Writing Advice That Changed My Life

Diane Callahan
Feb 27 · 12 min read

As much as I’ve internalized inspirational messages like “write the book you want to read” and “believe in your writing,” I still procrastinate and feel down about the quantity and quality of my stories. Change is easier said than done.

But on rare occasions, I’ll find a piece of writing advice that triggers a metamorphosis. My entire mindset shifts, and I become an altogether different type of writer, behaving in ways I had never attempted before.

These are the three pieces of writing advice that changed my life.

1. Aim for Rejection

In 2017, I started seriously submitting my writing to professional publications. That first year, I submitted to eleven literary magazines and writing contests. In 2018, I submitted to fifteen. In 2019, I submitted to over one hundred and fifty. What the heck happened?!

Sometime toward the end of 2018, I read an article on Literary Hub by Kim Liao entitled “Why You Should Aim for 100 Rejections a Year.” She talks about a writer friend of hers who seemed to win everything — from writing residencies to publication in well-known magazines. This friend changed her life by saying:

“Collect rejections. Set rejection goals. I know someone who shoots for one hundred rejections in a year, because if you work that hard to get so many rejections, you’re sure to get a few acceptances, too.”

Liao describes how our fragile creative egos hold us back because we only want to be loved and accepted — and that’s unrealistic in the competitive field of writing. After that realization, her submission process transformed:

“Instead of tucking my story or essay apologetically into a bottle and desperately casting it out to sea, I launch determined air raids of submission grenades, five or ten at a time.”

When I read this article, it was close to the new year, so one of my resolutions for 2019 was to collect fifty rejections for short stories, poetry, and writing scholarships. Given some magazines can take six months to respond and I didn’t have much out at the time, I figured that would be a reachable goal for my first year.

However, I didn’t want to spam magazines with sloppy drafts that didn’t fit their aesthetic. I still wanted to present my best possible work, so I made sure not to rush into submitting work I hadn’t gotten critiqued. I carefully read each magazine’s guidelines and their past stories, in hopes of increasing my chances. I also favored submitting to paying markets I respected that didn’t require reading fees.

I surpassed my goal, collecting 104 “not the best fit for our magazine” emails. And that experience has made me realize that rejection reaps even more benefits than I had expected.

Rejection hones your submission skills.

I’ve learned the ins and outs of the submission process because I’ve read so many guidelines. I’ve mastered how to format my submission, write a cover letter, and find places to submit.

I’ve also read some amazing writing on the websites I’ve submitted to — and that has helped me see what types of pieces are getting published and discover new favorite authors. As time passes, I know my writing will improve, and by the time I’ve further refined my skills, I’ll already understand how to navigate the industry.

The Shunn Manuscript Format guide, an example cover letter for submissions, and The Submission Grinder website for finding literary magazine listings

Rejection forces you to grow thicker skin.

Now, I’m not completely desensitized to rejection, but I no longer feel the sinking feeling every time I see a new email in my inbox that starts with “Thank you for submitting to…”

My eggs are in so many baskets that the most a form-letter rejection receives from me is a shrug. Every time I receive a rejection, I find another place to submit and let the cycle continue.

Rejections occasionally come with personalized feedback.

Most editors don’t have the time or energy to devote to personalized feedback because they receive hundreds of submissions. But those rare gems who do are a godsend.

One publication that rejected a horror story of mine passed along comments from their slush pile readers, where they said, “Holy fuck! I love this piece! The premise is unique and totally engaging. The sensory descriptions are honestly beyond anything I’ve ever encountered before. Just, yes. All the yes.” Even though the story didn’t end up being a good fit for the magazine, that type of encouragement gave me the push I needed to continue submitting that piece — and that story was recently published on the Tales to Terrify podcast.

Personalized rejections also might tell me that I need to revise the story before I submit it elsewhere, which is equally valuable.

One magazine editor told me, “I liked the vividness of your setting and imagery, and the assurance of your narrative voice. My sense of Romin’s character was a little slight, and I didn’t feel entirely grounded in the story as a result.” With that specific feedback, I could more objectively understand why the story was getting rejected by different magazines. What’s more, I want to polish my stories so that I can be proud of the final product. I want my work to be the best it can be and published by a reputable magazine, not just posted anywhere that will take it.

Rejection will increase your acceptance rate.

In 2018, I had five small pieces published at nice places, but they were mostly non-paying. In 2019, I had twelve pieces accepted, several of them paying venues, including one that paid ten cents per word.

