Quit Screwing Around — It’s Time to Write for Real

There’s a difference between practice and performance. Between a dress rehearsal and opening night. Between a hobby and a profession.

And there’s a huge difference between writing when you feel like it and writing because it’s your job.

For years, I practiced. I wrote when I felt inspired, but never shared anything. I was afraid to call myself a writer and would often sabotage my work.

All the while, I was avoiding one painful truth: I was kidding myself. I wasn’t really writing. I was just practicing.

Write for Real
Photo credit: woodleywonderworks (Creative Commons)

The pointlessness of practice

Every writer has work she is afraid to share. It may be a manuscript, an essay, or an unpublished blog post. She thinks it is both terrible and wonderful at the same time. It is probably both.

Here’s the truth: Until the world sees it, it doesn’t matter.

Do you know what practicing without a deadline will get you? Nothing. No book deals. No audience. No money. And although writers don’t write for accolades, I believe many hope their words will move people.

You have something to say, and there is someone who needs to hear it. But if all you ever do is practice, that won’t happen.

One of my favorite writers on the craft of writing, Marion Roach Smith, says this about writing with intent:

Writing is good, honest work. And it cannot be reduced to generic writing exercises and pre-fabricated prompts. And ask yourself these questions:

Have any of those ditties ever gotten you published? Has scribbling from the right side of your brain, or getting in touch with your angel’s feather, or keeping morning pages put you where you want to be as a writer?

After reading one of those books of exercises, or subscribing to yet another web-based, prompt-list newsletter, have you actually finished that letter to your child that you long to give her? I doubt it.

I suspect that those manners of nonsense have instead stolen what little time you had for writing.

Listen: you only have so much time. You can either spend it trying to make your words count, or you can spend it practicing.

Marion recently told me about a writing course she teaches that is full of people recovering from writing prompts. They are disillusioned and frustrated. Do you know what she tells them? To stop practicing, write what they know, and share it.

The right kind of practice

I don’t have anything against practice, so long as there is a point to it.

For example, I like to run. I go for a light jog maybe two or three times a week. When I feel like it.

For years, I told myself I would run a half-marathonsomeday. I downloaded practice sheets from the Internet and started rigorous training schedules. And I would fail every single time. Year after year.

Why? Because I wasn’t serious. I hadn’t yet committed.

One day, I registered for a race. Then, it was different. I had a deadline. I spent some money. I wasn’t ready, but I decided to start anyway. I no longer had the luxury of convenience and as a result, I had to show up and train every day.

While training, I ran at least five times a week with an average of five to six miles per run (and more, as the weeks progressed). Some days, I felt great. Others, I was as sore as can be. Regardless, I got up and ran, anyway.

When race day came, I was ready. In fact, I was in better shape than I had ever been. All because of a deadline. Because I did the right kind of practice — the kind where you’ve got some skin in the game.

How this applies to writing

I did the exact same thing with writing. I talked about it. Dreamed about it. I even wrote about it in my journal, setting arbitrary goals. But it didn’t become real until I started doing it.

I recently received an email from a writer who’s struggling with time management. He told me his days are consumed with urgent tasks; when he has time to write, he no longer feels inspired. “What should I do?” he asked.

Here’s what I told him (and what I would tell you): Write anyway. Act like a professional. Treat this like a job, not a hobby. Until you do that — until you start training for something — you’re only kidding yourself.

Of course, you don’t have to do that. If you’re okay with your words never getting read and never seeing your work published, then by all means, continue. Otherwise, it’s time for a change.

It’s time to stop practicing and start training. To quit screwing around. It’s time to write for real.

This is habit-forming: start small and build. Begin with a blog. Then a guest post. After that, submit a few pitches to websites and magazines. Before you know it, you’ll have a portfolio, maybe even a book in the works.

Perhaps without even realizing it, you’ll be doing what you’ve always wanted: writing for real. As you do this, you may find yourself questioning your identity less.

You may discover that you are, in fact, a writer. Not someone who talks about writing or dreams about it. But someone who actually does the dirty, nasty, wonderful work of writing.

What do you say? Isn’t it about time you started writing for real?

If you want to make it official, declare it on Facebook or tell the world on Twitter:

By the way, if this resonates, check out my eBook: You Are a Writer (So Start Acting Like One).

*Photo credit: woodleywonderworks (Creative Commons)

79 thoughts on “Quit Screwing Around — It’s Time to Write for Real

  1. I took mandolin lessons for a while. I would practice every night. I would go to these jam sessions and sit off away from everyone and strum along. But I wasn’t about to get on stage or really join the group. I wasn’t really a mandolin player. I was just someone who pretended to be. I finally quit. I like writing better.

