Patience Is a Writer’s Most Important Virtue

From Jeff: This is a guest post from Suzannah Windsor Freeman. Suzannah is a Canadian writer whose short fiction has appeared in various publications including Grist: The Journal for Writers. She is chief editor of Write It Sideways and author of The Busy Mom’s Guide to Writing.

Patience is bitter, but its fruits are sweet.
—Jean Jacques Rousseau

We live in a world of instant gratification. This is rarely a good thing, especially when it comes to creativity.

Clocks Photo for Patience Post
Photo credit: Brandon Christopher Warren

Think about it. There’s Twitter, text messages, and email (remember what it was like waiting for an actual piece of paper to arrive in your mailbox?).

When you post an update on Facebook, you get that little red notification sign as soon as someone leaves a comment. If you want to know something, you don’t call your Mom or dust off an encyclopedia; instead, you simply type your request into a search box.

How about today’s diet culture? Forget healthy eating and exercise — You must be thin now! Lose 10 inches off your waist in just 10 days!

Impatience plagues our writing, too

When it comes to writing, most of us writers spend a great deal of time talking about how important it is to us. It’s our calling. We can’t survive without the written word.

Yet, we’re plagued with an impatience to see our writing improve faster, to gain recognition for our work, and to get our words in print. Later isn’t soon enough.

Waiting to hear whether our writing has been accepted is torturous—whether it be a guest post on someone else’s blog, an article for a magazine, a story for a literary journal, or a book for an agent. We want immediate responses. I’ve even heard writers say they’d rather have a quick form rejection, as opposed to waiting months for a well-considered personal rejection.

This type of mindset is counterproductive. Here are three reasons why patience is the most important virtue for writers:

Lesson 1: It takes time to learn to write well

If your dream were to be a concert pianist, you wouldn’t expect to sit down and just play. You’d take lessons for many years, practice every day, and sacrifice a great deal in order to achieve that dream.

So, why do we expect ourselves to be able to write well without the same level of commitment and patience?

Years ago, I remember thinking, “Hey, I’m a smart person. I read a lot, have a couple of degrees, and can string sentences together pretty well. There’s no reason I shouldn’t be able to get published.”

Those qualities might be helpful, but they’re no substitute for plain hard work and patience. Very few writers have succeeded in getting published without years’ worth of practice behind them.

Lesson 2: It takes time for your writing to get noticed

Even if you’re a great writer, getting to a point where other people (especially editors and agents) know how great you are can take a lot of time.

Building a portfolio of writing credits often takes a while to get rolling. Usually, you have to start small and work your way up, which might mean writing for free for years before your passion actually earns you a dime.

But, if you’re impatient — if you give up before you’ve built that portfolio — you risk never getting past the status of hobbyist and having your talent go down the toilet.

Lesson 3: It takes time to build a writing career

One published book does not a writing career make.

Unless you happen to skyrocket to the top of the bestseller list with your debut — and even if you do — you’ll still have to put in years of hard work to promote that book, write more books, speak at conferences and/or teach writing courses, build a website and blog, and continue to improve your writing.

If you just want to see your name on a book cover, self-publishing is becoming easier and more common. But if you want a long-term professional writing career, you’ll need patience and endurance to build it.

Patience is learned

When I talk about writers and impatience, I’m talking from a long history of personal experience.

In my early years of university, after an unsuccessful experience with a creative writing degree, I quit writing. I saw it as being all just too hard and too competitive, but what I really lacked was life experience and patience to develop my talent.

Nearly 10 years later, I tried again. Rejection after rejection continued to roll in because I was still too impatient to do the type of work necessary to improve my writing. I still wanted it to happen immediately.

It’s taken almost five more years of hard work, and plenty of rejection, to get to the point where I’m happy to let something mellow in a drawer for a while before sending it out, or where I can stand the (admittedly) long wait times it takes to hear back from literary journals.

I’ve learned that patience makes a difference. It makes me a better writer. I know this, because—finally—I have some publishing credits under my belt.

Patience takes strength

Novelist Edward G. Bulwer-Lytton said,

Patience is not passive; on the contrary, it is active; it is concentrated strength.

Next time you feel tempted to complain about how slowly things are progressing in your writing life, consider that piece of wisdom. Being patient doesn’t mean sitting around twiddling your thumbs. It takes strength and character.

While you wait, you can be writing more, reading more, practicing, failing, dusting yourself off, and trying again.

What aspects of writing do you need to be more patient about today? Share in the comments.

