What It Takes to be a Successful Writer

editing paper

Several people have asked what it takes to be a successful writer. In order to address this question, it requires that I ask a question in return: What is your definition of success? Because there are many kinds of successes–and failures–one can experience in writing. The writing experience can run the full gamut from simply loving something you’ve written, to getting it published, to experiencing writer’s block, to not being able to get a foot in the publishing door.

As I wrote to one of my blog friends, the thing about writing — especially writing with the intention to be published — is that you will fail. There’s no question about it. All published writers (self included) have failed — not finished a project, been rejected by publishers, etc. It comes with the territory.

But you have to think of it the way Edison did. When he was inventing the light bulb, he never looked at his failures as failures but as valuable information needed to get ever closer to the creation of his light bulb.

The ones who make it as a writer (published or not) are the ones who don’t get caught up in the “success” or “failure” of writing, but who write simply because they love the act of writing.

I don’t mean that in a preachy way but as an encouragement to just keep going.

On a more concrete level, here are some practical pointers for what it takes to be a successful writer:

At the most basic level, a successful writer needs to be able to sit down every day and write. Doesn’t sound like a big deal until you try it. It’s fun on the days when it flows, but how do you handle the days when it doesn’t? Spend a little time cruising through the blogosphere and count the number of blogs with the “I don’t have anything to say today” or “The well has gone dry” posts, and you get my point. Every writer hits the wall at some time. Successful writers realize that’s part of the process and have learned how to work through it.

Next, a successful writer needs to find worthy feedback. By that, I mean you need to find people who are willing to provide you with honest criticism. In order to improve as a writer, you need to know how a reader experiences what you write. If it’s not the reaction you were going for then you need to go back to the drawing board. Writer’s Groups, Writer’s Workshops, and Writer’s Conferences can all be helpful resources. I was lucky in that I married my best critic and editor.

A successful writer needs to be able to finish a complete work. This is where many writers get bogged down; they can’t get past the first paragraph because they’re obsessed with making it perfect before they move on. The trick to finishing a book is to know that all first drafts are supposed to stink. They’re just for getting down the bones of the story. It’s the rewrites that give it the flesh and blood. And it may be several rewrites before you have a living, breathing story. In other words, successful writers don’t let themselves get caught up in perfectionism at the beginning; they just write–and keep writing.

A successful writer needs to be able to accept rejection and roll with the punches. Because there will be lots of both. That’s a guarantee. The odds of getting an agent or a publisher with your first query are so small as to be non-existent. You have to look at it as a numbers game and not take it personally. For example, I’ve sold four books so far (only one using my real name), with a fifth currently in negotiation. Sounds great, doesn’t it?

Now for the reality. For each book I sold before I got an agent, I sent out an average of forty proposals. Each sale took an average of six months, with an additional year or two before it landed as a book on a shelf. One of the books I sold was never published because the publishing house was bought in between the sale of my book and it’s publishing date. The new publisher didn’t think it fit with the direction of their new list and never published it. (That incident was what pushed me to get an agent.) I’ve written three other books early on that did not sell. Two I’ll eventually rework and sell; one I’ve long lost interest in and have since used to heat my wood stove. In other words, if you’re ready for a roller-coaster ride, you’re ready to be a successful writer.

And, last but not least, a successful writer has to be a good marketing person. The dictates of publishing used to be that writers wrote, and publishers published and marketed. Not anymore. A large factor that determines whether a publisher will take you on is whether you are able to market your own book. So you can’t be shy, because your ability to publish again rests on how well your last book sold.

In summary: To be a successful writer you need the desire to write, good ideas, the ability to complete what you start, good feedback, persistence, patience, a thick skin, the ability to market yourself, a sense of humor — and an agent!

If you find most of the above intimidating, another great way to enjoy the writer’s life is to have your own blog. It offers the creative outlet for self-expression without being hampered by continual criticism and rejection. You’ll find new friends who’ll offer supportive feedback. You’ll get to see your work published — not every couple of years — but every couple of days (depending on how often you post). And the pay is about the same. :)


8 thoughts on “What It Takes to be a Successful Writer”

  1. I’ve always had a feeling that I have a book inside me. Hopefully it’ll come out some day. Thanks for writing the post, I always meant to ask you about writing something like this.

  2. Excellent post! I have dreamed of writing for years…and I do write something everyday…it is like I HAVE to get it out..not sure what that means. Now I have to print your post here and tape it next to my desk…..you are an inspiration Karen! Thank you!

  3. Thank you for writing this post. It is inspiring to me and it gives me hope. I love to write yet so far I write only for the joy of it all and my own passion (and of course the people who read my blog-for them I am very grateful!) but the next steps are coming. I just need to let them in.
    It is helpful for me to hear that you had some failures because as I have said before I truly admire your writing.
    Thank you Karen!

  4. Bob, I think enough writers have complained about the state of publishing so that hopefully most would-be’s would go into the field with eyes open. It’s not for the faint-hearted!

    Hey Jenn, thanks for the interest in wanting to look up my past works, but really I’m a much better writer now. I wouldn’t have the heart to foist any of my older stuff on anyone. :)

    Wow, Teetotaled, you have my admiration. Giving up a known quantity for an unknown. Sounds like you’re doing a terrific job at making it work for you. Bravo! Says she who knows how hard it is to do what you’re doing.

  5. Great post! I’ve been told my whole life I should write and my ideas are quite good at times and mostly based on my wildly imaginative dreams. I swear I dream in movies, not in short dreams. My boss and my husband both encourage me, but the cold hard fact is that I’m too lazy. I’m hoping one day the perfect idea will force my hand, but I’m well aware that may never happen. I am considering writing more poems and short stories, because I may be able to handle that with my short attention span. I love your writing on your blog, and would love to know your pseudonym if you want to email me with it.

  6. Very nice post. Some of that I knew, some I didn’t, some I think I realized intuitively. And you’re right about blogging. It’s a great outlet.

  7. Great post.
    Less than a year ago I resigned from what most would consider a pretty prestigious job as a writer with the State Senate. I left to go out on my own as a freelancer. It has been a success in that I am doing what I want to do, on my own terms and pushing myself further every day. A thick skin and a sense of humor certainly are important in this business!

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