3 Things to Never Say to a Writer

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I’ve been writing professionally now for more than 16 years. So trust me when I say you do need to hear some constructive criticism if you want to improve and be successful in this craft.

The key word, though, is constructive. If you want people to take you seriously, then you need to set them straight when specific hurtful things come out of their mouths. And if you want to support authors, journalists, etc., then you need to know what to refrain from saying and why those things are so offensive.

1. “Yeah, but what’s your real job?”

This comment is the #1 thing to never say to a writer for a reason. It implies a host of nastiness, including that writing cannot bring in a living wage, that writing requires less work than other types of jobs simply because it’s creative and thus shouldn’t be treated seriously, and that there’s no place for writers among “real” professionals.

The reality is, many people don’t make tons of money writing. And that’s because, quite frankly, either they aren’t good enough to or just don’t have the business savvy or situational support to approach the job in a lucrative way. Even if they don’t make 6+ digits a year, as many people in other positions (e.g., teacher, cashier, home health aide) can testify, that doesn’t mean they aren’t putting in full time hours trying to make it all work, or that they’re not spending real time agonizing over how to improve and connect with the right people. Income by itself doesn’t mean people aren’t working.

But today’s writing situation also isn’t what Grandma had. We can tap affiliate marketing on blogs and websites. We can use third party sites to find and connect with clients all over the world. Businesses need excellent copywriters for technical documents, marketing, social media posts and much, much more.

So please. Look at my time tracked, hours billed and paychecks cashed. Then you can tell me I don’t have a real job. And while you’re at it, you can take note of every news article you read, every business letter you hold, every Kindle book you read, and for that matter, every scripted movie you watch as you down Cheetos on your couch. Because none of those writers have real jobs either, apparently, right?

2. Self-publishing isn’t real publishing/you’re not a writer if you self-publish.

Let’s highlight some statistics on self-publishing, shall we?

  • In 2016, self-publishing represented 300 million units and $1.25 billion in sales out of the entire $6 billion U.S. publishing industry.
  • Digital self-publishing accounted for more than 30 percent of American sales in 2014, just 5 years after mainstream digital publishing became widely accessible.
  • A typical traditionally published, unagented writer earns just 7.5 percent of their book’s cover price. Self-published authors earn between 70 and 96 percent, depending on whether they sell on their own websites or use platforms like Apple Books and Amazon.
  • Experts expect the global book printing market to be worth about $49 billion by 2024, with a compound annual growth rate of more than 1% during 2018-2024, Self-publishing is the fastest-growing segment within this market–its CAGR stands at roughly 17%.

So not only do self-published authors represent a big chunk of the overall industry, they also earn more than traditional authors and are a driving force behind the growth for the entire publishing world. These figures demonstrate that the idea that writers must go through a traditional publisher to be successful is woefully outdated. Although not everyone who puts out a self-published title will get good sales, serious writers no longer have to depend on traditional publishing houses to connect with readers. This is fantastic news, as overwhelmed, traditional publishing houses have been incredibly exclusive, preventing many great writers from getting into the market and allowing previous sale trends to determine which writers to work with.

3. You’re only a writer if you’re selling books.

See point 1 above. But that aside, many revered authors sold just a handful of their manuscripts, if any at all. Many were discovered or became famous only after they died. Among them include Emily Dickinson, John Kennedy Toole and William Faulkner. Other authors, like Anna Sewell, wrote just one book. Still others, such as Franz Kafka, kept their writing private as they made a living from other jobs.

And the heart of the thing is this: Most writers, like Herman Melville, admittedly do want some fame and financial security. That’s the dream. But ultimately, we write not to sell, but because the story demands that we put pen to paper (or these days, fingertips to keyboard). This is what makes one a genuine writer–an insatiable drive simply to deliver the tale, to bring readers to another world while at the same time somehow connecting with them and conveying a part of who we are. We feel at home in that task and obligated to it. To deny that someone has that sense of accountability to the job, solely because they cannot quantify it according to a biased norm, is ridiculous.