*Photo credit: Brandon Christopher Warren (Creative Commons)

54 thoughts on “Patience Is a Writer’s Most Important Virtue

  1. nicely put, patience is so very hard, but it’s a virtue, right?

    I’m not a patient person, but i am quite cautious and very much strategic. As such i’m forced to be patient, to sit on things and let the evolve, and take risk carefully

    Think before i speak and act is something i have to consciously act upon each day

    Matt (Turndog Millionaire)

    1. It’s takes a while, doesn’t it? The good thing is how much satisfaction you get from knowing you’ve worked your way up.

  2. I needed this today, for more reasons than any writing/creativity goals I’m chasing.  I needed it for more…

  3. This could be applied in so many areas of life.  Thanks for sharing.  I’m making it a goal to write everyday for the next 30 days, even if it’s just 5 minutes.  

    Go Win!

  4. I just typed up the Bulwer-Lytton quote in huge letters and pinned it up on the bulletin board that sits above my desk.  It’s inspiring to think that in being patient, I’m building up my strength.  Thanks for the great words!

  5. “Waiting to hear whether our writing has been accepted is torturous—whether it be a guest post on someone else’s blog, an article for a magazine, a story for a literary journal, or a book for an agent.”  Because I have e-mailed you “Why is no one commenting?!!!!” after I was a guest blogger on another blog this sentence made me laugh out loud. Again it is like you are in my head! Weird! 

  6. I think the most important thing is simply realizing it will be along journey. A lot of people understand that it is, but for some reason think their talent or their drive or their luck will change that. Sure, that happens for some. But before we even start, we need to prepare ourselves for the long haul.

  7. GREAT post! I, too, am constantly struck by the people who don’t believe that writing takes practice. Yes! It’s just like playing the piano or running. You need to LEARN techniques and you need to build MUSCLE and ENDURANCE. I think I may ask my clients to read your pieces. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Suzannah.

    1. I think most people feel they are pretty good writers until they’ve actually done it for a while. Then they realize just how far they need to go to become ‘pretty good,’ let alone ‘great’!

  8. This speaks directly to me today, Jeff. I’ve been mulling over the “what should I do next?” question for awhile now, and praying for a different job. I’ve been feeling pressured to figure out where I’m going in order to gain more financial stability, more credentials on my resume. Thanks for the reminder that it’s about patience and diligence in my work. 

  9. Patience can be a real pain.  No denying we are a nation of impatience, but hopefully writers can turn that into motivation.  If you want to be a writer so bad you can hardly wait for it, then you better get started TODAY!  That doesn’t mean all the pieces of the puzzle will magically fall into place, but at least leverage that jittery, itching ambition to start creating something beautiful right away.  Whether it’s starting a blog, writing an article or diving into to chapter one of a book, don’t dwell in your impatience, use it.  Thanks for a great post.  

    I’m already a fan of Write It Sideways and I’m interested in checking out a Busy Mom’s Guide.  Awesome to see you on another of my favorite sites.  

  10. I struggle with point number two, I want my writing to get noticed. That’s why I appreciate this meesage so much, we all need more patience. Excellent and needed post Suzannah.

  11. An important piece of advice I’ve recently come upon is not worrying about the quality of others work. Don’t compare your writing to successful writers and your peers (who may well be successful writers). This can only lead to impatience in seeing that your work isn’t up to the level that you wish it was (which is good, but impatience is the wrong response). Just try to make the piece you are working on the best it can be – it needs to live up to itself, nothing else. There are no expectations for a piece of writing than the full realization of the idea it contains. That’s what I try to remember when I think towards my future as a writer.

  12. Patience is one of the most difficult skills to cultivate. I can’t help but wish I were there already!

  13. “While you wait, you can be writing more, reading more, practicing, failing, dusting yourself off, and trying again.”  That’s great advice. Thank you.   

  14. Hi Jeff.  Of course thing article rings true.  However, I feel that, at my age, (65), I may not have a lot of time left.  That’s what makes me so grumpy and impatient.  Nor do I consider myself to be a “real” writer.  Writers write.  It’s like a compulsion.  They can’t help it.  They MUST write or they feel awful.  They start writing in childhood.
    Not me.
    I just had this idea for a sci/fi/supernatural story, that sprang out of a few near-muggings that happened to me, and my amazing (to me)  responses to them, and that wonderful “what if?…” came to my mind, and novel details started tickling around the edges of my imagination.
    Finally, I sat down to brainstorm, and the characters came to me as though I were channeling them.  I experienced the real relativety of time while I typed as fast as I could to write down the back stories of my principal characters, unaware that hours had passed.  It was the most fun I’ve ever had on a computer, LOL
    So, as with any skill, it takes time and patience to learn.  I understand that.  I’m just stuck in the “Good grief, how much time do I REALLY have left?” mindset.  You know, the time needed to refine and hone the prose and plot, etc.  Which, BTW, is what I’m doing right now.
    And, good grief, I had no idea that copy editing could be such a chore!  LOL 😀


    I’m just a late bloomer, or maybe a blooming idiot!

