How To Be Successful At Writing
What nobody’s telling you
It’s the big question, ain’t it?
Periodically, other writers reach out to me to ask this. And because I’m a dick but not like That Big Of A Dick, here are the answers I always want to say but never do, directed at anybody and nobody in particular.
You want credentials, I ain’t got em. If you want an MFA program or an editor or a publishing house, you’ll have to look elsewhere.
But: I write. And, if I may be so bold, I do it halfway okay.
There are a shit-ton of things I’m not good at.
I love my bike but still couldn’t tell you with absolute certainty how many cylinders it has. I have to pause to remember if it’s 695 or 696 cc’s. I fuck up popcorn. I crash after 9. I can’t sing, I only white-girl dance, and I couldn’t run a mile to save my life.
But there’s one thing I think I can do halfway decently, and that is write.
Do I think I’m the greatest writer in the world? No, I do not. But I also don’t care. There are several heart-stopping writers out there whose meaty work makes my sides yearn and my jaw ache it’s so fucking good, but there’s also room enough not to compare. So somewhere amongst them, or betwixt them, or gazing adoringly up at them just like you, here I am to offer my opinion.
Here’s how to write:
NON-NEGOTIABLE PREREQUISITE: WRITE
Because I mean… come on.
If you’re not writing, all I have to say is: are you being fucking serious rn? The fact that something so obvious even has to be stated makes me want to slam my own hand in a drawer.
And yet sometimes other writers reach out wanting to ask BIG IMPORTANT QUESTIONS (i.e., THE ONE BIG SECRET they’re convinced all writers except them are in on), phrased like:
“What’s the single most important thing?”
And right as I start to wonder if they Might Be Onto Something Here, I go check their post history, and half the time I see that they rarely write. So I then I point out this “fantastical mystery” (reminder: it’s “write”) to them, like “uh. yo dawg — the most important part of writing is writing so, like, are you even trying?” — an “insight” that leaves them awestruck and me wondering how they even function day to day.
Because if you’re asking how to succeed at writing but you’re not even writing, stop wasting everyone’s time with the rest. Like, don’t ask “how to be fashionable” if you can’t even manage to put pants on. Nobody is here to “life” for you.
Equally amazing is when I say this and people immediately ask,
“How often do you write?”
The long answer, which I’ve never said to anyone but literally always think, is:
“Dude, go look. You can see my post history.”
But the short answer that I really say, because I’m not always a dick IRL, is:
“Uh… pretty much every day.”
But how much I write doesn’t matter. “Daily” doesn’t matter.
But it’s not that the magic is “daily.” It’s that the magic is doing.
The cadence matters far less than the continuous creation, and the only reason I say “daily” is because it has a nice rhythm, and I’ve found that if you slip beyond it, one day quickly becomes three weeks quickly becomes two years.
Why aren’t you writing?
I don’t give a fuck — but you should.
If you think this thing is about “inspiration” or “motivation,” you’re wrong. Inspiration and motivation are the greatest crock of the universe.
Everyone who got where they are did it even when they didn’t feel like it. (And some of the most successful writers out there describe their work ethic as being that of “mules” and “bulldogs” — not, I don’t know, “unicorns.”)
I always want to give this example, so I will: think of your work like orgasms.
Don’t pedestalize that shit. And don’t repress. Don’t make it fucking precious and weird. Act like a normal human being, and make it a part of your normal life — get shit worked out regularly, and it’ll happen better. Some will be better worse than others. Obviously. But do it enough and it’ll get better and more natural over time.
Don’t like that? Fine. Here’s one from the book Art and Fear, regarding a ceramics class that was divided into two groups.
Half were graded on quantity; the other half on quality.
“Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the ‘quantity’ group was busily churning out piles of work — and learning from their mistakes — the ‘quality’ group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay. If you think good work is somehow synonymous with perfect work, you are headed for big trouble. Art is human; error is human; ergo, art is error. Inevitably, your work (like, uh, the preceding syllogism…) will be flawed. Why? Because you’re a human being, and only human beings, warts and all, make art.”
Don’t talk about your craft. Do your craft. In fact, if you stopped reading this article and instead wrote something, even a response to it, I’d count that as a greater success.
Writers write. They don’t fuck around with writing, or abstract it into something it’s not.
ONCE YOU START WRITING…
A side story
I am not good at Instagam.
I do not “Instagram” as a casual user, and it was only through begrudging reluctance that I ever “Instagrammed” as a business owner. Even when I got better at the “game” of it, that’s all it ever was — literally just doing what I had to do to build a presence. I had no innate “feel” for it, and I definitely never loved it, so I spent half my time researching “how to’s” and the other half of my time blindly implementing the techniques.
I learned a few things along the way:
1.) Many resources give you the run-around about “what works!”
Post at least once a day. Post at the right time of day. Comment on other people’s shit. Follow other people. Use hashtags. Use filters. Don’t use filters. Etc.
And yeah, sure, it does.
2.) But very few resources cited the first, most obvious step:
Take good photos!