Writers deal with quite a bit. We learn how to say “Meh” to rejection letters, write with kids demanding snacks or screen codes or cuddles, and spend countless hours debating single sentences. Goodness knows we have our share of Internet trolls and broken editorial links/emails, too.

So non-writers, cut us some slack. Think before you talk. And writers, be proud. You have a right to stand up for yourself. Burn the arguments above into your memory and regurgitate them. Tell people how it is. Because none of us deserve to be told, either implicitly or explicitly, that we are less than anyone else.

5 Unique Ways to Know You’re a Good Writer


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Writers always want to know if we’re any good. And part of the dilemma is that, even as we know the publishing industry has its biases and is profits-oriented, we also assume that good writing naturally demands attention/publication, and that success translates into paychecks and big followings. So it’s difficult to know whether the system is the issue or we are. And on top of that, we know there’s not necessarily any one single point where anybody can label us as “good”. So we do not know how much potential we have or how much we have left to grow.

If you’re feeling a little rudderless against all this, ask if the following points apply to you. If they do, take courage, because you’re probably doing just fine.

1. You have multiple drafts of everything, everywhere. 

Good writers recognize that their first drafts usually suck. But they are willing to work at those drafts over and over again to get it right. They don’t give up on the concepts just because they run into snags. So don’t worry if final.doc, revisedfinal.doc, seriouslyfinal.doc has become your life. As long as you know where the most recent draft is, you’re good.

Related to this, editing is usually fun for good writers. They know it can be tedious, but they take enjoyment in tweaking to get it right, and they’re serious enough to understand that changes for pacing, plot hole corrections, grammar/syntax and similar elements all matter. You’re a good writer if eliminating errors on the page excites you and leaves you feeling like King Kong.

2. Others share or comment on your work.

Good writing will spur readers to some feeling or action. So if people are backlinking, leaving notes or emailing you about their thoughts, you’ve done your job. Do not worry so much about the number of people doing this, because visibility will increase over time. Focus instead on the genuine nature of the messages, since it’s that honest response that indicates you really connected with the reader. In the same way, if people are making recommendations for you or making requests for additional work, that means they have faith that you can produce more excellent copy.

Additionally, if you’re a newbie sitting in writing groups, it’s a good sign when people call out areas to work on with real suggestions and solutions. This suggests that, even though they can see the flaws that still might be present in your drafts, the writing is totally workable. They can see what you’re trying to accomplish and want to give you a more legitimate path toward that goal, so they give feedback in a larger context, rather than just pointing out how they liked single point or sentence x, y or z to be polite.

3. You can read your old work with surprise.

Most writers treat their works like their children–they’re all precious. But when you’ve written a draft months, years or even decades ago and come back to it, you’re likely not going to remember everything. If you can take one of your manuscripts and feel a little distanced from yourself, as though the draft came from someone or somewhere else, if you can read like the reader would and finish wondering how that came out of you, you’re probably on the right track. Time and distance together offer a much more objective lens, and sometimes we can’t see how good our creations are until we’ve set them aside for a while.

4. You’re rejected with compliments. 

Rejections don’t automatically mean writing is a train wreck. Many times, it means that the publisher/editor isn’t looking for that particular topic, has already spent their budget, is too busy to take on new writers/clients, doesn’t take freelance pieces, or that your work just isn’t a fit for that particular editor’s personal, highly subjective preferences. And yes, doing your homework limits these situations, but that only goes so far–I’ve lost count of the websites that don’t even list the name of their acquisitions editors.

So rejections are going to happen even if you’re a query master/mistress. But over time, you should start getting some rejections that go beyond form letters. If the writing truly is of high quality, the editor will turn you down but encourage you to submit the piece elsewhere or flat out just say they think you’re an excellent writer. This shows they think the work has shown skill, even if they can’t publish it themselves.

