What I wish I’d Known When I Started Writing
If this post was titled what I wish I’d known when I started a blog, you might have expected me to write a list of hacks and tips to grow an audience or increase traffic to your website.
But all of those things are the result of one activity: writing. So rather than tell you how to grow an audience, I decided to tell you what I wish I’d known when I started writing.
Everything I’ve accomplished as a writer is the result of the advice below.
Most of it isn’t glamorous, none of it is sexy, and Steven Pressfield summarized the advice in one sentence. Put Your Ass Where your Heart wants to be.
Aspiring writers dream of seeing their book on a shelf or their name on a bestseller list. They don’t understand that you’ve to be a writer before you become an author.
The geography of a writer’s life is full of dead ends, detours, and setbacks. If you have aspirations of becoming a commercially successful writer, you need to know that you’re embarking on a lifetime of work where nothing is guaranteed and anything is possible.
If you’re still convinced to want to be a writer, read on.
What I Wish I Had Known When I Started Writing: Reasons to Write
There are countless reasons to write, none of which have anything to do with building an audience, or becoming rich or famous. As Dani Shapiro says, “If we are thinking of our work as a ticket to a life of literary glamor, we really ought to consider doing something else.
Writing is unlikely to make you rich or famous. Very few writers, even bestselling authors, can make a living from the money they make writing books. If you start out with the intention of becoming famous or critically acclaimed, it will destroy your motivation to write.
What I wish I’d known when I started writing is that there are plenty of other damn good reasons to write.
Writing Can Teach You Everything You Need to Know About Life.
When we take the time to observe, reflect, and write, we declutter our brains, clarify our thinking, and cultivate our self-knowledge. Our notebooks and journals become our personal instruction manuals for life.
Writing Can Help You Heal and Process Your Pain
According to James Pennebaker, participants in one study recovered more quickly from a traumatic experience if they wrote about it. In the midst of grief, thoughts swirl around in our heads like a snow globe that has just been shaken. When we put our thoughts down on paper, they lose their power over us. Fear turns into awareness, and pain can reveal to us our purpose.
Writing Can Help us Clear Our Minds
In our minds, our thoughts cause mental constipation, anxiety, and overwhelm. A brain dump is like a bowel movement for your brain. It helps you think more clearly and become more objective. Unlike an actual dump, writing doesn’t create foul odors that make those around you wonder what you just ate.
Writing Makes You the Author of Your Story
Words are the building blocks of reality. All our lives we live the stories others tell us. In writing, you can choose, change, and live the story you tell yourself. What a tragedy to let someone else tell the story YOUR.
Writing Helps You Turn Dreams into Reality
Every intellectual endeavor begins with a note. Putting one’s thoughts on paper is the first step to making ideas happen.
It’s impossible to know whether writing will lead to fame, fortune, obscurity, poverty, or nothing more than words on a page that no one reads. But that doesn’t mean you can’t profit from writing.
What I Wish I’d Know When I Started Writing: How to Write
Many aspiring writers buy a pen and a notebook. A few weeks pass, and they realize that they haven’t written a single word. They tell themselves that they have no time, no talent, no discipline, or no idea what to write about.
Soon they’ve enough excuses to write a book about all the reasons they can’t write (ironic, huh?). I wish I’d known when I started writing that sitting down and writing was just one piece of the puzzle.
Design an Environment That Makes It Easy to Write
Nothing shapes our behavior, health, and happiness as much as our environment. We are all byproducts of our environment.
- Put your notebook and pen in a place where you can see them every day. That way, you’ll reduce the number of steps you have to take and increase the likelihood that you’ll put pen to paper.
- Write in the same place at the same time every day. Over time, your brain will associate the time or place with the thought that it’s time to write.
A change in the environment changes the perceived importance of a task. If you create an environment that makes writing easy, the perceived importance of your writing time will change.
Change Your Behavior
The more you focus on literary fame, the less you focus on the only thing that leads to it: writing.
The hard work of creating real value is the result of your behavior. Create good habits and break bad ones, because a goal is an end. Your habits are the means by which you achieve your goal.
- If you write a sentence every day for a week, you will build the identity of a writer.
- Do not underestimate the profound power of consistency or the value of starting small.
The path to success is based on a cycle of accelerated returns.
Accumulate Pages Not Judgements
Self-judgment paralyzes so many people and keeps them from putting pen to paper. But I’ve never known a writer who says, “I sit down at my desk and brilliance flows from my fingertips.”
Good writing is about shoveling a mountain of shit to find an ounce of gold. Or, in the eloquent words of Amber Rae, “You want to accumulate pages, not judgments.
Write for an Audience of One
In a world where the glories of everyone’s accomplishments are on public display, it’s easy to get distracted by things that keep you from writing and lead to envy and comparison. However, if you focus on the process rather than the outcome and write for an audience of one, the time you spend writing will be time well spent.
What I Wish I’d Known When I Started Writing: Building an Audience
Almost everything that has happened in my writing life has been the result of keeping my head down and doing the work- Dani Shapiro, Still Writing
When aspiring writers want to build an audience, they focus on vanity metrics like fans, followers, and traffic. What I wish I had known when I started writing was how much time you waste when you focus on anything other than your work.
Writing to Be Read Is Not Writing for a Grade
Everything you learn in school about writing is bullshit. When you write for a grade, it doesn’t matter if you have anything interesting to say. You follow the rules and use proper grammar so you get a good grade. But when you write to be read, your job is to inform, inspire, and entertain. You learn the “rules” of writing so you can break them.
One of my copywriters used to say, “Srini, how the hell did you get a book deal? You can barely spell.” But he also said, “I guess it’s better to have imperfect grammar with something interesting to say than perfect grammar with nothing interesting to say.”
