We need more white space on a screen, which allows our eyes to rest. Break up the prose. Have one idea to a sentence and two to three sentences to a paragraph. Don’t be afraid to have many short paragraphs, it makes the text more readable.
Important sentences can have a paragraph of their own to make them stand out.
The Long and the Short Of It
It’s vital that you target your writing at the right level for your readers.
Reading age refers to the ability of an average child of a given age to read and understand a piece of writing. Most people prefer to read for pleasure at least two years lower than their educational level. The average reading age in the US is 12 years. For comparison, the reading age of popular media is as follows.
The Sun, UK tabloid7-8 years
Harry Potter novels 12-13 years
Stephen King novels12 years
Reader’s Digest12 years
You might be a true logophile, but most readers want to see words they understand without reference to a dictionary. In most cases, use simpler words and sentences, and keep paragraphs short. Avoid jargon unless it’s essential, and explain the meaning of unfamiliar words the first time you use them.
Keep It Moving
Academic and business writing are notorious for being stodgy and dull. The writing often uses passive voice, which has a distant, formal effect. Active voice makes your writing more immediate and informal, which keeps readers moving down the page.
Modern writers dislike passive voice.(active) Passive voice is disliked by modern writers. (passive)
Instead of a generic noun such as “writers” try using “you” and “your”.
Address your reader directly when possible so they can identify with your point.
Avoid this Trap
Beware of purely emotional outpourings. Keep laments and angry rants in your journal. It’s cathartic but comes across as self-absorbed unless you make a point that’s relevant to your reader.
I recently unfollowed a writer who is angry. All the time. About everything they see with no end in sight. I share many of their concerns, but I wish they’d provide solutions for dealing with those issues.
Use your emotion as a starting point to help others deal with shared themes. Tell your story briefly then move on to how you dealt with it and your reader can too. Give alternatives, do your research, and avoid insulting language. There’s too much of that in any comments section already.
Put Meat on the Bones
So your headline drew the reader in. Your piece is well crafted. But is it compelling? Your content needs to solve a problem for your reader; it should inform, instruct, or entertain.
Here’s where you deliver on the promise of your headline. Ask yourself who your readers are and what problems they have. Make sure your piece answers their question or tells a great story.
If you posed a question, answer it. If you offered solutions, explain them. If you promised information, give it and make sure that it is something worth the time spent reading. Each item on your list won’t appeal equally to everyone, but there should be a take-away of value to a broad range of people.
Much has been written about “voice”, that elusive quality that makes a piece unique to its author. A good place to start finding your voice is writing as you speak, as though your reader is sitting next to you with a cup of coffee listening to every word.
Be conversational and friendly, and you’ll avoid business-speak.
Success isn’t always about greatness. It’s about consistency. Consistent hard work leads to success. Greatness will come. Dwayne Johnson
After all that hard work you might want to rest and admire your words. Instead you have to do it all over again. Building an audience is never a matter of one viral post. You need a body of work and you need to give your audience what they want.
Showing up, over and over, is much easier said than done. That’s why so many people fall by the wayside. It’s a long slog with little reward in the beginning, and as soon as you finish one post you have to make another. Whether the deadlines are external or self-imposed, they are an endless treadmill.
Some days you’ll feel exhausted and want to stop. But if you stop, you can’t win. So you have to carry on. Slow down if you must. Keep moving.
Remind yourself why you started. Celebrate your wins, however small. List your posts and remember when you had none. Remind yourself how far you’ve come.
Stick to your subject, at least until you have earned the trust of your readers by delivering consistently. Decide on a schedule and stick to it. Actions mean everything. The people you enticed in with a headline and who stayed to read your content want more from you. Build a portfolio and keep adding to it.
You cannot know which post will make your name. All you can do is do good work, over and over, and share it with the world. It’s as easy, and as hard, as that.
Walk That Talk
An ounce of action is worth a ton of theory. Karl Marx
How is it that so many self-help and advice books are bought and yet we remain overweight, unfit, unhappy and unfulfilled? The disconnect between reading and nodding sagely, and actually following the steps given is huge. Your success lies in closing that gap. I know because I have lived the same struggle.
