Writing Lessons

A few years ago, I read Under the Wide and Starry Sky, a fictional take on the lives of Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife Fanny. Near the end of the book, Stevenson reflects on his adult stepson, an aspiring writer who gets caught up in the trappings of the literary life. Stevenson sadly observes that his stepson “wanted the life of the writer, more than the art.”

That line stung when I read it. He could’ve been describing 25-year-old me.

In 2008, I quit my first real journalism job in order to become a freelance writer. Back then, I believed the myth that to be a “real” writer, writing had to be my full-time job and pay all my bills. My three-step plan for literary success was simple and naive.

First, minimize my living expenses. (I moved out of my apartment and into various relatives’ homes for a few months. Eventually I landed in a basement bedroom of a shared duplex that had both mildew and mice.) Second, get paid for writing magazine and newspaper articles. (An idea so vague it could hardly be called a “plan.”) And lastly, keep writing articles until I had a steady income and no longer had to live off my savings.

Disillusionment was swift. In less than a year, I was lonely, nearly broke, and so tired of wearing yoga pants as my standard work uniform—a major selling point of the freelance writer life—that I could’ve burned them. More than 500 magazines folded in 2008, and writers and publishers had yet to realize the potential of digital media. It was a bad time to base your livelihood on writing for magazines.

Worst of all, I didn’t like writing anymore. In fact, I began to dread it. When all of my income depended on my writing, I had to accept any and every writing job I could—even the assignments I didn’t like or opportunities that paid poorly. Eventually I ended up at a full-time editing job again where I worked for the next decade. Surprisingly, once writing stopped being my full-time job, I started to like it again.

Last month, history repeated itself and I once again left my corporate job with the plan to freelance full-time. But things are different this time around. In the intervening years, I’ve learned a few things about business and more importantly, about writing. This is what I wish I would’ve known when I was first starting out.

1. Writing is a craft, not a lifestyle.

In my twenties, I had pursued writing as a lifestyle, not as a craft, or even a business. As a new freelance writer, I spent most of my time and energy constructing a facade instead of refining my craft.

I made business cards that I never handed out. I spent hours at coffee shops with my laptop drinking expensive lattes because that’s what writers did. (Never mind that I prefer silence when I write.) I was fixated on seeing my name in print as though every byline was proof of my legitimacy.

I drove aimlessly around my city looking for inspiring places that would fill me with creative ideas. I dreamed of having a chic home office with vintage furniture and Anthropologie knickknacks. In short, I wanted to be like the writers I saw on social media and in movies.

A major point I overlooked is that social media and movies are full of stereotypes about writers. If someone made a movie about an actual working writer’s life, it’d probably be boring and not even have a soundtrack.

I still don’t have a chic home office, and I still can’t do productive writing in coffee shops, but it doesn’t matter anymore. These days, I think it’s more important to live according to William Faulkner’s admonition: “Don’t be a writer. Be writing.”

2. Word count goals are the surest way to keep me writing.

For years, my writing life was undisciplined. I thought that in order to write well, I had to feel like it. I thought that beautiful, meaningful words could only come from unpredictable rushes of inspiration.

Then I read Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. In her book, Gilbert dispels a lot of myths about the creative life including the idea that you should only write when you feel inspired. She describes her work ethic and likens her own writing practice to working like a farmer. I decided it was time to work like a farmer too.

I started waking up at 5:30 a few days a week to write before work. At first, I set a time goal for myself: five hours a week. This strategy worked for a while. But then, my designated writing time gradually became less productive.

As an editor, I often rework and revise my own writing to death just because I can. It’s often easier and more gratifying than writing fresh words, still grubby and dirt-caked from the earth. I may have been working like a farmer, but I just kept scrubbing the same potatoes.

I changed tactics. Rather than a time goal, I set a monthly word-count goal. It fundamentally changed my approach to writing. When I had a time goal, I was always on the lookout for large blocks of writing time. If I didn’t have a full uninterrupted hour to write, I decided it wasn’t worth it.

The problem with this mindset is that everyone’s time tends to be fragmented. My days are full of responsibilities but also endless interruptions and distractions.

With a word-count goal, I no longer need the perfect time and place to write. I write on my laptop. I write in the notes app on my phone while waiting in line. I scribble in a notebook before bed. Twenty words here, fifty words there. They all add up. Every single imperfect word.

Yes, I’m reaching my word-count goal. But more importantly, the habit of writing now infuses my life in a way it never did before.

3. Everyone’s rough drafts are rough.

Shortly after college, I took a children’s writing workshop at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. As part of our week-long course, we took a field trip to the Kerlan Collection at one of the University of Minnesota libraries.

The Kerlan Collection is an archive of children’s literature, not only published books but the paper trails that led to them: rough drafts, galleys, original artwork. On our visit, the librarians allowed our class to browse some of their materials and I found an early draft of Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo.

Kate DiCamillo is a prolific writer I’ve long admired and her books have won many awards and been turned into films. Yet, at first glance, her rough draft looked similar to anyone else’s. It was messy and full of notes, scribbled-out words, and questions between author and editor.

As I held the raggedy pages, I had an epiphany: All the books I admire begin like this. Everyone’s rough drafts are rough. From then on, it changed the way I approached the page when I wrote.

I discovered it was easier to start a new writing project when I reminded myself that I didn’t have to write an award-winning book or even a coherent essay. I simply needed to write a rough draft.

4. Writers need readers.

When I say “readers,” I don’t mean social media followers or people who will buy my books. I mean people who will read my works-in-progress and give me honest feedback.

This lesson has taken me the longest to learn. In many ways, I’m still learning it. I tend to be a very private writer. I have endless files of unpublished work on my computer that have never been read by anyone except me: essays, poems, one-third of a novel. Most of the time, I don’t like to share my writing with anyone until it’s completely finished.

I took the children’s writing workshop not knowing that I’d have to stand in front of the class and read ten pages of the rough draft of my novel. I also didn’t know that my classmates would give me feedback on my work—both on paper and to my face.

But when it was all over, I had never been more encouraged. My classmates saw the potential in my work but they also challenged me in ways I was unable to challenge myself.

These days I’m finally, slowly starting to share my works-in-progress with people in my life. Some of them are fellow writers, and some are simply people I trust. The risk is worth it.

5. Editors are your friends and can be your best collaborators.

Over the years I’ve met writers who tell me they want to self-publish their books because they don’t want anyone else (i.e. an editor) to change their words or ideas. I think this is a mistake. (Not the self-publishing part, but their reason for it.)

One woman I know has an incredible idea for a book. When I asked if she’d thought about getting an agent and pitching it to a publisher, she looked horrified. “Oh no!” she said. “This is my book. I don’t want anyone to change it.”

That’s her business of course. But I wish I could’ve explained to her that inviting other people into her process and being open to change could make her work stronger. A good editor has the same goal as the writer: to bring out the best in the work.

Last year I saw my own manuscript evolve from a Word document on my computer to a printed book. The end result was very different from where I started. It was better.

And it was all because of the incredible collaboration that can take place between writers, editors, designers, and anyone else who touches the project.

In my current work, I switch back and forth between roles. I’m the managing editor here at The Art of Simple. I’m also writing my next children’s book. My writer side is informed by my editor side and vice versa. When I’m the writer, I want feedback. I want to collaborate. It’s one of the best ways to grow as a writer.

And at the end of the day, growth is what I desire most in my writing life anyway. I’m not the same writer I was ten years ago or even last year. And that’s a good thing.

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