7 Things Professional Writers Know That Amateurs Don’t

For most of my twenties, I jumped from one dream to the next. But through it all, I secretly wanted to be a writer. I watched friends bridge the gap between amateur and professional, and I wished I could be them.

7 Things Professional Writers Know That Amateurs Don't

Because I was envious of my friends’ writing success, I would try whatever it was they were doing that I thought made them successful. But the problem was I didn’t know what I was doing.

One writer I knew had a satire blog, so I tried writing satire. It didn’t work out; I just came off sounding mean. Another wrote about popular events from a faith-based perspective, so I tried that. That also failed. In fact, I made just about every possible rookie mistake.

What was I missing?

Turns out, I was still acting the amateur, thinking success as a writer was about finding the right idea or a big break. But the truth is that success in any field is more about commitment to a process than it is about finding one magic trick that will make it all come together.

Sure, there are ways to expedite the process, but it is still a process. And for me, I didn’t start to succeed as a writer until I began shifting my attention away from the results. When I began to mimic the process of professionals instead of just chasing their success, that’s when I started to see real results.

If you want to be a pro, you’re going to have to break this terrible amateur habit of looking at what people have without paying attention to what they did to get it. Chasing the results without understanding the process will lead to short-lived success, if not outright failure.

A friend of mine, a hugely successful musician on his own terms, advises anyone who aspires to his success, “Don’t do what I do. Think like I think.”

How do you do this, exactly? Well, there are seven things I’ve discovered that professional writers do that amateurs don’t.

1. Amateurs wait for clarity. Pros take action.

You have to know what you are before you can figure out what you want to do.

Self-awareness is an important part of life, and it’s especially important for writers. Because so much of what you create is tied to who you are, you have to get clear on your identity. But there’s a right way and a wrong way to go about this.

You have to care about legacy more than ego.

Jeff Goins

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In my case, I spent too long waiting for someone to call me a writer before I was willing to act like one. Now I’ve learned that clarity comes with action. We must perform our way into professionalism. We must first call ourselves what we want to become, and then get to the work of mastery.

This is where your voice comes from – your confidence in what you are, and your commitment to acting on that knowledge.

2. Amateurs want to arrive. Pros want to get better.

You have to become a student long before you get to be a master.

“We are all apprentices in a craft no one masters,” Hemingway once said. Great writers understand and appreciate this. In order to get good, you have to submit yourself to the teaching of those who have gone before you. You have to study their work and emulate their techniques until you begin to find a style of your own.

For the longest time, I just wanted to be recognized for my genius. It wasn’t until I started putting myself around teachers and around the teaching of true masters that I realized how little I knew and how much I still had to grow as a writer.

Hemingway did this, too—it wasn’t until he spent a few years at the feet of Gertrude Stein and Sherwood Anderson in Paris that he grew from a good writer into a masterful one.

If you don’t do this, you delude yourself into thinking you’re better than you really are, which is the fastest route to failure and anonymity.

3. Amateurs practice as much as they have to. Pros never stop.

You have to practice even, maybe especially, when it hurts.

It’s not enough to show up and write every day. You have to keep challenging yourself, keep pushing yourself beyond your limits. This is how we grow.

I used to write a few hours on a random Saturday every third week of the month. I never got better, and I couldn’t understand why. Then I started writing 500 words a day for as little as twenty to thirty minutes per day. Within a year, I had found my voice.

You have to know what you are before you can figure out what you want to do.

Jeff Goins

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Frequency trumps quantity. It’s better to write a little every day than a lot once in a while. John Grisham knew this, too: he wrote his first novel in small pieces, during the only free hour he had before work every morning. By the time he was done, three years later, he’d created a new genre: the legal thriller.

What if he’d decided it was too painful to get up to write at 5:00am every day? What if he’d given into the overwhelming feeling of writing a novel on top of 70-hour work weeks? What if you decide the same?

4. Amateurs leap for their dreams. Pros build a bridge.

You have to build a bridge, not take a leap.

It’s not about the giant leaps of faith or big breaks that make a writer. It’s the daily practice. I recently spoke with a best-selling author who has sold tens of millions of books. Do you know when his career started to really take off? It was when he wrote his 125th book at age 45.