Recently I felt discouraged about my work. I was putting in more effort but not yet seeing results. Knowing that this dip was going to happen didn’t make it any easier to deal with.
I leaned into my discontent. I studied harder, learned more and then put what I learned into practice. I followed advice, both my own and others who’ve trodden this path.
The result: more fans for one piece in 5 days than in the previous four weeks combined.
I wrote more, learned about exponential growth and encouraged myself. In addition, each published piece gives another opportunity to connect with people through the comments. Hearing that my words helped someone else is the reward that lifted my mood and got me working again.
Elite sportspeople know about marginal gains. Even a world champion can improve, but it’s a result of multiple tiny tweaks rather than one major change in routine. True champions push their personal best by optimising all the subroutines that make up their whole practice.
Let go of what you think works. Experiment with another way of doing things and adjust according to the result. It will be uncomfortable until you’ve repeated it so many times that it’s second nature.
You’re good enough and you can be better.
Take both of these ideas on board and decide what you’re willing to try today. I’m rooting for us.
Got a comment or suggestion? Drop it in the box below.
Are you tired of giving away your best work and seeing no return?
You’ve taken the advice of experts who say they’ve cracked the code.
It’s simple. People don’t buy from strangers, so you need to build a following. Show up consistently with great content at no cost and earn the right to offer a paid product. Frame it as service, sharing your gifts with the world, or whatever else. The expert’s smiling profile picture beckons you. It can be done and they’re the living proof.
So you work and put your words out there, and you start to see results. You get more reads and votes. Then the excitement of those early gains fades. You’re still working, but not breaking through. You work harder to produce better stuff but it doesn’t translate into bigger returns.
You’re shouting into the void.
You begin to question yourself.
How far are you along the road to success?
How much more effort do you have to put in before it bears real fruit?
Are you on the edge of a breakthrough, or should you cut your losses?
You Don’t Know How To Think About Art
Most professions have a defined path. You study certain subjects at school, get a degree, then pass further qualifications. That’s how I became a doctor. Attaining defined milestones guaranteed success. I proved myself and the world recognised my achievement.
The artist’s way is different. Each creative person brings a unique set of skills and desires to their career and there is no one true way to achieve their goals. There is no map. There is no prescribed skill set or summative assessment. There is no definitive endpoint to say you’ve made it.
How can you continue to work under those conditions?
The issue is not lack of commitment. It’s a lack of certainty. The artist must commit to the work knowing that the outcome is uncertain. Progress in art is not measured by simple metrics.
Progress is hard to measure in any creative endeavor, I think. It’s often a matter of instinct, of feeling your way through what works and what doesn’t. Kate DiCamillo
A professional attains a required standard and then uses their skills to make a difference. An artist makes a difference by practising their art and sharing it. There may be different notions of what makes good art, but the artist must create and share in any case.
Embracing the essential uncertainty of the path and committing to making a difference despite the uncertaintyis the keystone of the artist’s mindset. Without that acceptance, you will falter and fail. Creating something new entails taking risks and leaving the known behind. You must be willing to sacrifice some security in exchange for novelty.
Even though the artist’s path is variable, undefined and badly lit, many people have walked their own version. I believe it’s possible to find a way through.
Do Just One Thing To Guarantee Failure
You’ve already done so much, and you’re sick of it. A hundred posts, a hundred rejections, ten thousand hours, you’ve done it all.
But remember that everyone, no matter how successful now, started at zero. Zero followers, reads or votes. Zero book sales and earnings. If you are past zero on any measure then you are already succeeding at some level. Give yourself some credit, and keep going.
When you look at the successful people in your field, remember survivorship bias. Their results look better because the failures have left the field. You don’t know what combination of hard work, talent, and blind luck got them to their current position.
What you should know is that by continuing to show up, you increase your chances of being in that group of survivors. When others give in to their doubts, put your head down and keep going.
Success lies along an exponential curve. If you put in the work and practise deliberately, you’ll move along that curve until you reach the tipping point.
You have to do the work and there is no shortcut. That means writing while implementing all the advice you’ve read, not just continuing to write the same way without implementing new techniques. That’s not real practice and doesn’t count toward the tipping point at all. Many writers don’t understand this. Act on advice so that you improve, and keep going.
