How To Fail For Sure As A Writer
“Inspiration comes from sniffing tulips in the fields” — Nobody.
You’ve probably had this conversation before. You meet someone new, say, over a beer. You’re enjoying your evening, surrounded by your friends when suddenly the conversation dries up a bit.
“What about you, what do you do for a living?” this new friend suddenly asks you.
Me? A little less than a year ago, I would have answered: “I’m a writer”. And I would have immediately felt bad.
Because I called myself a writer when I wasn’t even writing.
“People say, ‘What advice do you have for people who want to be writers?’ I say, they don’t really need advice, they know they want to be writers, and they’re gonna do it. Those people who know that they really want to do this and are cut out for it, they know it.”
— R.L. Stine, WD
There is a difference between what we are and what we want to be. So far, everyone agrees.
The difference is not the ardor with which we wish for this situation to come true. Nor is it the amount of planning we provide before we set out in pursuit of that goal. The only difference is in the habits we develop, the things we do and don’t do daily.
In case you definitely don’t want to be a writer, I’ve concocted a list of 11 rules. Apply these every day, and I guarantee you won’t become a great writer.
1. Do NOT write every day
“Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens. Most of my friends who are put on that diet have very pleasant careers.”
— Ray Bradbury, WD
It’s writing every day that makes you a writer. Not a good writer, a talented writer, or a successful writer. But a writer. And that’s a very good start for everything that’s going to come next.
When you write every day, even if it’s just a few paragraphs, you set the tone. You create momentum. You build the foundation for something.
That’s what changed my life as a writer. In December 2019, I committed to writing every day. One article a day. I have stuck to it for several months, without failing once.
It was only then that I began to reconsider: would I prefer to publish one story a day, but superficial, or something less frequent, but which I would have taken the time to mature, research, and produce?
“Keep a small can of WD-40 on your desk — away from any open flames — to remind yourself that if you don’t write daily, you will get rusty.”
— George Singleton
2. Do not read. Never
“The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book.”
— Samuel Johnson
No, this will not bias your voice. Your voice is a subtle blend of what makes you as a person. And if you’re a writer, books are a big part of what composes you.
How can you write if you don’t read, if you don’t study other writers’ sentence structures? How they find ways to develop each idea? How they give substance to what they are trying to translate?
For a writer, reading is studying. It is as important as writing itself. Personally, I try to read every day, for at least an hour. And that’s really not much.
It’s in reading that I find more than half of my ideas. It’s a huge source of inspiration. I think we write to understand the world. Life. So for sure, there are always nuggets of wisdom in any book you read.
3. Every word and every sentence you write must be perfect right away or must disappear
“The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” — Terry Pratchett
When I write, I give myself absolute permission to write poorly. It helps me to reach the flow. When I get there, I switch from French, my mother tongue, to English, I leave myself little notes in the text. It’s a total mess. But it’s the content of my head, of my mind, in its raw state on the screen.
Tip: turn off Grammarly. Seeing the red lines piling up is disturbing.
As Terry Pratchett said, you have to focus on getting the story out. Then leave it alone for at least 24 hours.
You had a blank space. Now you have a rough stone in the middle. It’s up to you to give it a shape, by cutting small pieces of text here and there. Sculpt it.
That’s what the editing process is about. That’s what the second and third drafts are here for.
Be uncompromising. If in doubt, delete the sentence.
“On first drafts: It is completely raw, the sort of thing I feel free to do with the door shut — it’s the story undressed, standing up in nothing but its socks and undershorts.” — Stephen King
4. Make it as long as possible
“When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.”
— Stephen King, WD
Word counting is stupid. Why should you tell a story in 5,000 words when it could very well be told in 2,000 words? Adding more words than you need is a waste of your readers’ time, risk losing their attention, and dilute your point.
If you find your text too short, don’t add decoration. It may just be a sign that you haven’t been deep enough in your thinking.
5. Be gentle during the editing process
(After all, it’s your work of art.)
“I’ve found the best way to revise your own work is to pretend that somebody else wrote it and then to rip the living shit out of it.” — Don Roff
Editing is cutting. Cutting. Cutting. And cutting again.
I’ve learned to love it. It’s such a pleasure to delete sentences or sometimes even whole paragraphs. Poof. Gone.
It purifies. It refocuses. It leaves room for the raw material of your thought. Only then can you see your mind bare, pure, obvious.