You have to put the time in, but it’s more of a marathon than a sprint. I took a leap every time I started a new blog. I did this eight times, every time I had a new idea. But none of those blogs stuck until I decided to stick with one, which happens to be the blog you’re reading today.

What’s the thing that really needs to “stick”? It’s not the idea. It’s the writer.

5. Amateurs fear failure. Pros crave it.

You have to fail your way to success.

What professionals know that the rest of us don’t appreciate is that failure can teach you more than success ever will. Failure is feedback, and truly successful people use it to move forward in their careers.

I used to think my failures prohibited me from success, that every time I failed I had to go back to square one. Now I know that failure is the only way you get to success and that each my failures has taught me something I wouldn’t have been able to move forward without.

Thomas Edison, in his efforts to invent a working light bulb, once said, “I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” How many times are you willing to get it wrong?

6. Amateurs build a skill. Pros build a portfolio.

You must master more than one skill.

This doesn’t mean you have to be a jack of all trades, but you must become a master of some. All the professional writers I know are good at more than one thing. One is a great publicist. Another is really smart at leadership. Another is a fantastic speaker.

Being a writer doesn’t mean that you just write for eight hours a day – at least not for most professionals. It means you will spend your time getting your message out there through a variety of channels and mediums, or that you’ll write for part of the day and master something else with the rest of your time.

Either way, you must develop your own portfolio.

Failure is feedback, and truly successful people use it to move forward in their careers.

Jeff Goins

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For me, my portfolio consists of writing, marketing, and business. But for a long time I just waited for people to think I was a good enough writer, expecting the money to follow that one skill. It doesn’t always work like that.

I recently spoke with a creative professional in New York who makes a living as both a fine artist and a photographer. He knows, as all professionals do, that all our skills complement each other and, frankly, relieve us from putting too much pressure on ourselves to be the world’s best at any one thing.

7. Amateurs want to be noticed. Pros want to be remembered.

You have to care about legacy more than ego.

The best writers I know, the ones whose work reaches a lot of people and truly matters, aren’t just thinking about the quick win – the big book deal, the next speaking gig, the best seller list. They’re thinking about the long game, about what they want to write that might endure for the next 100 years.

The amateur is concerned with the big break, whereas the pro is more focused on delaying immediate gratification in exchange for long-term success.

When I began writing, all I cared about was my byline, whether or not people recognized me as successful or famous or important. Now, I understand that on the other end of the computer screen or book, there is a person’s whose life I want to impact.

When people started asking me how I became a professional writer, how I chased a dream and got the rare opportunity to do it for a living, at first I didn’t know how to answer them. So I rattled off some cliches – “I just got a vision and went after it” – but over time, I realized that wasn’t true. Looking back, I realize it was this process, these seven habits, that really made my career.

And these are things that I continue to practice today. They’re disciplines that you keep doing that allow you to keep succeeding. And if you don’t do them, you’re really just rolling the dice.

So if you want to be a professional at any craft, especially writing, I’d highly encourage you to start applying these habits today.

Have you been tempted to pursue results instead of a proven process in becoming better? Share in the comments.

74 thoughts on “7 Things Professional Writers Know That Amateurs Don’t

  1. People don’t make a living writing. You should find something practical
    to do with your life.” I have heard this in more than just writing! I
    follow my passions regardless of what others think and it has done me

  2. ‘Pros want to be remembered’ really resonates with me. After slogging along as a freelancer for quite some time, writing about whatever I’m paid to write about, lately I’ve felt the need to write something more self-directed; something for myself. It’s not that I myself want to be remembered, but that I’ve been feeling a need to try to write something which will be remembered. Something that will reach people in more ways than a short informational article ever could. Thanks for pointing out the distinction, Jeff.

  3. “Failure is feedback, and truly successful people use it to move forward in their careers.”

    Great way to look at failure. Fear of failing has always been a struggle for me because I grew up in a home where I was told I was a loser and would never amount to anything. It’s not easy to let that stuff go. It comes back to haunt you from time to time.

    That’s probably why I’ve been sitting on the same book for years. Fear of failing, failing to measure up to what I think everyone else thinks I should be. I need to stop living in that cage, to stop thinking I know the thoughts of others. I’m no mind reader. And I need to stop acting like one.

    I also need to stop looking at opinions as if they were facts. Just because someone doesn’t like what you’ve created, it’s not the end. You can’t please everyone. Someone will always have something to complain about, some flaw to magnify.