If you stop before the tipping point, the rock rolls back down the hill. You’ll be crushed by the process and much less likely to try again. Go on without stopping until it starts to feel easier, and then keep going.
Every industry and creative endeavour has its rock stars. They are the titans whose success dwarfs all others. Each has such a massive audience that acclaim is almost guaranteed, whatever they produce.
You might notice that their later output isn’t actually stellar quality. No matter. They’re at the far end of the curve, and now receive high rewards for less effort. Their situation is the reverse of yours.
None of that matters to you.
They struggled in the beginning and stayed the course to make it. And the environment in which they succeeded is not like yours, because time has passed and everything changes. Their past success has nothing to do with your future success and does not prevent you from seeking it.
Stop reading them and indulging in self-flagellation or angry rants about their content. This is the embodiment of drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. It hurts you and only you.
Compare yourself only to past you. Are you moving in the right direction? Don’t chase unicorns, chase your future.
Serve Your People Better
“I haven’t got an audience,” you say. But you’re here and I guess you have a few followers or readers. The number isn’t big enough for you yet, but it’s not zero.
So what are you doing for those people? Are you like those annoying corporations who woo new customers with all their best offers and leave their existing customers in the cold? You’re so focused on the people who don’t know you that you turned your back on those who do.
Some people are watching. Some people have shown interest and faith in your work. Think of them as individuals, which is what they are. What are their needs, fears, and dreams?
Then ask yourself how you can meet their needs, nurture their dreams, inform and support and entertain. You’re here to serve in some way, so dive deeper. Give your fans 100% of your effort and knowledge and insight.
Discover the problems your actual audience has right now, and offer solutions.
An Inconvenient Truth
When you’re used to putting in the work and seeing direct results, this is a particularly hard pill to swallow. The action ⇢ result switch appears to be broken because you acted but nothing happened.
This is true — but only in the short term. If you continue and keep faith in the process, you’ll find that what you’re seeing is not failure, but delayed success. Keep going.
Time For A Reality Check
I know you want to give up because I want to stop too. The things I want seem too far away, and my efforts are too small to make a difference. I’m tired.
At this point, you need to remind yourself of your effectiveness. When you feel useless, it bleeds out into a generalised despair. But you’re not a total failure. You’ve succeeded at many things already both large and small. You’ve survived life so far.
I had a professional mentor once who I found almost impossible to work with. I needed the six-month placement to complete my training. Most of my days were spent just surviving because you can tolerate any job for six months, right?
I barely made it.
Almost nothing of what he tried to teach me remains, except this. He advised me to keep a compliments file. Since it was inevitable that someone would complain about my work, and I would feel bad about myself, the compliments file provided a reality check.
You feel like you’re useless and everybody hates you. But other people enjoy and are grateful for your work. Print out those comments and emails. Keep them in an actual file that you can see and feel. Person A felt your words helped them. Person B found your advice useful. Person C loved your way with words.
Recall your life successes, whether it’s a diploma awarded or a joke well told. Balance your negative with all the positive you can muster. Go find your nice comment, print it out so it’s tangible, and look at it to remind yourself you’ve won before, and you can win again.
You Can Conquer The Swamp of Suck On Your Path To Greatness
You’ll always have good and bad days. Know yourself and your triggers to navigate your downswings more easily. When you feel better again, think about how you got there and what you need to avoid or mitigate the trigger.
Cherish positive comments and hoard them for encouragement in difficult times.
Every win is a treasure. Track them, acknowledge them, be grateful for them.
Celebrate when you reach a milestone. Don’t just shrug it off and look at the next goal. Attach a treat to each milestone because the top of the mountain is a long way off. Even those who conquer Everest make camp along the way.
List your goals and write a reward next to each one. The only rules are
the reward must be within your power to give and
the reward must make you smile.
Do it now.
Your Engine Is Inside The Car
We quickly adjust to new situations, whether it’s more money, a bigger car, or the next thousand followers. These things lose their ability to motivate us and we say familiarity breeds contempt.