  2. Um, or you’re like me who jumped right into writing (on a blog), got book deals, and now WISH I would have practiced (because seriously, blog writing is not practice if you are aren’t taking the time to learn *how* to write). Now? Now I’m scrounging around reading every book on writing I can get a hold of while simultaneously writing a book that has a killer deadline! Eek! 

    All to say, I agree about deadlines, they get a fire under your rear-end. BUT I wish someone would have told me, “if you think you may write a book someday, start learning the craft; practice and be intentional with your writing.” I took it all for granted. 

    1. Sure. Practice is good but we only really practice when we have a deadline. Right now you’re practicing for your next book. What you’re experiencing is typical. Trust me. You’re going to be fine, Sarah. You’re more prepared than you may realize.

  3. The first time I ran a half marathon I was surprised. I saw people that looked like they would be great runners. They intimated me, but once the race started, I realized they hadn’t done the work. They looked good, but that was it. Nothing prepares you for running better than the running.

  4. Great post! As a musician I could immediately connect the practicing/performing imagery. And the performance seems to always go differently than all those hours of practice, lol! The bottom line, be a risk taker! Thanks for sharing! By the way, I ordered your ebooks. 🙂 I love the way they read so easily, in small chunks, not overwhelming with too much info, and conversational/friendly tone. It came to me at the perfect time! God bless…

  5. Jeff, Thanks for your good work! I’ve chosen you as my writing coach. I love your writing/writer’s life style.

    Working full time, I still write several hours a day. My problem is getting it posted. I usually flame out in the editorial process, hence I have stacks of posts waiting to see the light of day. Thank God for weekends ;-))

    When I first started writing songs, I would test them for a year, to make sure they had staying power before I shared them. So I really do understand the resistance that holds us captive.

    Now I’m learning the craft, and writing my book online warts and all.  https://bobholmes.blogspot.com/  I’m quickly morphing this into a writer’s site and updating it’s format.

    Finally Thank You Jeff, for your kind comments on my sister Christ Tribe site.

    You really are exceptional!

  6. I’ve got a story, and I know it’s something people would enjoy. I guess the part I struggle with is networking and publicizing. For as long as I’ve been blogging, I’ve been trying to build a platform, but the growth has been minimal, at best. I keep plugging away, though, hoping one day I’ll finally discover the audience that so many others seem to have. It’s definitely not always fun, and I definitely don’t always feel like doing it, but I figure if eventually, I can change lives, it’ll be worth the work.

        1. This is true — as long as you’re writing something that’s relevant to more than just you (which is highly likely). I myself am a fan of experimentation — keep poking around until you find something that strikes a nerve (for both you and the audience). You can waste a lot of time writing the wrong words. Of course, no writing is entirely wasted.

      1. You keep saying that and I keep ignoring you. =)

        I’ll think about it today and probably cave in. And then, after spending my hard-earned $3, the masses will come flooding in! 

        1. Hah! Maybe…

          I think EWD would help you think through this whole platform business.
          And just so you know, I think they’re worth a lot more than $3 (or even $5). I priced ’em low so that more people could get this information, which I believe is important. Trust me, I’m not retiring in Borneo on your three bucks. 🙂

  7. I started a blog last year and have been posting twice a week. It’s been good to get my butt in gear and actually get something written. The posts aren’t always stellar, but I know I have a deadline and it makes me work. I like the idea about submitting pitches to websites and magazines. Perhaps that’s my next step.

  8. I’m in the midst of “writing for real”.  For a while I was practicing or saying that I would write “one day”.  It’s a work in progress and it’s hard to break the habits I’ve had for years, but I can already feel the shift and it’s empowering!  Thanks for the reminder Jeff!

  9. Starting a blog last year put my feet to the fire. My fiction writing had to take a backseat while I  met my deadlines. Clearly, my writing has improved, my confidence and my writer’s voice.

    Now a BIG OUESTION looms. Where do I find my market for my fiction? My first love revolves around writing mysteries for 9 to 13 year old kids. Many of them do not have e-readers or read magazines.

    Any tips for me on reaching my market, “writing for real?”

    1. That’s a good question. Admittedly, fiction’s not my bag. It fascinates me, and I hope to one day write a novel (not a main goal for me right now, though), but I suggest you connect with my friend Joe Bunting at https://thewritepractice.com. He eats, sleeps, and breathes fiction.
      The short, incomplete answer would be: do what you would do for non-fiction. Create small wins and build. I read that Stephen King got his start writing short stories for magazines. You could do the same. Find a few fiction websites, get your work published there, build a portfolio, then move to print.
      My friend Robert Bruce (https://robertbruce.com) has a great website of short stories that shows how you can start publishing your stories now and get noticed.

  10. I love that book by Marion. Read it because you recommended it. Thanks for pushing me. Hearing that coaching voice keeps me focused regularly. I write every day now, have been for months and I am proof that you are right. Thanks!