    And no matter how good you get at doing what you do, someone will always be there to remind you that you’re human, that you’re not as good as you think you are. And that’s okay, because we need those reminders. It motivates us to grow.

    1. You know, Chris, the biggest thing I’m afraid — even more than failure — is success. Because if I succeed, I actually have to do this thing, whereas if I fail, I can just go back to doing things the way I used to do them. Success holds me responsible, though, and that scares the crap out of me.

      1. I can certainly understand that, Jeff. But you already are a success story. And the people whose lives you touched through your writings are eagerly waiting to read the next chapter. As long as you put God first in everything, success won’t harm you.

  4. Hey, great blog post! I know I am still working on #3. I don’t crave failure – but I don’t fear it anymore. As for #6, Spot On! I know so many talented fiction writers in the Denver area that either don’t know how to pitch to an agent. Or, they don’t know how to market themselves. Or, they don’t want to meet with the fans; people who will be their customers. You are absolutely right, Jeff. You gotta build that portfolio, learn to be a pro, add skills to your writing game, learn to market, glad hand, kiss babies, pitch your book, work with editors, read the market, etc. Build that Portfolio!

  5. I love this article! Very helpful. I need to work on finding a good mentor or teacher. I want to keep improving as a writer making this one a priority. My writing practice has been consistent. However, I feel I need to take it to the next level. Thanks for your help and advice.

  6. “It’s more of a marathon than a sprint.” Love that line because it’s so true. Building a blog, an audience, and consistent writing takes time. The process actually refines us as we go. Great post, Jeff!

  7. Re: item 3 on this list, music teachers sometimes say “Amateurs practice until they get it right; professionals practice until they can’t get it wrong.”

  8. I can see where I went through all of these in my professional photography career. I had not really thought of writing as the same kind of process. Thanks for the post.

  9. Thanks for this Jeff. I love the idea that failure teaches us more than success ever will.

    1. Amen, Nils. I think that’s so true. Success is just an echo chamber. Hard to always know what’s working and what’s not. Failure is feedback. You definitely know when you try something and it flops.

  10. I hope you don’t mind, but i had to put you on my Facebook page, you are helping me so much. Your book, The Art of Work is my new best friend in literature.
    Thanks Jeff

  11. Thank you Jeff. Great advice you have given us. #6 is spot on. I spent years working away at just one thing and it finally ‘hit’ me that I needed to supplement that one thing with a few others. While not always successful, the ‘others’ reinforce your #2 point that “Pros want to get better.” While I do not consider myself a ‘pro’ I know that as you put, with time and effort, the results will come.

    Again, thank you Jeff. I look forward to the next one.

    Oh, I have a question for you.

    Do you have a blog post where you talk about your other ‘failed’ attempts at writing? That is, the other 7 that didn’t quite take off.

    Talk to you soon,


    1. Yes, we know Jeff only as a successful writer and mentor. It would be so inspiring to read about his “failed” attempts.

    2. This is a great idea, Joel. I will do it. Hold me accountable! I’ll write about my failures. Also, if you’re really curious, you can just start googling. It’s all still out there.

      1. That’s great. Can’t wait to read it and when I become impatient, I’ll google it. Lol. Have a great one

  12. Yes!! Thank you Jeff, your advice is always so spot on. For a long time–before finding your blog–I only admired other writers, read about writing and even dreamed of being a writer. But only after finding this blog did I actually start writing regularly, i.e. started taking concrete steps, albeit small ones. Now I also call myself a writer, and it definitely makes me feel accountable to myself.

  13. “I used to write a few hours on a random Saturday every third week of the
    month. I never got better, and I couldn’t understand why. Then I
    started writing 500 words a day for as little as twenty to thirty
    minutes per day. Within a year, I had found my voice.” Ah, this- this is where I stumble over and over again. I’m going to print this out to remind myself- again- how important daily writing is. I often feel that if I can’t come up with something to share on my blog, I don’t have anything to write at all. I can miss days, weeks, of writing with that mindset. Thank you, again, for your guidance and wisdom.