Extrinsic motivators like metrics and fame work for a while to pull you along. But if you don’t have them yet — and even when you do — you needintrinsic motivation. This is your engine. The small voice that won’t be silenced, that says after all this struggle you are still gonna write anyway and be damned because not writing is even worse than writing without immediate reward.
It is the combination of reasonable talent and the ability to keep going in the face of defeat that leads to success. Martin Seligman
So go forward, and write anyway. What else are you going to do? Take what you have, and keep going. I’ll see you there.
Have a comment or question? Drop it below and start the conversation.
Finding writing success can be like prospecting for gold.
You know it’s out there, somewhere, but you’re not finding it no matter how hard you dig. You see others strike it big and assume they’re luckier or got a bigger shovel.
You could have the perfect tools and focus on your goals, but it won’t matter if you’re digging in the wrong place.
People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall. Thomas Merton
The Double-Edged Sword of Focus
You work hard, eliminate distractions, and focus on one thing at a time.This can be good and bad at the same time.
Take gold prospecting. Digging a one hundred foot mine shaft will keep you busy, whether the gold lies there or not. If there isn’t any gold, your work will be in vain.
The same can be said for your writing.
How will you find out where to place your efforts?
You need to go wide and then deep.
Trying new areas is the only way to know if a better prospect is out there for you.
The gold miners need to survey whole landscape first. They go wide. The surveyors dig exploratory mines in promising spots. They only go deep when there’s a good chance of reward for their efforts, because they have to process a lot of ore to find nuggets of gold.
Then they study the landscape to learn the signs that tell them there’s gold further down, which makes it easier to spot next time.
For example, I wrote an article last year about being let down by a friend. It was more popular than anything I’d written up to that point.
Friends shared it and reached out to me on Twitter. It wasn’t viral, but it was a little gold strike. Once I got over being amazed, I studied it to see how it differed from previous pieces and came up with the following points.
Readers like emotional stories
Universal theme of betrayal
Conversational style — written as a letter
Shared to social media on a ‘quiet’ day
Title alluded to Facebook
Friend shared it on her Facebook feed
Cross posted in several places — blog, Medium, Twitter
Performed best on Medium
So now I have some pointers to what might do well, and where. I can choose to add the personal, and decide on the writing style to use next time. I won’t expect huge response from my blog, but there are other reasons to post there.
The other lesson is that it’s impossible to predict what will do well and where. Spread your net wide.
Perhaps you’re comfortable doing what you do now. You don’t want to progress or grow as a writer and person. That’s fine. Challenge isn’t for everyone, and there are times in every life where the challenge is survival, pure and simple.
But you’re reading this because you want to do more. You want to achieve your potential, though you’re unsure what that might look like.
That means leaving comfort behind, even if very briefly, and doing something new. Then assess the result and course correct. Let’s see what that looks like for a writer.
Try a new fishing ground
Writing divides into three very broad categories.
Writing fiction teaches imagination, how to move a story along, and how to tell the truth by hiding it inside a story.
Writing poetry teaches focus on emotions, how to condense expression, how to convey concepts in word pictures that show the world in a new light.
Writing non-fiction teaches structure, clarity of expression, how to make an argument, how to persuade and inform.
The best pieces include elements from more than one discipline. That breadth of expression appeals to more of our senses and emotions, therefore affects us more. We write to change how people feel, so having more tools leads to better engagement with our audience.
Crossing the boundaries could look like this.
Poetry plus non-fiction elements:
Structured poetry forms like sonnet, villanelle, tanka
Polemic — a poem with a strongly stated point of view
Fiction plus non-fiction elements:
Tightly plotted fiction
Historical fiction with strong research base
Fiction plus poetry elements:
Lyrical writing style
Highly descriptive but concise style
Non-fiction plus poetry elements
Descriptive travel writing
Learn new ways to tell your story, blur the boundaries. Take what you learn back to your chosen field and play with it.
In your own field, try a different corner.
If you always write free poetry, use a recognised form like a sonnet. If you write technical pieces, write a think piece on your industry or an interview with a leader in the field. Horror and romance writers, switch genres.
Your next piece will benefit from taking another viewpoint.
Wave a flag and get noticed
This is a great time to be a writer. Gatekeepers still exist for traditional publishing, but it’s never been easier to choose yourself and get your words out there. That inevitably leads to a crowded marketplace, but there are ways to stand out.
