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Looking back on your career as a writer, what is the most fundamental piece of advice you wish you had known about – or that you had taken to heart – when you set out to become a writer?


Before you answer, please note the tag and the absence of the fiction tag. The question is intentionally not limited to a specific kind of writing, but to writing in general. I'm not asking how to write, but how to approach writing, if you want to make it your profession, or work on a professional level.


After reviewing the current answers, I have found that many of them agree with each other and give the same basic advice. I have ordered and summarized the points I have found in my answer to the meta discussion page for this question.

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    Polling type questions are discouraged on Stack Exchange. See writing.stackexchange.com/help/dont-ask ("every answer is equally valid") – Matthew Read Apr 23 '18 at 23:32
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    This is very broad as written, so I'm putting it on hold. Please edit to indicate at least the type of writing you're asking about; the answers will be different for British academic writing, popular American romances, and Japanese poetry. – Monica Cellio Apr 25 '18 at 1:10
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    Voted to close because it is too broad to ever pick an answer, even if all of the answers are useful. There is already enough information here for people who want generic professional advice, but I can't see an evolution of this that gets to an answer since the question is not looking for a specific answer, but every professional reader's personal answer. IE, this isn't a question designed for SE as it's not "solvable". This is a good question, it's just on the wrong platform. – Kirk Apr 25 '18 at 17:13
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    @Cloudchaser Questions are judge on the questions, not on the answers. But if you really wanted to judge it based on the answers, how could this question meaningfully say which answer would receive the green check mark? What might cause that answer to be accepted (i.e. the one that truly answers the question) versus another one? This is not an answerable question. I'm not saying the question isn't interesting, or even useful. But being interesting and useful are not sufficient criteria for questions here. This is not a valid Stack Exchange question. Sorry. – corsiKa Apr 25 '18 at 18:29
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10 Answers 10

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To me, Stephen King's advice (as seen in a live interview, and asked what advice he had for aspiring writers):

Basically he said, if you want to write, write. Every day. Don't worry about plotting, or any other technical details. That will come, write a story, then write another. Write every day (he does, including his birthday, Christmas, 365 days a year, but he takes breaks between books). If you love writing, then you will learn those technicalities when you realize your story isn't working.

(King is a discovery writer, btw.)

He goes on to make a sharp observation, in my view: That most people that claim they want to be writer are fooling themselves, because what they want is To Have Written. "They want this," he says, waving at the set and his interviewer. The interviews on TV, the book signings, the money from a best-seller, but they don't actually love writing for its own sake. So they will not succeed as a writer, because you cannot fail for years and book after book doing work you don't really love, and that is what it will take, before you are good enough to make any kind of living [in fiction]. And if you don't love writing you just aren't going to learn what you need to get better, even if you put in those years.

King says that before he sold Carrie he was not thinking that all his time would be wasted if he never sold anything. Writing fiction was his pastime, it was fun, and if he only entertained himself by getting his imagination on paper that would be fine. And that is the way to approach writing: Do it because you like it, you like crafting a story, and it entertains you. Stick with it and you will get better. But if you think the only reason to write is for the money you hope to get and would feel like you wasted your time if your story doesn't make a dime, then you should probably quit now, because if you cannot write for it's own sake you shouldn't be trying this profession.

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  • @Cloudchaser Unfortunately I don't, I am pretty sure I saw this on public television decades ago, back in the days of Video Cassette Recorders, after some bestseller he'd written. I noticed his name in the TV Guide and recorded it, then watched it like six times. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Apr 24 '18 at 9:59
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    King also describes this in his book On Writing. Another advice he gives there is to read alot in addition to write alot. – Raidri supports Monica Apr 24 '18 at 10:24
  • Couldn't agree more, whenever I'm feeling low, I read Stephen King's On Writing, Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones, and Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. They start my motor every time. – GGx Apr 24 '18 at 18:25
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    Of course, if you follow Stephen King's writing advice, you end up writing meandering pointless stories that have terrible endings... – Monica Apologists Get Out Apr 24 '18 at 18:42
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    @Adonalsium You cannot possibly know that, and since King is one of the top five earning authors in the world, I think there is ample evidence you are an extreme minority in that view. A discovery writer does have to create a conflict for his characters, but plot can come naturally. The "7 plots" or "20 plots" or whatever are descriptive of how good stories work out, they don't have to be taken prescriptively and pre-plotted. Discovery writers still need a sense of conflict, language, psychology to write believable chars. I already told how to avoid terrible endings. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Apr 24 '18 at 19:07
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  • Get an Agent: I sold my book on my own, largely because younger me hated the idea of signing over 15% of my profits to someone else forever. But a good agent does a lot more than just sell the book. As a writer, you want someone else looking after the business aspects of your book so you can concentrate on writing. That really kicked in for me when I couldn't get the rights to my book back.