  14. I think this is the part when I realize that writing sporadically never works.

    From Elan Emmanuelle

  15. Thank you Jeff, for being so transparent about your writing journey. This post was both a kick in the pants and an encouragement for me! If I’m honest, I can confess to doing all of these at one time or another. In fact, my goal this past six months or so is to make sure my motivations are right, and become more disciplined daily as a writer. It’s good to know I’m on the right track! I hope everyone who reads this will take it to heart.

  16. It’s awesome to read words of a professional writer you’ve also crafted over a long bridge.

  17. Pros build bridges and portfolios. These both spoke to me Jeff, because well, bridges. I love bridges and write about them often (rusty, riveted and full of possibilities).

    And the portfolio concept I need to be reminded of because my strength and my weakness is focus. I’ve told you before I loved your term the portfolio life.

    I appreciate your mentoring us newer writers over the blog pages. Terri

  18. Jeff, I’m bookmarking this link so I can read it often to keep myself on track.

    Regarding #1, I have no problem calling myself a mom or school secretary since I have proof those titles are true. Thank you for encouraging me to call myself a writer, to perform myself into professionalism, even though I can’t hold up a real book to prove it yet.

    Also, I liked what you shared about John Grisham. I’ve been considering getting up at 5 a.m. to write for an hour each day, rather than waiting for Saturday. If that’s what it takes to become a professional, I need to make that sacrifice.

    As always, thank you for sharing your wisdom. Your advice has revolutionized my writing process.

  19. Thanks for all you share, Jeff. I’ve spend the last 20+ years so busy working, serving and raising three kids but failing to be reflective. Over this last year, as I learned about Tribe Writers and became one, I’ve rediscovered a joy I had left back in childhood. I can see the wisdom of what you share here because I’m trying (sometime successfully, sometimes not) to live these principles out myself. I am (now) a writer because I write, almost every day.

  20. Very helpful, informative, encouraging. I recently read a study that found that simply copying longhand some of the works of great writers produced remarkable improvement in the writing of the students who did these exercises.

  21. “When I began to mimic the process of professionals instead of just chasing their success, that’s when I started to see real results.” There’s so much gold in this post. Thank you.

  22. I’ll be honest — I opened this post expecting to skim it and say, “Heard that before!” But I didn’t. Loved, loved, loved the practical advice and the readjustment of attitude that comes with making something succeed.

  23. This is so good Jeff, thank you. Fantastic advice which feels so tuned to me. At the start of this journey but so much of what you say resonates. I’d already been set on the idea of building a bridge but have hit a sticky patch when it comes to daily practice and finding my niche… I’ll be starting my 500 words a day challenge tomorrow! Wise wise words which are gratefully received!

  24. Hi Jeff,

    Loved this post. There have been many times where I’ve compared myself to professional writers and felt the only path to success was by emulating others.

    Writing everyday is one of my 2016 goals…some days are diamonds, some days are stone but I still plug away it.

    Your point about building bridges resonated with me. There’s always the misconception that you just ‘fall’ into writing but it’s hard work just like any other job.

    Thanks for this! Adding to my queue for sharing 🙂

  25. This is perhaps, some of the best most direct (but still nurturing) advice I’ve read. Thank you.

  26. Amateurs wait for clarity. Pros take action. That hit home for me. I keep looking for the best tools, the best ideas, the right course. This was a great eye opener to me. Thanks for the great advice

  27. Very nice article, I’ve been working at a magazine for just over three years, but don’t feel like I’ve hit my stride. Some of the points in the article are precisely why.

  28. This is really great info, Jeff. I signed up for your newsletter but couldn’t find a way to contact you. Alycia Morales (a fellow editor) and I have a blog for writers: http://www.TheWriteEditing.com. We would be honored if you would do a guest blog post for us. If this is something you would be interested in doing, please e-mail me at andreamerrell 7 @ gmail (dot) com. Thanks! 🙂

  29. Thanks so much for this article Jeff. My greatest temptation has been to pursue success but as you inferred, I have started the discipline of ensuring I write daily because I have a message for the world and guess what, I have become better and I confidently introduce myself as a writer. I’ve never commented but I have been following for a few weeks; thanks for all the great ideas.

  30. Thank you Jeff! I especially like, “But for a long time I just waited for people to think I was a good enough writer”.

    I called myself what I wanted to before I even wrote my first blog. It’s very important that we believe in ourselves first. If we don’t, who else will? Kudos!

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