5 Hard Truths About Writing

Every once in awhile when you’re doing something you love, you stumble upon the truth. And it hurts. Such is the case with writing.

I want to believe that in order to succeed at this craft, that all you need to do is work real hard and write a whole lot. And then you will be okay. Then, you will “make it.”

But that’s just not true.

Hard Writing Truths
Photo credit: Jain Basil Aliyas (Creative Commons)

Writing, as a career and craft, involves politics. It has its own bureaucracies and unfair systems. It’s weird.

If you are going to survive as a writer — if you are going to thrive — you had better learn the truth. However painful it may be. So here are five hard truths about writing:

  • It’s not just what you know, but who you know, that matters. You have to network and connect with influential people. You need to do favors and serve your way to the top. The good news: You can do this without turning into a sleaze.
  • Being good isn’t good enough. Not for a publisher. Not to change the world. It takes years and hundreds of thousands of words to find your voice. Don’t think you’re going to stumble upon success overnight.
  • Writing is easy to do, but hard to master. Any literate person can do it, but few do it exceptionally well. And that’s what you will need to do in order to stand out — you will have to be epic in order to gain an audience.
  • You gotta pay your dues. You have to write for no-name publications before you can get an article published in the Wall Street Journal. You have to do piecework before you get a book published. You have to make no money before you make some money. And eventually, maybe you get to make good money. This isn’t always the case, but it’s the path many take.
  • It can be very lonely. Writing is solitary. You do it alone. This can mean late nights and early mornings. It can mean weekends away from family and loved ones. It can take over your life and turn you into a cranky, old hermit. Don’t let it. To paraphrase Stephen King, art is supposed to be a support system for life (not the other way around).

In other words… You had better love this.

You need to love writing in order to weather the storms of it long enough to see any kind of pay-off. If you don’t, then get out now. There are far easier ways to make a buck.

But if you are writing for the love of it, for the pure thrill of creating, and somehow make money off your passion — well then, welcome to the club.

And if you need further encouragement, read my free eBook, The Writer’s Manifesto.

What’s one hard writing truth you’ve discovered? Share in the comments.

*Photo credit: Jain Basil Aliyas (Creative Commons)

99 thoughts on “5 Hard Truths About Writing

  1. There will be times that…

    you will pour your heart out, read what you wrote, and think – YES! – that’s EXACTLY how I wanted to say that! … you’ll feel really good about that… publish it… and NOBODY will “get” it.  They will completely miss your message.

    It happens.  It’s a hard truth.  But, the cool thing about loving to write, is that it doesn’t matter.  You expressed yourself genuinely and feel good about that.  If only 3 people “get it”… sometimes, that’s OK 🙂

    (at least, that’s how I feel)

    1. I was going to write this but you said it much better. Had that experience this week. And last week. And the one before that. So frustrating, sometimes so much so that I despair of ever getting it right. But I can’t give up because writing is part of who I am and I really do love it, even when I hate it. 🙂

  2. I’ve discovered that the writing  industry is not totally void of politics. Many of us leave the “rat race” believing that the creative field is absent of this, only to find ironically that it isn’t.  I concur with your truths here.

  3. There’s no such thing as a beautiful first draft. Or second. Or third. (Re)writing is lonely, mentally taxing work and contrary to myth the only time a (re)writer tastes the glamorous life is when they put on an old Sheila E. record.

    That being said, I love it and want to spend the rest of my life torturing myself to become better at it!

  4. I think a lot of new writers struggle with a pie-in-the-sky optimism of ‘If I write it, it will come’ meaning they think people will right away be beating down their doors to hire them, buy their book, etc., and when the truth of real life smacks them in the face, a lot give up. Perseverance is a writer’s most valuable asset. IMO. If you love something (writing, your wife or kids, ministry, etc.) you need to persevere in the hard and lean times, and make yourself present and available for those divine connections that will take you to the next level. 

    Great post, Jeff. Thanks for helping me realize I need to write. A lot more. 🙂  

  5. I HEAR YA!  I’ve always written, but this is the first time in my life where I’ve quit my job to write. It’s difficult – especially for those of us writers who are extroverts. I’m getting up early, writing all day, and then spending most of my evenings doing more work. Lonely doesn’t even begin to describe it. It’s helpful to remember that the most worthwhile things in life take effort, a little sweat and blood. 