  • Publishing is just the first step: Even if you have a good publisher AND a good agent, you'll need to be ready to work hard to promote your book if you want it to be a success. It doesn't just happen on its own.

  • One book is not a career: Even a popular, critically acclaimed book is unlikely to earn you enough to live on --even for a year, let alone the rest of your life. You'll either have to convert the success of that book into a secondary career --as a public speaker, or a teacher, or a talking head, etcetera --or you'll need to keep on writing and publishing. You haven't won the lottery. There are famous, well-respected writers --maybe some of the people you admire and envy --who barely make a living. There are others who are doing well, but through doors that opened to them as a respected writer, rather than on raw book sales alone.

  • Make Peace With Writing For Yourself: Most people write because they want to reach an audience. But an awful lot of what ends up as good writing is exploratory, or drafts, or world-building, or false turns. It isn't skippable, or avoidable --it's necessary work. But no one but you will ever read it. If you can't face that fact, you can't write. If you demand every word be publishable, you'll never write anything.

  • Be in it for the Long Haul: Writing, especially as a career, is an endurance race, not a sprint.

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If you want to be a writer -- that is, someone who writes for a living -- as opposed specifically to being a novelist, then the money is in business writing: technical writing, science writing, marketing writing, medical writing, etc, etc.

These are all reliable and lucrative careers that allow you to pay the mortgage and raise a family. They all require something more than just the ability to write. You need to develop an interest and expertise in the subject you want to write about. Trying to patch together a living picking up freelance gigs on the web will not pay the bills reliably. But someone who can write well about subjects in demand will have a secure career just like any other white collar professional.

If you also want to be a novelist, that is what evenings and weekends are for. And retirement.

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I don't know about "looking back" and "career", I'm still rather looking forward to that... :)
That said, one piece of advice that really struck me, stuck with me and stayed with me is Neil Gaiman's "Make good art": Write what you love writing, enjoy the process, do it for the art - not for the money. When things go wrong, make good art. When life is terrible, make good art. When things suddenly look up, keep on making good art. Take risks. When you're laying yourself naked on the page, that's when you're starting to get it right. Hold nothing back. Make good art.

Here's a link to his complete "Make Good Art" talk.

So, I don't know if I'm ever going to "make it", but I do know I am going to give it my best, make mistakes, learn from them, make new mistakes. I don't know if it's going to be good enough, but I'm going to enjoy the ride all the way. The hours in a day that I spend writing are the best hours I have.

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  • Thanks for sharing this. I've never heard that speech and I absolutely loved it, a real tonic to get me through the next rewrite. – GGx Apr 25 '18 at 23:06
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When I read blogs, biographies, and advice by successfully published professional authors, I would say the most fundamental suggestions are these:

  • Enjoy writing

    If you like to imagine yourself as a bestselling author or you like to daydream stories or you like to build fantastic worlds or you like to spend time in communities such as this one discussing writing, but you find that you don't really enjoy sitting down typing words for a few hours each day, then you probably should choose another career.

  • Write as if it was your job

    Do not wait until you are in the right mood. Do not wait until inspiration strikes. Do not allow yourself to stay away from your desk because you had a party yesterday and feel tired or hung over. If you have a job, you do it every day no matter how you feel, unless you are seriously ill, so if you want to be a professional writer find the time to write and stick to your schedule no matter what.

    To make writing a habit is the single most important advice. Here are two answers by @what that explain the reasons behind this more extensively: https://writing.stackexchange.com/a/10254/29032 and https://writing.stackexchange.com/a/25265/29032

  • Write the next book (or poem or essay or whatever it is you write)

    Also known as: Don't become infatuated with your own brilliance

    There is no craft in which the first work of a beginner is a masterwork. No one can walk, ride a bike, swim, speak a foreign language, or program software on the first attempt. Mostly we understand the necessity for learning in fields outside of art, but when it comes to writing, many aspiring artists believe that they can skip the learning phase and are convinced that what they are conceiving must become the next mega-bestseller.