Enter a competition
In a world of almost limitless choices, recommendations count for a lot. That’s why star ratings are so powerful. Winning a competition, even getting shortlisted in one, can be the start of new opportunities. A win says you can be trusted to tell a story.
In 2017 I won first place in an international short story contest. I’d missed the deadline for another contest, and entered the HE Bates Short Story Competition at the last minute. The boost this gave my writing career and confidence continues even now. It’s a fine addition to my writing CV.
The win raised my profile among friends and family, some of whom took my writing seriously for the first time. The story was published in a local lifestyle magazine.
I now write a monthly story for them and continue to build my portfolio. Because people know I write, some came forward in response to a Facebook request for early reviewers of an anthology.
It’s a virtuous circle in which success opens doors and changes attitudes, not least my own. And I bought some very fancy noise cancelling headphones with the prize money.
Competitions exist for every kind of writing and writer and are held year-round. Writing magazines are good sources of information, and you can google by type.
The cost of entry varies but many are free to enter so you can try without financial barriers. There is no reason to pass on this chance for recognition and validation.
Start a blog
Starting a blog is easier than ever, and can be low or even no cost. While it’s hard to drive traffic to a blog, it’s also a place for you to do whatever you want, to experiment, and to start gathering fans.
You can showcase your writing, give advice on any subject, maybe even earn money eventually.
If you’re querying agents for traditional publishing, they will expect to see samples of your work if they Google you.
Your blog or website is the place to assemble your portfolio. Aim for consistent, quality work rather than lots of rushed pieces.
Medium is one of the best places to expand your writing career. You can write for yourself, or for publications boasting thousands of followers.
In fact, you should do both and spread your net wider. Look around and see where you could fit in. Try Smedian, a site that gathers useful information on publications plus links to joining them as a writer.
Submit to magazines
Some magazines are online only while others have a print version as well. The website will have guidelines on what the editor is looking for and how to submit. Both fiction and non-fiction are wanted and all editors need good content every month.
If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.
Writing is a solitary occupation but sometimes it’s helpful to share the journey. Other writers understand the challenges and can be supportive, sharing ideas and information. Writing magazines host online forums where feedback and advice is given.
Many online groups exist, often run through Facebook. Real life groups get you out of the chair and offer social interaction.
Some groups run their own contests and publish anthologies of members’ work. Again a google search should give some options local to you.
Be prepared to stick with a group for a while to see if it’s a good fit with you and your aspirations.
Groups reflect life and can be breeding grounds for negative interactions, so if you’re experiencing overbearing or overcritical personalities leave gracefully and look for another.
Try it now
Prompt: a person finds a key in the street. Now write about it in 500 words or less.
Non-fiction writers, write a poem of any form.
Fiction writers, write a factual piece.
Poets, write a short story.
Take the next step
You want to improve and get to the next level?
Challenge yourself to do something new and stretch your muscles. Then employ that new strength in a new area. You never know, your real calling might lie in a totally different place from where you are now.
When editing your work you’ll find words that crop up over and over, but add no value to the prose. These are crutch words and removing them will strengthen your prose.
When speaking, crutch words give us time to think. They’re used as filler or emphasis.
Filler words in speech
In writing we tend to use the same words and phrases repeatedly. They slow down or dilute what we’re trying to say. When writing dialogue, a few of these words give a natural feel. They should still be used sparingly, because written dialogue is natural speech, but polished.
You can use the ‘find’ function in a word processor, or use a printout and red pen, editor-style. Sometimes the word can be removed. Other times the sentence will need re-writing.
Like all editing rules, this is a guideline. You don’t need to remove every one of the words on the list. You’re looking at each instance critically and making a conscious decision to keep, change or cut. Some are adverbs, which as we know must be used with care.
• A bit
• As though
• Started to
• Began to
Don’t forget two little words that can often be cut without losing the meaning of the sentence.
You will find that taking out a proportion of the crutch words/phrases allows your writing to speak more directly. And that is the aim of every writer.
On being asked how he created his magnificent sculpture of David, Michelangelo is reputed to have said, “Simple. I cut away everything that wasn’t David.”