Because if you’re not taking good photos, but you’re still trying to implement all of the above, you’re gonna run yourself into the ground.
And again, I’m no Instagram master, so yeah, maybe I’m the asshole here. But like, check out these two random pictures of two different strangers’ food and tell me which account you’d put your money on — regardless of anything else.
If you want to optimize hashtags for slop, go for it. But if you ask me, you’d be better off taking better photos.
And it’s the same for writing.
90% OF SUCCESS: WRITE WELL.
The equivalent to “take a good fucking photo!” on Instagram — by far the most important thing.
The biggest question you should be asking yourself once you start is:
Are you even any good?
“Write Well” Rule #1: HAVE something to say
Most writing is bad because the writer says absolutely nothing.
You’re not sure who’s speaking — is this even a person? Nobody knows! The work is lifeless and limp.
If you come at writing like some checklist to print out and pencil in, you’re gonna have a bad time. And this is one of the biggest reasons so many people do.
Share something. Success is people relating to it. And nobody except a cardboard box can relate to writing that reads like cardboard.
“How do I know what to write?”
This is one of the weirdest questions I get asked. Because like, wow, bud.
Whatever is in your head. Whatever matters most. Whatever you’re thinking. Whatever is begging to be put on paper. Whatever is hanging on you as you try to go about your day. Whatever is pulling you away from meetings. Whatever is tripping you while you walk. Whatever is distracting you from everyday life. Whatever is THERE. I mean, damn.
Is there truly nothing there? Maybe not. I mean, seems like that’s what I’m hearing… and if that’s the case: why in God’s name would you want to be a writer??
Like, I’m an uncoordinated buffoon who can only white-girl dance, and you don’t see me trying to cut it as a backup dancer. For good reason.
Be honest with yourself.
“Write Well” Rule #2: Fucking SAY it
As Mary Karr wrote,
“Most memoirs fail because of voice. It’s not distinct enough to sound alive and compelling.”
a.) Do not operate from a place of fear
“Unlearn your constant need to be liked.”
Just three months into writing on Medium, a total stranger on the internet called me their “least favorite writer and person in the world.”
I wasn’t even mad. That’s amazing.
There are like 172 points in this post alone where I’ll probably piss someone off, and I know I can always count on a few angry comments. People @ me all the time, hand-wringing like, “I am unnerved by and unappreciative of your icky four-letter words!” Conversely, as recently as this week alone, someone commented, simply: “fuck you.” (And these are the easy ones!)
And to all of them, I’m just like: hokey dokey, dawg!!
Like, uh, you’re the one wandering around my house. You can go home any time you want, weirdo. Lol.
When you write for the right reasons, you kinda cease to care about some rando’s remarks.
Also: there are plenty of successful writers out there that I find drab as plaster. I won’t name them, but they do exist. And I don’t so much “hate” their work as I “gently set it down and scooch it away” like a cup of cold, day-old, grassy green tea or tiny pile o’ dried chamomile buds.
Does this mean anything empirical about their work? Fuck no. (Or, in their words: pish posh — ts’ok!) Tons of people adore them.
We are two ships passing in the dark, and it does not matter.
If you keep fucking around with the fear of what everyone else is gonna think, you’re gonna mind-fuck yourself into a hole.
b.) Operate from a place of love
Here’s a secret: it’s not about “ignoring the haters,” or “learning to be okay with them” or doing anything in relation to them — or living in a vacuum.
It’s about: VALUING YOURSELF.
If you care enough about you and your experience and your being and your person and your life, then: measuring yourself up against some ass-hat on the internet or caring about some unhappy stranger’s opinion more than your own? Honey, for real? That’s a literal no-brainer.
“Write Well” Rule #3: LIKE saying it.
Writers don’t write because they like the “idea” of being a writer. They write because it’s their “shit sandwich.”
“Write Well” Rule #4: Say it WELL.
Grammar and shit.
Of the four rules, this is the one you can fuck around with and still be okay. (Proof: me.)
But you can never, ever make it by upholding only this one and letting the other three slide. (Not outside of high school essays, anyway. Sadly for your gold star binder.)
THE OTHER 10% OF SUCCESS: EVERYTHING ELSE
i.e., Titles, post length, SEO, process, and all that other bullshit
Sometimes writers wanna have these lengthy discussions about “secrets” and “strategies” and “behind the scenes” and I’m just like “dear gahd pls no” (fucking gag me with a spoon bc no thank you!)
And, shit, I’m probably the asshole here. Because — see above — I never set out to “guerrilla” this shit. So, yeah, maybe if I’d been doing something other than “just writing” I’d have more to say about this shit, and maybe I’m missing out on “a lot” by not having it. Who’s to say?!
Except for the fact that: lolol my #1 goal is and always has been: to write.
You wanna find resources on SEO and titles and post length and timing? Go for it! I’m not your gal, and I’d never say that should be your focus — especially if you’re optimizing slop — but there are plenty out there if that’s your route.
“But… what matters the most?”
Well, champ — shit. You got an entire post on there not being short cuts and you want a short cut?
Cool — the secret short cut to writing success is: Write.
And then write.