I am also a photographer. And one of the best advice I was given at school is this: in a series of photographs, select with the utmost care the images you include. Because each image that is a little less good than the others will diminish the whole work significantly.
6. Make a point of showing how rich your vocabulary is
“One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.”
— Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums
This is not a dictionary demonstration. It is communication.
If you have to use the vastness of the vocabulary to your advantage — it’s best to choose the words you use carefully so that they form exactly the right picture in your reader’s mind — don’t try to show how well educated you are.
Use the simplest word you can find to demonstrate a complex idea. The word can be complex, as long as it is the simplest word you can find.
7. Just write. Any other activity is a waste of time
“Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.”
— Benjamin Franklin
I once read that you have to fill your mind if you want to get anything out of it. And writing is about getting something out of your mind. You can’t pour if you don’t fill it out first.
Take a walk. Play sports. Experience life. Watch TV shows. Travel. See your friends.
It’s all going to conglomerate in your mind. Build connections. Your writing will be influenced by it. Your inspiration too.
Go live and then come back to write. Sleep. Rinse and repeat.
8. Trust your memory
“Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them. Most people don’t see any.”
— Orson Scott
Many people wonder how to find ideas to write about every day. Well, they don’t come on their own after 5 minutes of sitting at our desk. We also don’t wait for inspiration to get to work, otherwise, we wouldn’t be doing much.
The secret is to have a list of topics to write about.
I have a list on my phone in which I write down all my ideas. The good ones and the bad ones. Whenever it’s time to write, I have a list of prompts.
I get ideas anytime and anywhere, but I’ve found that most of them come up when I’m out, on a walk, or exercising. Or in the shower. Or when I’m talking to someone.
If I trust my memory, I know I’ll forget it. I will forget that I had an idea, or I will remember that I had an idea, but I will forget what it was about.
Write everything down.
9. Wait for inspiration to come
“If you wait for inspiration to write you’re not a writer, you’re a waiter.”
— Dan Poynter
Last week, my mother said something about me “finding inspiration”. I replied something that contained a “that’s not quite how it works”.
Inspiration doesn’t come by itself. It rarely does. It’s about sitting down and doing the work. Block out 2 hours and don’t allow yourself to do anything else. Inspiration will come when you start writing.
Find your ideal moment, the one when you are most focused and least likely to be disturbed. Sit down, cut out the distractions, and work.
My moment is in the morning. Right after coffee.
“I am not at all in a humor for writing; I must write on until I am.” — Jane Austen
10. Avoid routines. It kills creativity
“I don’t wait for moods. You accomplish nothing if you do that. Your mind must know it has got to get down to work.” — Pearl S. Buck
It’s the same as inspiration. Don’t wait for it. Set aside a moment each day and write. It’s as simple as that. Routine gives momentum. When you combine the two, you create something meaningful.
“A daily routine built on good habits and disciplines separates the most successful among us from everyone else. The routine is exceptionally powerful.” — Darren Hardy
Routine leads to the daily repetition of small actions. It is the sum of these small actions that create change.
Having a routine also helps inspiration. Every day, at the same time, possibly at the same place, you set the tone, and suddenly your mind knows it’s time to get into writing mode.
11. Expect immediate success
“You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.” — Octavia E. Butler
Don’t expect it to work in a week, a month, or a year. You will have small victories. You’ll see your work improve as you look back.
But becoming a writer takes years of constant work.
I don’t know if there’s such a thing as “making it”. It’s more about small accomplishments. Publishing every day. Writing these short stories. Or this book. Getting that idea, that specific concept, out of your mind, and into words.
You are here for the long term or you are not.
If you want a quick way to make money or to find “success”, you’ve come to the wrong place.
“I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.” — Sylvia Plath
You will experience tons of doubts, failures, and rejections. People will say things you don’t want to hear or read. You’ll want to quit.
But you can’t. This is your way. When you’re a writer, you know that deep down inside. It’s the way you’re present on Earth, as a human being.
To sum up
- Write every day;
- Read as much as possible;
- Focus on getting your first draft out of your head, no matter what form it takes;
- Get to the point. Condense. Make your sentences meaningful;
- Cut cut cut during the editing process. Be uncompromising;
- Keep your vocabulary simple but precise;
- Go live, then come back to write;
- Write down all the ideas you have and use your list as prompts;
- Don’t wait for inspiration to come. Sit down and work;
- Build a routine;
- Be patient and trust the process.