    1. Sharon, you might like to read this guest post Debra Eve wrote for my blog, all about ‘late-blooming writers.’ You might be surprised and encouraged by it!

  15. Writing is a tough gig. Getting published is harder yet. I just returned from an author’s conference where one of the speakers talked about writing and self publishing a book in a month. While it is technically possible to do this, I think it leads to frustration.

    As a blogger for over seven years, I can say that blogging is a great way to practice your writing and to explore subjects that will make a great book. When I wrote my first novel, I was constantly reading books on the craft of writing. It was fun to apply what I was learning as I went through. My editor commented that my book got progressively better chapter by chapter. While I had to do considerable editing on that first draft, I realized how much I had learned in a short time. Books like Stein On Writing and William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, really helped me get up to speed quickly.

    1. I agree, writing and self-publishing a book in a month is technically possible, but is it really a good idea? What kind of product are you going to end up with in this scenario? Thanks for sharing your experience!

      1. The idea is to write a smaller 100 page book about a single subject and use it as an expensive “business card.” While that idea has merit, if it’s your business card, it better be good.

  16. I am not sure whether it is the most important one, but I am sure this quality is very important. I am Chinese and I hope to write English well and I meet many problems in my writing when using English to write something nice and meaningful down. I feel confused and impatient, but I must try my best to calm myself down because this is really a haul for me-a Chinese who understand English not enough. I love this anyway!

  17. Suzannah, you offer sound wisdom gleaned from experience. I know, after several years of trying to convince my tax man that “Yes, this is a legitimate deduction,” he believes I’m serious about writing. Your time line of 5 years lines up well with my own journey. The mileage adds up and you eventually find yourself at a destination you’d never dreamed of, the place where authors gather. Thanks, Tom

  18. Wow! Great minds must think alike. I’ve been chewing on a post like this for sometime. Great to see someone talking about it.

    The aspect I need to be patient about is my audience. It’s growing but not as fast as I would like it to. It will come, I just need to keep pushing out the content.

  19. Hey Jeff, it’s been a while since I have been back here. Thanks for the kick in the ass here. Patience is something I know and apply regularly in my life except for writing. Maybe because I am so passionate about it. Passion is good but your advice here is of great value especially the “patience is learned” piece. I know this will take time but it’s the spaces between that make it most challenging.

  20. Everyday that I write is a good day–I am so very grateful I have reached a point in my life where this is happening again!  Wonderful post–and extremely helpful to prod us writers into the habit of PATIENCE, which we must have to keep on keeping on!

  21. Patience has always been one of my personal demons. Thanks to God I’m learning to surrender to this valuable virtue.

  22. I love the idea that patience is “concentrated strength.” For me patience is hard when it comes to building my freelancing career. My first job was an unexpected explosion of fireworks, so now everything else seems rather drained of its color. It’s hard to re-adjust expectations and remain joyful in the waiting. Thanks for this post! It’s a great reminder.

  23. Thanks for this piece of advise, I started blogging about 4 months ago and it’s discouraging when I don’t get comments. I have made the mistake of comparing myself to long time bloggers and their followers. But that’s a big mistake indeed. Building something like this takes a great deal of time, thanks for reminding me never to give up and keep writing:)

  24. When I’m at my worst, I can hardly get 1 paragraph on a page before throwing it into the trash.

  25. Everything. I need to be patient about everything. I have great ideas and then I go to write and I feel this wave of frustration, like a huge wave of dread/anxiety/stress and then I get discouraged and go into freak-out-mode about never living to my full potential.

    Then I eat something or hang out with the fam and I feel better. I think what I might need is more writer friends (I have none) to share in our frustrations together and help encourage and build each other up.

  26. Agreed. As a matter of fact, if you look at the lives of those who have been successful in the eyes of society versus other who maybe aren’t as successful, one stark difference is that the ones that are successful just never quit. They kept going, waited it out, and eventually hit upon something that gave them success.

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