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)