    But then they find that for some reason they don't understand they cannot begin or they cannot finish or they cannot sell their book. They read how-to write books, looking for the secret they believe successful writers share, or they post on forums such as this one to be told how to write an opening scene or how to write submission letters or whatevery they are presently struggling with.

    They keep struggling with or rewriting or submitting their first novel for years or even decades and fail to understand that the open secret to success as a writer is to let this first failed attempt go and write the next book. And the next one after that, until they have either learned to write or understood that writing is not for them.

  • Be content with making a living

    There can only be a handful of bestselling writers like J. K. Rowling or Pulitzer Prize winning journalists. If you are after fame and fortune, you better go into investment banking, because most writers do not earn more than an average employee and remain anonymous and unknown outside of their close circle of friends.

    Writing is a job, basically, like any other. It's fine if you love to write, and if you approach writing like any other job your chances of becoming successful in the sense that you can make a living with it are the same as in any other profession. But if you expect more from it, that mindset will likely be in your way.

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My grandfather relentlessly encouraged his family members to always keep a journal. This can prove to be an important resource. A real world, off-line personal dictionary, and reality checker. If nothing else journaling serves as an excellent tool for polishing your craft. It may be suprising to some that a journal can have practical uses. They are recognized as evidence in court of law. Always an appreciated contribution to a historical article to have even a mundane personal recounting of that day in time. A great go to when one has case of the block. Helpful for poetry and songwriting. Most important, for those of us that may never see our thoughts lithographed in production. We will leave behind a legacy surely to be appreciated by our biggest fan.

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I have another answer, earlier, about motivations. I am not combining this one into it, because it answers the question more literally.

The most fundamental advice I can give that I wish I had known, which would have let me write more prolifically and better to start, is that discovery writing (pantsing) can and does work, that you do not have to devise a plot to write a good story, is this:

You do not have to plan what happens throughout the book and then stick to an outline like it is a year long chore.

For me, plot outlines sapped the life out of my story and made for (IMO) bad writing. It wasn't new; characters felt forced and the events felt un-spontaneous. The whole idea of writing a "Hero's Journey" felt like signing up for an interminable, predictable, boring chore.

What I personally enjoy about writing is finding characters as I write, and finding their adventure as I write, and finding the conflicts as I write. They go where they will, they are always in character, there is always cause and effect and it doesn't feel "contrived" or make no sense, neither heroes or villains have to be stupid for the plot to progress: The heroes do the smartest thing they can with their information at hand, the villains also do that, they are both driven to win or die trying, and the story ends up somewhere, at some end-point. It cannot go on forever!

In early days, writing for fun, I was tricked by reading books on how to write that all focused on outlines, character profiles and histories, planning victories and setbacks and twists, and turned writing into a chore as boring as planning how to get materials to a construction site on time in the order they would be needed. Like counting how many 2x4s you need to complete a blueprint. Like programming fifty input screens for a tax program. That turned writing into accounting, balancing the books with debits and credits in character arcs, making sure all the peaks and valleys wove together correctly.

Discovery Writing Works.

A book can start with me imagining ONE character doing ONE cool thing. I can generalize their ability to do that ONE cool thing into a "talent" that leads to a story. I can write that scene, and the obvious aftermath, and that will help me decide who that character is: I don't even have to decide first if she is the hero or villain or something in-between; I write what she does and find out.

I admit that discovery writing can demand (for me) throwing out beginnings, throwing out scenes I have written and rewritten several times, changing the plot to avoid dead ends or premature endings, and other wastes of time.

I have read that Plodders (oops, I meant Plotters) have trouble with the middle, Discovery writers sail through the middles but tend to have trouble with endings. I find this to be true, as a result I always have a detailed "description" (not an outline) of the ending of whatever story I am writing, which I revise when it no longer becomes tenable. In my last story I had three different endings, and each time I decided to change, I went through the whole story and double-checked and revised as need to make sure the new ending would still fit.