Rejection means a writing professional is reading your work.

This sounds a bit vain, but as a writer, I want to be read, and submitting my work achieves that goal because someone has to read my writing in order to reject it. I find comfort in the idea that something I spent so much time on is being read by another human being, even if they don’t connect with it.

Aiming for rejection means you’ll submit more, which will inspire you to write more.

There are countless pieces that I’ve pushed myself to finish drafting or revising because of submission deadlines. I also treat magazine themes or word limits as writing prompts, crafting a story specifically for that market. I wrote a story for a horror anthology that had a 1,200-word cap. Although the story was rejected for that publication, I ended up selling it somewhere else within a few months. Thanks to my rejection goals, I’ve finished more stories and poems in the past year than I have ever before.

Some of the essays and short stories I’ve loved reading during my submission journey

Writers can be overly sensitive and insecure. We receive one rejection, and we think that means the story sucks and will never get published. Most of the time, we just need to receive more feedback on it and revise more — or we need to keep trying to find a good fit. I feel no shame in rejection but instead wear it as a badge of honor.

Even when I’m deep in the submission hellscape, I make sure to view my writing as a form of joyful self-expression. In the words of Kim Liao:

“…submissions are not required to be a writer… The act of writing is the part that feels like flying.”

2. Treat Your Writing Like a Business

I have a friend who writes at least ten books a year — and we’re talking full-fledged, 120,000-word, typo-free books. How does she do it?

Well, for one, she’s a ghostwriter, so writing is one of her primary sources of income. She’s also writing from a plot outline that someone else has written, and she has a developmental editor (me) and copy editor polishing her drafts before they’re published. By the time we’re finished, the writing is smooth and the story is entertaining enough to feel like a publishable book.

I’ve edited twenty-six of her novels, and her output speed — along with the quality of her writing — never fails to amaze me. We work under tight deadlines, so she often churns out the first draft in a month, then goes through it a few more times to make changes based on my feedback and that of other editors and beta readers. She can write 10,000 words in a day, if she’s feeling feisty.

I wanted to know how she did it — and how she avoided creative burnout. Where did she find that level of discipline? I was struggling to finish a draft of even one novel, and I begged her to give me some advice. Here’s what she told me: “Treat your writing like a business.” Think of it as a normal job, even if the going is slow. She takes regular breaks and says, “be stern with yourself.”

I’d heard similar advice before, but this time it clicked because I’d seen someone actually put it into practice. Treating writing like a business had seemed cold and clinical to me, as I prefer to view writing as an art and a craft first, a business second. I didn’t want to feel like a word factory churning out generic content for the masses. But my friend writes with such heart and humor, and writing with a business attitude clearly didn’t change the quality of her output; it merely increased the quantity.

My mentality shifted. Writing wasn’t a hobby I could put on the back burner. This short story I started drafting five months ago? I need to finish it today, get feedback, revise it, and submit it places. It’s on my need-to-do list, not my want-to-do list. I have to prioritize it. I have to be disciplined.

And I did sit down and finish that 5,400-word short story in one day. It flowed from my fingertips, and my critique partners praised it as one of the best stories I’d written to date. After revising it, I felt total elation. I didn’t feel guilty for writing instead of getting ahead on work because writing is part of my work.

I also felt daunted about writing an outline for my middle-grade fantasy novel. Sure, I’d written a dozen plot outlines for work, producing a 20,000-word summary in a week, but I’d been working under a deadline then, and I was being paid for it. I’d never written a coherent outline for myself from start to finish, with no paycheck or deadline to externally motivate me. I’d tried to give myself deadlines before, but I quickly lost momentum. But this was a shorter book, and I really, really, really wanted to start drafting it. I told myself that it was another project for work, that this was part of my business, and voilà, I had a 12,000-word chapter-by-chapter outline to guide my draft.

Now, I don’t mean “business” in terms of spending or making money, because writing fiction rarely makes a huge profit when weighed against the time and resources required to do it well. In my mind, treating writing like a business means approaching it as a job rather than a hobby.

I realize this approach isn’t feasible for everyone because work and family responsibilities will often come before writing. Time and energy are luxuries.

But for me, looking at my writing as something that must get done helped me throw away my usual excuses. It hasn’t taken the fun out of the process, either, and has in fact been more inspiring than it ever was when I treated it like a “someday-I’ll-get-published” hobby — because I’m finishing things. I’m producing more stories than ever before and getting them out there. I’m honing my craft and making mistakes and learning and trying. Even if you can only write when you get a spare moment, you can still think of it like a business by adding small, attainable goals to your weekly to-do list.