  11. Thanks for your inspiring post today.  It reminds me of Steve Pressfield’s War of Art intro where he gave Robert McKee a deadline to write the Forward to his book. Great stuff! Now I need to go write….

  12. Jeff,

    Great stuff.  I can always tie analogies back to surfing. So I’ll translate into that “If you’re not in the water, you’re not going to catch any waves.”  

  13. I think huge transformations take place when we decide not to treat what we do as a mere hobby, but as a professional career. it changes how you practice, and your performance as well. 

    1. I may have to really consider these words – because I see my writing as a hobby. My first occupation is a mother to 5 children whom I homeschool and keeper of my home. However, it’s the most ideal place to be a writer.

      Admittedly, in more recent weeks, I have taken it to a deeper level (making deadlines,etc), but I still view it as a hobby.

      I’ll have to ponder this. 🙂

  14. Totally agree. I write in a journal, but I often take what I’ve written from those pages and re-purpose them in a writing piece.

    I never liked writing prompts. I’ve tried them several times and it just was completely unnatural – like I was trying to force something that wasn’t there. I know sometimes writing does that, but at least make it a piece that is worthy. Not a random prompt.

  15. This post undoes me, Jeff. Completely.

    Why, you ask? Because this morning I drafted a blog post called “I’m coming out today” and subtitled, “Letting a book happen.” It’s scheduled for February 6.

  16. I agree, but at the same time, it makes me ask – if you treat writing like a job, something that must be done, how can you avoid getting burnt out and it losing all of its fun? Often hobbies become chores when you force yourself to do them. What is the secret to maintaining the love of writing while still doing what must be done?

  17. I’m glad I’m not the only one who cares nothing for writing prompts. I thought about purchasing a set for my iPad, and when I saw them, I decided they were not what I was looking for. I started my first novel near the beginning of October 2011, and now I’m nearing 80K words and counting–I’m shooting for at least 90K. If I plug away, I’ll be done with my first draft! And believe me, I’ve enjoyed the experience of the creative process 100%. 

  18. This is a really inspiring post. I am a student journalist and this has really helped me look at what I am doing here, in a positive light – thank you. @sarahjanea2

  19. I love Marion, too.  Prompts don’t work for me unless it somehow seems challenging.  I feel when you love what you do it’s never work.  Sometimes the need to put something down wakes me in the middle of the night and I can’t sleep until I write.  That can be challenging but it’s also rewarding when the piece is finished.
    Keep kickin’ butt Jeff!  It’s working.

  20. I’m with Bob Holmes …. I feel like you’re my writing coach. I’ve been blogging for awhile but didn’t post as frequently as I should have to create the community to take me to the next level. This post is another lesson from my coach to help guide me in the right direction.
    Can’t wait for the day when I can send you the link to my book that I wrote thanks to your advice and great posts 🙂

  21. This really pushed my buttons, in a good way, so thank you!
    You add an extra push to make my writing dreams become my future income, and I’m very grateful. I’m making some changes in my daily writing routines at the moment. The way from dreaming to making concrete goals is huge, and I’m in the process. Yay!I’m also gonna change my blogging, after reading some of your tips here and on Copyblogger. This blog is one of my two favorites. Your posts are very inspiring, and I’ve added you in my blogroll to keep track of everything you write. Keep up the good work – here, and creatively!
    Have a wonderful weekend!

    Aina, Norway

  22. I don’t have anything against writing prompts and creative exercises if you’re ALSO sharing your writing with others. For example, I have a Scrivener file full of short stories and bits and pieces I work on from time to time, or sometimes I’ll just write whatever I feel like writing, even if I know it’s not going to lead to a story which will be shared with anyone. Sometimes, the words just need to come out, and that speaks to the cathartic aspects of writing. 

    But, I also don’t hoard my work. I regularly write and publish articles for my own blog and others (as a regular contributor or guest), and write short stories I then send out to literary magazines. A handful of these are getting published, now. 

    So, like you said, “I don’t have anything against practicing, so long as there’s a point to it.”  Thanks for another inspiring article.

  23. This is good.  Yes, I agree!  As a writer we can spend time with research and planning out character and writing drafts, and waiting until you’re really ready to write that novel.  But it’s really about sitting down, writing it – it’s not going to be perfect – and getting it out of your system!  And then send it out to get it published.  That really is the professional way of doing it.  It does take a lot of effort, though, and the business of writing is a whole different thing than the act of writing.  But it can all be learned by just – again! – doing it.

  24. I loved this column. I read it right after I posted my first contest entry as a professional writer. It won’t be the last because this is my business .