So although I am improvising my scenes as I go, I am writing toward an ending that ties up all loose ends, reveals whatever mysteries need to be revealed, and fulfill all the "promises" I made in the story. But that is a secondary piece of advice I offer to solve a problem in discovery writing. So is the idea of writing to see if it works while being perfectly willing to throw it away. The most important piece of practical advice is this:

Do not be daunted that nearly all advice on writing is essentially for plodders. Discovery writers are a minority, but it works. It flows better with continuous and plausible cause-and-effect from end to end, because everything you wrote was Domino A falling to knock over Domino B. It makes some of the best-selling fiction on the market.

You can get much great advice from books on writing, especially on conveying emotions, putting characters in trouble, writing dialogue, foreshadowing (for me in revisions after I've written the events to be foreshadowed), and even books on plotting and three act (or Shakespearean five act) structure can help you revise and tune up whatever plot you discovered.

Just don't let those books dictate the order in which you use them: You can write now and apply advice on plotting, dialogue, pacing and foreshadowing later to make what you wrote better.

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  • Please see my edit. The question is not, nor was it, limited to the writing of fiction. – user29032 Apr 25 '18 at 5:13
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    @Cloudchaser Although I am published in several non-fiction venues, I still consider this the "most fundamental" advice for people on this forum which is predominately fiction writers. If you want me to pick one thing that would help the aspiring writers here on this site the most, it would not be about my other published fields: Popular science articles, academic papers, textbook writing, commercial advertising. The advice I have there is pedestrian; fiction is IMO far more difficult, and there is no one-size-fits-all advice I have to offer on "all writing". – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Apr 25 '18 at 10:29
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    @Cloudchaser Discovery writing is not limited to fiction. If you're writing an essay, or a tutorial, or a non-fiction book, you don't need to have a formal outline that you then fill in. You can just start writing. Start explaining your point, start walking people through it, start describing events. You may find your most convincing point is not your original idea, but something that comes up in media res. Or it could be that what you're writing is not really a Florence Nightingale biography, like you thought, but a history of nineteenth century medical pedagogy. etc. – R.M. Apr 26 '18 at 1:31
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One of the best pieces of advice I've read, which I didn't believe at all when I first started writing (I think it was either Natalie Goldberg or Anne Lamott who said it, and either way every writer should read Writing Down The Bones and Bird by Bird) was don't hold onto your writing gems because you think they're gold dust and deserve a bigger, better project or worry that better ideas won't come further down the line. They will and they will be brighter.

When I wrote my first novel I thought, I'll never come up with another idea this good, this has to be the best idea I'll ever get. I held onto it and honed it and honed it until I'd flogged the damn thing to death.

Then I wrote my second novel and thought, no, no THIS is the best idea I've ever had. This is it, if I can't sell this, I can't sell ANYTHING. This is the end of the idea road, it doesn't get any better.

And then I came up with my idea for my third novel!! :)

So, when you have something that feels like gold, don't cling on to it for dear life. Don't hold anything back. Put it all in and put it out there. Don't be afraid. Even though you can't see it, just around the corner there's a bigger pot gold just sitting there waiting for you. And what's more exciting is that with every project, you're better equipped to handle what's in the pot!

All the luck in the world to you.

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What I wish I had known - I Don't think I would be writing if I knew the things then that I now wish I did. I would have known to not be socially akward. How to communicate verbally in a manner appropriate to my age. That it's better to sound ignorant while talking constantly instead of not feeling a need to speak if lacking intelligent input. I would have known that only two factors could affect poverty, myself, and patience. I could write a continuous series for any form of media about the things I wish I knew. That was the cause for writing. I wouldn't have had any way to express myself. Somehow that inatimate pice of paper made me feel related to. Even though it would never be read. It was like the authors from the pages who's thoughts made sense were a part of it and we all could find at least some understanding for one another.

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I'm not a pro, but I do have a journalism degree and I've been published. I'm also older, and things I might have been precious about in the past have been beaten out of me.

Read deliberately, like a copy editor. In fact, you should learn to copy edit. If you're not doing fiction, you should learn fact checking, which is technically part of copy editing.

Which is to say, don't be sentimental, make sure what you say is accurate, and stop adding words and phrases and paragraphs that don't add anything.

Myself, and so many others, start out so in love with our own voice, as if each word we write is set to a melody everyone loves to hear. In practice, most people just want to transfer the information from the copy on the page or screen into their brain.

Relentless efficiency, accuracy and clarity over cleverness.

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