Any progress is better than no progress.

3. Defeat Envy with Positivity

Of the seven deadly sins, envy is definitely mine. I’ve always been highly competitive, obsessed with being the best and the favorite. I look at people younger than me who have published award-winning or commercially successful novels, and the green-eyed monster rears its ugly head. Why do I suck so much? Why am I so slow at writing? What am I doing with my life?!

Recently, I applied for a big writing scholarship. I was proud of my application and really thought I had a shot. I waited anxiously to hear the results — and when the organization posted them, my hopes crumbled into dust. The winner had published forty-five stories and edited a number of anthologies and was writing an amazing novel while attending a master’s program. There was no way I could compete with that. She 110% deserved the scholarship, but I still felt bummed.

Instead of wallowing too much, I tried to view the time I put into writing my application as a guide for improving myself. The application required essays about your goals as a writer and what education paths you wanted to pursue. For me, that included books, classes, and mentorship from a professional author. So, all was not lost — writing those responses helped me clarify my goals and work toward being a writer who’s worthy of such scholarships. I also vowed to read the winning author’s stories and keep her name on my radar.

In adopting this attitude, I was thinking of the advice from Write Naked, a book on writing by romance author Jennifer Probst. She outlines her strategy for using kindness to offset the envy she feels toward other writers’ successes:

1. ACKNOWLEDGE. Denying how you feel is useless. Just own up, even if it’s hard. These are your own private feelings and if you feel mean, whiny, and pissed off that you didn’t get what she got, just go with it.

2. ACT IN A WAY THAT CONTRADICTS THE FEELINGS. If there’s a particular author you can’t stop obsessing about, wondering how she got that movie deal or television show, hit the New York Times best-sellers list for the tenth time in a row, or is now rich from a book you didn’t even think was that good, do something nice. Congratulate her on Facebook. E-mail her. Buy her book. Celebrate her success. Praise her to one of your friends. You will be surprised how such an action drains the poison from your feelings. Fake it till you make it.

Personally, I hate being fake nice. I want to be a genuine person. But I couldn’t keep letting myself feel disheartened by other writers’ success stories. I wanted to turn that sulking into something useful, and that’s what Probst’s advice gave me — a positive outlet for that negative energy. As she goes on to say:

“We’re going to have to deal with jealousy at all stages of our careers. When we’re not published, we’re jealous of the published. When we’re not signing big contracts, we’re jealous of those seven-figure deals. When we don’t hit the best-seller lists, we’re jealous of those who do. It’s an endless, vicious cycle. Break it by practicing kindness. Doing so allows your heart to catch up until you realize you’re not really faking it anymore. Somehow, along the way, the goodwill and acceptance become real.”

Writing should be about collaboration, not competition. The world is big enough to contain a multitude of books, and supporting other writers benefits the entire author community. We all want more readers, and by recommending each other’s books, we get people reading more. In addition, everyone’s publishing journey is different, and there’s no one set path to “success.”

DFW debuted at age 25 and Laura Ingalls Wilder at age 65. Ralph Ellison only published one novel during his lifetime, while Agatha Christie published over seventy.

Some people debut at age 25, others at 65. Some publish one novel their whole lives, others a novel every year. You might be a local favorite or a worldwide best-seller. You can’t base your own goal posts off somebody else’s, because you’re not even playing in the same game. As the saying goes, “the race is long, and in the end, it’s only against yourself.”

Aiming for rejection, treating my writing like a business, and turning envy into positivity have reshaped me into not only a better writer, but also a better person. Even if these tips don’t have the life-altering effect for you as they did for me, I hope you’ll find the words that will motivate you to become the writer you aspire to be.

What writing advice changed your life? Share the magic with me in the comments.

Whatever you do, keep writing.

This post was adapted from a video on my YouTube channel Quotidian Writer. You can watch the full video below!

If you liked this post, treat me to a cup of coffee on Ko-fi.

Read my list of published and forthcoming works here.

Hire me to edit your novel or short story.

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Diane Callahan

Written by

Fiction writer and editor, a.k.a. YouTuber Quotidian Writer. www.quotidianwriter.com

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +786K followers.

Diane Callahan

Written by

Fiction writer and editor, a.k.a. YouTuber Quotidian Writer. www.quotidianwriter.com

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +786K followers.

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