You Have to Earn Attention for Your Work
In an interview on the Unmistakable Creative, Todd Henry said, “attention for your work is not a birthright, it must be earned. Focus on creating something worthy of other people’s attention rather than trying to get their attention. And the way to get there is to master your craft and hone your skills as a writer.
Everything Takes Longer Than You Think
Sam Altman tells startup founders that a long-term perspective is an entrepreneur’s greatest competitive advantage. The same is true for aspiring writers.
- My journey from blog to book deal took 7 years. During that time, I wrote every day, not knowing if it would lead to anything. But I wrote because it was the only aspect of my life as a writer that I could control.
- Some of the most successful books ever written, which Ryan Holiday calls perennial sellers, were flops when they were published. Many became successful years later, sometimes even after the authors had died.
Anything you want to accomplish as a writer may take longer than you think. You have to be willing to go beyond the point where the average person gives up, and come to terms with the fact that nothing is guaranteed.
Every Successful Writer Endures Countless Setbacks
Writers spend years lingering in obscurity, facing countless rejections and failures.
They all have worked so badly that they believe they came out on the wrong end, had no appeal to anyone, or never saw the light of day. Many of them have been rejected by publishers and other decision-makers who did not think they had what it takes.
Because we see the end result but not the work, it’s impossible to understand what successful writers go through to get where they are. It’s easier to move on when you realize that creative ideas that fail are detours, not dead ends.
Measure the Metrics That Matter
Like many aspiring writers looking to build an audience, I spent a lot of time in the early days of my writing career obsessing over metrics like traffic, fans, and followers. But
- First, these are vanity metrics that inflate one’s ego but ultimately do not mean much.
- Second, these metrics are lag measures — meaning you can not control them. They are the result of focusing on what you can control.
For any author looking to build an audience, the time spent writing and the amount of content published matter. The compound interest that comes from writing productively is much greater in the long run than the ego boost you get from short-term vanity metrics. You build a career when you focus on the former, but you get a brief moment in the spotlight when you focus on the latter.
The Importance of Social Media Is Overrated
Content creators do not understand that every time they post content on social media, they are building someone else’s audience.
Facebook makes money for every second you spend on its platform. The same goes for Instagram, Twitter, and every other social network. Building an audience on social media is like building an empire on a piece of property that you rent with your time and attention.
One of our clients had a popular blog. People on her Facebook fan page shared her articles over 80 times. But when she published her first book, she only sold 2000 copies because so few people were on her email list.
Build your empire on the land you own (i.e., your email list).
You Need a Bold and Compelling Point of View
Any writer who wants to build an audience needs a bold and compelling point of view.
You need to overcome your fear of public opinion and accept that your work will piss people off. Some people will email you and tell you that your work is a disservice to humanity, while others will say that it is a gift to the world.
Emotionally engaging content is polarizing. And upsetting people is the price you pay for a work that resonates with an audience.
Diversify Your Inputs to Improve the Quality of Your Output
If you read the same books, listen to the same podcasts, and consume the same content as everyone else, confirmation bias reinforces what you already believe. Echo chambers lead to myopic views that prevent your thinking from evolving.
It sounds counterintuitive. But if you want to gain an audience for your writing, stop reading books and blogs and consuming content about how to gain an audience. The more ideas, people, and perspectives you learn about, the easier it will be to make connections between your ideas, connect what you learn to what you know, and gain new insights.
What I Wish I Had Known When I Started Writing: Commercial Success
After years of hard work and after everyone has doubted your sanity, a book contract or some commercial success can make you feel like you’ve made it. What I wish I’d known when I started writing was that there was no such thing as an “I made it” moment.
The Work Doesn’t End
Many writers mistakenly believe that their work is done when they’ve their first commercial success: a book contract with a publisher and publicity from a well-known media outlet. When you sign a book contract, you’re obligated to deliver a manuscript on time and write something worth reading. Commercial success as a writer is a lifelong commitment.
Beware the Ladder of Vertical Achievement
The ladder of vertical achievement often leads people to reach goals that leave them with a sense of emptiness and unfulfillment. This is because climbing the ladder becomes the goal, not the means. And there is always another rung to reach, a rung to climb. Hedonic adaptation creates drive and dissatisfaction at the same time. If you are not aware of this, you will always strive for achievement without ever experiencing fulfillment.
Hedonic adaptation has its purpose because it drives us to achieve and realize goals. But at the same time, it causes us to constantly change our targets for success. The paradox of hedonic adaptation is that it motivates us, but it can also make us unhappy. That’s why we need to counter hedonic adaptation with gratitude.
You’re Always Someone’s Bitch
This is something no one tells you until you sign your first book deal, sign with a record label, or get your first big role in a movie. You’re always someone’s bitch.
- If you’re a New York Times best-selling author, you’re the publisher’s bitch.
- If you produce a Grammy-winning album, you’re the record company’s bitch.
- If you’re an actor, director, or producer making a movie that wins an Oscar, you’re the movie studio’s bitch.
Companies that sell art aren’t immune to the rules of capitalism. Publishers, record labels, and movie studios are just like any other business. As a creator of art, you’re only as good to them as the money you make.
I can’t tell you how writing will or won’t change your life. But having written two self-published books and two traditionally published books, and not yet have a contract for a third, I’m still writing.
Above all, I wish I’d known when I started writing that moments in the spotlight are temporary. The fulfillment you get from it doesn’t last long, but the joy you get from the process can last a lifetime.
As AR Rahman once said, “If you expect nothing, everything comes to you. Expect nothing from your writing and it’ll give you more than you can imagine. Book contracts, bestseller lists, and literary awards are the icing on the cake. But who the hell wants to eat the frosting without the cake?
This article is part of a series of lessons learned from various chapters of my life. Check out the first article in the series: Advice for Freshmen
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