Thursday, November 24, 2005

Habits of Successful Writers

What is the mark of a successful scribe? Perhaps not wealth and fame, although they may be factors. Maybe it isn't even talent, which allows the brilliant among us to shine but doesn't guarantee recognition. For mere mortals like us and for household-name writers like Stephen King, the highest measure of success is often the same--self-satisfaction. Ask yourself: Is it fun? Am I improving? Could I stop myself if I wanted to? If the answers are "yes," "yes," and "no," you're on track.

But for some of us, the simple pleasure of writing isn't enough. We may dream of full-time employment as a freelancer, self-publishing a family history, or topping the New York Times Bestseller List. Either way, the process is similar. First, accept the fact that there is no one secret to success and no single path to fulfillment. Ask a dozen different writers and you will hear a dozen different stories. The one thing those writers will most likely agree on is this--the only way to reach your goal is to apply your backside to your chair and put words on paper.

What can a poor scribbler do beyond this? Writing, just like any acquired skill, takes practice and discipline. Form good habits, because that is the surest way to improve your skills and explore your talent. And the sooner you begin, the sooner you'll see results.

1. Learn the basics. Pay heed to Strunk and White. Vocabulary and grammar are essential if you want to be taken seriously. If you can't use them, you're a carpenter with no tools. There is no excuse and very little tolerance for poor use of language.

2. Read. Read. Read. Devour books. Scrutinize them and you will see that some bestsellers out there are not much better than your humble musings. Read both prose and poetry--train your ear to the hidden rhythms of fine writing.

3. Write. Write. Write. Stop endlessly polishing the prologue of that novel and compose something new. Schedule time for writing as often as you can. Ignore the dirty dishes and the overgrown lawn and just write! Dirt keeps; ideas fade.

If you need encouragement to produce something new on a regular basis, join a writing group or a book-in-a-week challenge. Look at it this way: the faster you get all the garbage out, the more quickly you'll unearth the gems.

4. Set goals and work towards them. A goal is nothing more than a dream with a deadline. If you don't set goals for yourself, who will?

Like outlining? Love revision? Drafting--not so much? Write some amount of rough draft daily--grit your teeth and excavate those words. Ideas are like in-laws: the longer you ignore them the more hopeless they seem, but if you spend time cultivating your relationship the results can be surprisingly pleasant.

If your goal is publication, map out a route and follow it. Publish non-fiction articles in your area of expertise. Break into print by entering contests. E-publish on your own or someone else's website (or in a blog). No matter which path you take, be prepared for rejection. It's part of the learning process. Don't look at it as an F, just an invitation to try again.

5. Assess your work as objectively as you can and then improve it. You've invested time and effort in producing your work. Now nourish it and bring it to maturity.

One way to evaluate your progress is to look back at your earlier work. If something you once thought was flawless now brings on nausea, you've probably improved.

6. Take care of yourself. Stop apologizing for your literary urges and foster your inner writer. Start calling yourself an author, even if it's only in the mirror. Imagine your interview with Oprah.

Surround yourself with people who support your dreams, be it a literary group, members of your own family, or a circle of nurturing friends. They'll help you keep the dream alive on those days you feel like letting it die (or even killing it).

7. Repeat steps 1-6 unceasingly. Be persistent. Where would Stephen King be if he'd stopped after his first twenty rejections? Toiling in a laundry, living in a double-wide, and telling people how his spirit was crushed by the cruel world of publishing. Imagine how many people have been entertained by his work and how much fulfillment he derives from it because he (and his persistent wife, Tabitha) believed in what he was doing.

Most important, make a habit of enjoying the process as well as the product. Success is best if it isn't only the destination but the journey as well.


Marilyn said...

What a wonderfully encouraging post!

I know the feeling of looking back on my previous work and saying "how could I have possibly put that on my blog?".

I've just started with Strunk's book and I'm also reading - On Writing by William Zissner (don't quote me on the last name) - which was recommended to be by a teacher in a class I took on how to become a freelance writer.

Each day I'm trying to become a better writer, gather more tools. I have a lot to learn but I'm working on it.

Thanks again for the great post.

Marilyn :o)

Dawno said...

Write Gal, thanks for coming by the blogging forum on AW and giving us this link. I hope you'll come back to AW and share on other threads, I bet you'll fit in just great!