Do you know what’s insane? Your current expectations for yourself.
Now, of course, that statement won’t apply to everyone who reads this — but I’m willing to bet it’ll hit the mark for a good number of you.
Let me ask you a few more questions before you (hopefully) continue reading:
- How many articles or books about productivity have you read recently?
- How often do you feel a sense of “not measuring up” as a writer? Who is “measuring up” in comparison?
- Does your head fill with visions of a great future when you think of how you just need to increase your output to x words/articles/books an hour/day/month?
What you may find from this line of questioning is a stark realization. If you are like I was just a short time ago, you’ll find that you’ve fallen into the “be like me” trap of the online world.
Here’s how to get out of it, and a blunt look at why you need to.
“Realistic” Can Mean Totally Different Things For Different Writers.
I have been around the digital block when it comes to content about “hacks” and the metrics of success.
It has, frankly, become a bit exhausting — though I admit, I’ll probably always enjoy reading those kinds of pieces.
Still, for me and many [most] others, the majority of these articles, ebooks, and what-have-you are…well, totally unrealistic. Let’s talk through this so you can see where I’m coming from.
On a given day, I am told a number of things about how to be a successful writer. To succeed, you:
- Just need to write an article a day.
- Just need to put out a book a month.
- Just need to build a platform, grow it, maintain it, and adjust it every step of the way as you continue your career.
- Just have to master all the elements of craft, but still maintain a genuine voice, and also make sure everything you write is “on brand.”
- Oh right, you also just need to build that brand, and before that spend hours and hours figuring out what that means and how to do it.
- Just need to also master marketing, including advertising and reading analytics, social media, SEO, formatting, publishing, networking, newsletter creation, podcasting, blogging, maybe a dash of cover or graphic design…
I think all of us just need to stop and ask why the hell we’d think all of this is realistic or sustainable. It can be for some people, but even then, it comes at a price.
As far as most of us are concerned, it simply is not realistic.
Most of us simply can’t do all of this. You can’t necessarily put out an article a day, or always hit the 5–10k word count mark in your manuscript each morning, and maybe you’ll never actually understand how to run ads or make sense of them when you do. A lot of us just aren’t wired that way.
And guess what? That is fine. Take a breath and make peace with it before we move on, because you need to start here. It doesn’t matter if x writer did this, this, and that and was wildly successful, because they are them and you are you.
Really, it’s fine.
You’ve Been Comparing Yourself To The Tips Of Icebergs, And You’re Not An Iceberg.
You’ve heard it before, but for every success story, there are quite literally thousands and thousands of not-success stories. Not all of those are failure-stories, either, but they aren’t “success” stories.
When someone succeeds and tells you all about how they did it, they’re usually hoping it’ll help you. They really are. The thing is, most of us are extremely un-self-aware.
We extrapolate our stories. We blanket our experiences and personalities over everyone else’s and don’t even realize we’re doing it.
“I wrote 10k words a day and published 365 articles in a year, and I became really successful, so I can now help other people do the exact same thing!”
Alas, beneath that glittering surface of success there hides a whole slew of factors the author themself has little conscious awareness of. Frankly, luck is almost always a huge part of it, as uncomfortable as that is to admit.
I’ve been extremely lucky. It took me a long time to realize that, too, and now I have to deal with feeling a bit guilty about it.
That’s what therapy is for! Ultimately it’s better to know and be grateful than assume everyone who hasn’t been lucky is “not working hard enough.”
Luck is uncomfortable. It’s uncomfortable whether you have it or not, because it’s a vague, universal concept that is really just our attempt to put a name to the phenomenon of “random circumstances aligning in our favor due to various factors we don’t actually control.”
There are also things like resilience, which some people simply have more of from the get-go, mentality, personality traits, and very specific, very personal chains of experience that may or may not lead to certain results.
The point is, you’re you. These writing experts, gurus, whatever-you-call-them? They ain’t you, kid. Take what you can from their experiences, but learn to confront the facts when things don’t add up for you.
Don’t try to be them. It’ll burn you out. I’ll get cliche and just say it: be you, instead.
Writing Is The Gambling Den From Hell, And It Always Has Been.
Let’s pretend we’re all hanging out at a big fancy casino in Las Vegas. Here you are, sitting in front of a roulette wheel after betting a certain amount of money on the outcome.
You lose. Or, maybe you win a little bit, but it’s a smallish amount that you know won’t last the night. You hear yelling and cheering coming from the table next to you, so you look over and find a guy popping champagne and getting showered in confetti.
He’s just won it big! Huge, actually, and he was playing the exact same game as you were! As it so happens, he wants to help you out. He comes over and starts telling you exactly how he bet, how he was breathing while the roulette wheel was spinning, all of his theories about why he won…
And you lose again. This time you might have put way more into your bet, too, because this guy was making you feel so sure that if you just did everything he did, you’d win, too. He really believed it, too.
But it was actually just a bunch of circumstances aligning, and he was one small part of that. It was luck. The writing market is like this casino, and all of the expertise in the world can’t help you when a game is truly based on chance.
Most of us are very reluctant to consider the very, real, statistically validated fact that sometimes extremely skilled writers with amazing marketing plans and everything laid out at launch…fail. Sometimes their books, articles, entire platform just…flops. Putters out. Doesn’t work.