  25. Hmmm… do you write every post for me?  Or am I just lucky to believe in every post?  Great inspiration!

  26. I had an idea for a novel and didn’t start actually writing it until six years later. What did it? Meeting a writer who stepped up and offered to be my writing coach. I had back history and the storyline figured out but no manuscript. One day I showed him a sequence of scenes. He said, “Put those into chapters.” (We met each month in our writers group.) I did and showed him the next month. He said, “Okay, when can you have the first chapter written?” Boom!  I had been given a deadline. I hemmed and hawed and said, “Three weeks?” And let me tell you, I had that first chapter done. He let me set the pace, but we always kept moving forward. I completed the manuscript in a year, while also being a mom and wife as well as working part time proofreader and reporter at the local newspaper, substitute teaching 2-3 days  a week, taking an online course both fall and spring semesters, AND yacking on the phone with a new friend at least 3 times a day! You know what? It was one of the best years I’ve had in the last ten. 
    I learned that the first draft is about getting the bones of the story down. The revisions are where the  emotional impact gets put in, and the other important part. Hence, first drafts aren’t good.
    I still have my writing coach and definitely will dedicate my first book to him and my husband.  They are both Bobs. So it will go, To my two Bobs-One who believed in me and my writing, the other whose red marks on the page helped make me the writer I am.
    Writing for the newspaper and having dealines made my writing better and stronger. For me, deadlines work. Writing my column and features made my writing real, too.
    Writing prompts fell by the wayside, though they can be useful at with specific goals for your characters and storyline.

  27. This is exactly what I needed to read today. After finishing out 2011 pretty strong and headed in the right direction, I’ve been jacking around this month. Much gratitude.

  28. What a great message. Thanks for this one. Sorry for such a short comment but hell… I’m pretty sure everyone feels the same way about this one so I have nothing new to say. Outstanding piece…

  29. I think this entry is nervy of you, really, nervy but
    accurate. I have a blog, but writing for
    real, for me, will be a biography.

    I have an activist group, we are about abolition—there are more
    slaves in the world right now than ever before in history you know. I want to
    tell the story of a modern Canadian ex-slave, I happen to know a couple of

    I want it to be fast moving and sensory, so it has an in-the-skin
    of the person feel to it. Like Richard Hammond’s story, it’s short, swift and
    you feel like you have gone on a fast roadster ride with the top down. The book
    is aptly named, On the Edge, it’s the
    story of how the T.V show co-host of Top Gear crashes a jet car. That story
    moves I tell you.

  30. Jeff I’m confused now.  I want to write and be read and all of the other glitzy stuff that are way in the future Could the future hopes and dreams that I have be stopping me today.  Your manifesto helped the enjoyment of writing, getting back to why I wanted to write in the first place without the added worry of a future audience.  I cant see how I can get from here to there.  I read this blog because I do want to be real in my writing and just enjoy it but the pressure I put on myself that I have to be successful in the first ten minutes or I’m not worth anything as a writer is really holding me back. Any advice? Please.

  31. Great post, Jeff.  I’ve been blogging steadily for 2 1/2 years.  I love it.  At times,  I still have a hard time seeing myself as a real writer. I still have so much to learn.  This year I committed to finishing an ebook I’ve had in mind.  The first draft is done!  After edits and assembling, (which will be a learning experience on its own) I plan on “shipping” it on my blog for the very low price of FREE.  😉 

    I told my husband that even if only 2 people read it then that’s 2 people.  The most important thing is accomplishing my goal and writing about something I am passionate about. 

    Thanks for all the encouragement you offer us to keep going. 

  32. Over the last two years I have gone through several phases as I started my writing career. I started my blog last October and from the positive feedback I have received there, I am now ready to submit to websites and publications. I have also started calling myself a writer. I have found what you say here very accurate on the mental process of becoming a writer. I’m starting to see your name everywhere these days. You’re obviously on to something.

  33. Right on, Jeff! This is exactly why I started The Book Within. None of it matters if you don’t do the work–and then get out there and SHOW it to someone!

  34. I personally don’t want to “write for real” bc for me, writing is not my profession. Writing is my hobby. I love to write and I write everyday for hours, even if I’m not at home. I spend a lot of time for the research, try to play with different writing styles, create characters I love to write about with a unique personality, play with society itself and writing even in two different language if I feel like it (I’m not an English speaker). But I wouldn’t want to share it. People don’t need to read my works bc I write for myself and only myself. I write what I’d want to read. And when I finish I like to read my stories. And for me, that’s perfectly fine. Making money with my hobby, working at my stories as a professional… I think I’d stop enjoying my hobby. It wouldn’t be the same anymore. It’d lose its magic I adore about it. So for me, I’ll stay as a hobby writer or whatever it called in English, and be happy with it 🙂

    But good article for people who really wanna become authors 🙂 I bet it can inspire them!

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