5. Your sense of voice is balanced with an understanding of your audience/genre. 

Great authors have a unique sound on the page. It creeps up off the paper and infests our ears in an altogether enjoyable way. But good writers also can be somewhat flexible based on who is going to read the work. As an analogy, think about how you might talk to a kid versus a business CEO. Your core personality and way of thinking still shines through either way. But the approach is different–you’ll adapt elements like word choice and sentence length so the listener/reader can understand you better. Similarly, most of us have multiple roles (e.g., mother, cook, friend), and none of those singularly define who we are. In the same way, if you’re a good writer, you should be able to adjust without losing a sense that you’re speaking as “you”. Each adjustment shows a different side of you as a writer that has value, and none of those sides are any more or less authentic than another.


What Should Writing Workshops Really Teach?

Concept. Creased paper in a trash can

If you want to get better at writing, just sign up for a writing workshop, right?

Maybe not.

In an article for The Practical Writer, Dan Barden argued that writing workshops don’t work. And the problem is twofold–we take a democratic approach and assume everyone has something to offer, and we maintain the idea that readers have some sort of obligation to us (they don’t).

According to Barden, serious writers essentially need a trial by fire. They need to be put through the wringer, to feel a little pain about their craft. Without that pain, the struggle, people never are really sure that they want to be artists enough. They don’t find their real voice or understand who they are. And instead of being about improving the writing, a workshop should focus on transforming the writer’s relationship to it.

This doesn’t mean that a good workshop can’t help you with the more technical aspects of the craft, or that it can’t prepare you for how to deal with different aspects of publishing. It certainly can. But Barden’s point was that those elements are far less important than grasping why a reader would want to pick up your manuscript. And it’s here that workshops so often drop the ball.

Like Barden, I think writers focus too much on the fact they just love to write. It’s OK to talk about it as if it’s a compulsion, a lust you have to stroke. I’ve done it myself, because that’s honestly, truthfully how I feel about it. But it is nothing if you don’t also recognize that readers don’t really care about your feelings. They care about having a story they can’t get out of their head. It’s not about whether you deserve their attention. It’s about whether what’s on the page does.

So if you really want to be a good writer, sure, work on those commas, figure out how to write query letters, all that. But first ask yourself if the story you want to tell genuinely has something worthwhile to it. There always should be a clear message. And ideally, that message should be something entirely new, something so enormous and penetrating that we’re not the same after we’ve heard it. Some concepts deserve the trash can, and the sooner you focus only on the ones that don’t, the sooner you’ll have the audience that naturally follows you.

The Burning Question: How Far Would You Go to Save Your Writing?


Firefighters rescued the survivors

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I come across intriguing and surprising things on social media just about every day. Today’s prize? This gem from the BBC:

Now, as you’ll see if you click on the link above and read the article, this piece is a few years old. But it showed up again on Twitter with just one question posed to writers–would you do what this guy did to save your writing?

Responses in the thread were mixed. But the majority of people had a common point. Why would you ever need to run into a burning building when there are tools like Google Drive that make it so insanely easy to back up drafts?

Dissenters gave two main rationales, the first of which was their choice of tool. The assumption is that writing will happen on technology like a laptop, but this isn’t always the case. Many writers prefer to draft on regular, old-fashioned paper, for example, while others use options like typewriters. In these cases, it’s the experience of the process that makes the difference.

Secondly, some writers mentioned that their writing needed plenty of revision away–that is, they simply didn’t have enough faith in what they’d produced to say they’d take a real risk for it.

Now, if you just think your work sucks and don’t care to save it, well, okay. That’s your choice. But I’d be quick to remind you that more than one writer has been shocked at their own success.


And if you believe in yourself or at least have hope that someday you’ll have a draft others will care about as much as you do, then you have an obligation to figure out how you will create a backup for your work, whether that’s photocopies, to-self email attachments or the cloud. This is first and foremost because you need to respect both your life and the life of anyone who would try to rescue you in the emergency. But strictly from the standpoint of the craft, once a manuscript is lost, it’s usually lost forever.



You owe it to your readers, be it current or those imagined for the future, to ensure that the worlds, characters and situations you envision will last beyond a lifetime.

So although the method is entirely up to you, just do everybody a favor.

Back that sh-t up.