People who have big rolling buckets of money can bet again and again and up their chances of winning big just by the sheer volume of bets, and that’s probably why this whole “prolific” phase has come into being.
It’s A Brand New World…Or Is It?
The thing is, we aren’t writing in the market from ten years ago — we’re in 2020, and it generally takes money to make money from writing these days. You have to invest in some way.
How Much It’ll Really Cost You to Succeed as a Self-Published Author
A no-nonsense, absolutely un-sugar-coated look at the money it takes to start and sustain a self-publishing career
Often you have to invest over and over again, and even then, you could still flop.
Whole books have been written on the topic of why that is — namely, why the writing markets are so volatile — but that isn’t what I’m writing about today. I’m not here to dump water on the flames of inspiration you so carefully feed each day, either.
I’m here to give you permission to not try to be like every success guru or writing coach you read about. I’m giving you permission to be scared, to be a bit cautious, and to embrace the tactics and strategies that are realistic and sustainable for you as a writer.
On some level, success in writing comes from two things, 99% of the time: time and resources. Why do big publishing houses and the writers they favor succeed? They have millions of dollars to bet with.
Why do prolific authors succeed? They have the time to be prolific, whatever that means in their case.
It really depends on them. Specifically.
As in, they are not you, and you are not them. See a pattern here?
If you do not have the time or resources to seriously up your betting ability, you’re going to have to accept that growth will come much more slowly for you, and it may never reach the heights that it does for some people — unless luck barges in, which could happen, but…are you going to bet the farm on that?
Why Do You Feel Like You Have To Succeed, And What Does That Even Mean At This Point?
Look, I get it. I want to be a millionaire, too. I’m a writer, so obviously…I want to be a millionaire from my writing. I also know that it is unlikely that I ever will be.
You know what? I’m going to keep writing anyway. If I have to take up a job on the side or adjust my way of getting work done to make time for that, I will. I’ll keep publishing, too. I may have to scrimp and save to do it, but that’s okay. It’s worth it to me.
I’m not declaring that everybody here should give up on their dream of making six or seven-figures from writing, or of having a thriving name and platform for their work.
It’s just that you’re probably not there yet (and if you are, awesome, but this article still has some messages for you).
Let’s ask a few more questions. I know you love those.
- Do you feel like you have to be able to totally quit your day job to “succeed” as a writer?
- Do you have specific monetary amounts you need to make to feel like you’re a successful writer?
- Do you feel a visceral aversion to any possible version of your life where you aren’t a full-time, wealthy writer?
- Is that fair or…wait for it…realistic?
Maybe you will be a six or seven-figure writer. I hope so! (Conceptually, anyway. I don't actually know you. You could be an a-hole, but I’m going to assume you’re not.)
The point I want to make here is that right now, you are not that six or seven-figure author. You don't need to feel bad about that. You don’t need to measure your success by it, either. Who decided that success means this or that, anyway?
Last I checked, the only person your success actually happens to is you. Specifically. If you keep comparing yourself to “future-bazillionaire-writer” you, you’re going to make current you feel like crap on some level.
And since most of the time that future you is really just the mirror image of some other person, it’s sort of a doomed exercise from the start.
There Is No Cheat Code, Map, Or Ten Step Guide To “Success” In Writing. Stop Trying To Make One And Just GO.
I highly doubt most of the successful writers here or elsewhere accurately predicted the path they took to success. Most of the time it just sort of happens after a while. Or it doesn’t.
You should write anyway, because there is one thing all successful writers have in common — they’re writers. That’s what they started with, and that’s what they’ll end with.
Some of us do better under pressure, and if you think that comparison is helping you in some way, I can’t claim to know better than you. It’s usually not a healthy kind of pressure, though.
If you don’t do well under pressure, then this comparison game is absolutely a losing one. It’s going to kill you, one day — at least the “you” that’s a writer. You are pouring energy into a sieve, and one day you’ll wake up with none left. That’s burnout.
It’s awful. It can do lifelong damage to your psyche and your work. Avoid it as much as possible.
I am not the first pontificating article-writer to tell you that there is “no cheat code to success.” It’s hard work, right? Sure. Sometimes it’s a lot more than that, though, and in many cases, it all starts with our own expectations.
Don’t suffocate your art with demands. Don’t hold a gun up to your muse and tell her to hand over millions in cash. Stop beating her over the head with wild expectations and the next “productivity hack” you’re sure will make you a breakout.
Just…write. At your pace, and in your time. Do what you can, when you can, and don’t neglect yourself for any of it. Breathe. Celebrate your strengths, and accept your own unique parameters.
You don’t need to do it all. It’s wonderful — incredible — that you’re writing in the first place. It really is. It can take a long time to realize just how much of a gift that writing is, but I think most of you will, eventually.
I don’t want you to burn out. Successful writers don’t want you to burn out. We are all existing together in a volatile but wonderfully exciting industry, and sometimes we just get a bit overexcited. Human nature, yeah? Remember to slow down once in a while and get your bearings, regardless.
Who knows? One day you might be writing your own success stories. I have a feeling they’ll be pretty, uniquely you.