  6. Even when you get “in” because of who you know, things still don’t happen overnight. Even when a publisher is interested, things don’t just “move.” I’m almost a year into the process of having a publisher interested in the manuscript. Prepare to practice LOTS of patience!

  7. I think the “Who you know” thing is true all over the place. I have been to concerts where I was easily as good as the musicians playing and realized that they were there only in part because of their talents. They had connections.

    Relationship is still currency.

  8. Great post Jeff, but I have to correct you on ‘It’s not who you know’ That should read ‘It’s who knows you’
    Unfortunately I know lots of influential people but they don’t know me at all.

    1. Interesting idea. I think that the thing I’ve learned about being a writer that I always naively hoped wasn’t true is that you have to learn to market yourself well enough to garner positive attention. I’ve still not mastered this, but social media has helped me begin that process. 

      1. Jeff,

        It depends how far you want to take the word know. In my work life I have met and talked with many influential people. Including one Baroness, the heads of several government departments and the heads of some major companies but I can almost guarantee that they will not recall me.

  9. It is hard. And some days, it’s comes easier than others. 

    The trick, at least for me, is to find a rhythm. Your rhythm. And stick to it, day-in and day-out.  

  10. totally agree with you. sometimes we had such a terrible sheet of essay even we spend a lots of times and effort on that. for the first time we may give up easily, but for the next sheet we’ll catch the rhythm. one step at a time 😉

    keep your great effort. I’d learn a lots from your writing! well done. 

  11. I love the point you make about it being easy to do but hard to master. Everyone can write, but few can write well. I think that’s actually where I take comfort in it. It makes me marketable and it also gives me motivation when I get discouraged. In my job as a staff writer and freelancer people are constantly asking me, “but what’s wrong with what I wrote?” When I and my coworkers are able to give them a new way of phrasing their ideas and it reaps positive results, it proves that there is power in well chosen words. 

  12. What I’ve learned that the mere act of getting published (magazines and newspapers) and writing on your own blogs doesn’t guarantee that you’re becoming a better writer. Finding people to critique your work is not easy. I’m waiting for *someone* to start an online writer’s group that I can join (please don’t suggest that I start one myself). I would love to get help and help other writer’s with valuable critique and encouragement. Writing is solitary, but we don’t have to be alone.

  13. No matter how many rejection slips pile up, if you are passionate about writing and have tales to tell – persevere and write first for yourself and for the sheer joy of writing.

  14. Recent, painful, painful writing truth: Sometimes you just gotta flush it and start over.

    The lede is strong, the outline brilliant. The first sub-head is going exceptionally well, but then a new idea shows up, throwing it all into cocked hat. Minor adjustments become an exercise in sunk cost fallacy; “I can’t have all this work be for nothing.”

    It’s never “for nothing.” In the least, it’s a learning experience. If the story must be told, it will be told – when it’s ready.

  15. A life can incur many transformations along the way. I have been mortified by some of what I had written in my journals and believed to be true when in my 20’s and 30’s.  That’s the hard thing. The good thing is you can track your own growth process after 70 years.

  16. It’s a little intimidating to stand at the base of the mountain and look up.  To even begin to climb the mountain is to accept the risk and potential reward associated with reaching the top.  Not all who begin climbing reach the summit, but some will.  It’s arduous, lonely, risky and powerfully fulfilling (I would imagine).

    Here’s to the first step…

  17. Love these Jeff. One hard truth that I’ve learned is that you can’t be a people pleaser. You have to write what burns in you and know that some people won’t like it and some might be offended by it. But some people will, and that makes it a lot easier. You have to love your reader and write for your reader–and realize that not everyone wants to or needs to be your reader.

  18. Jeff – this is truly one of my favorite things I’ve ever read by you. Thank you for speaking (er, writing) this into existence! 

    I agree writing is about who you know. I’ve never done an ounce of marketing other than finding a way to answer the question, “So, what do you do for a living?” I think the hardest thing about writing for a living is that you are the one who has make sure you earn what your worth because most everyone thinks, “I can do that.” The hardest thing about writing for the love of it is being willing to sacrifice the time I would spend writing for money so that I can spend time writing from my own heart….oh, and not worrying about the response of the “crowd.”

    Thanks for this great post!

  19. I will agree with you on “its not what you know but who you know”. I moved countries recently and I have had to start from scratch when it comes to building a community, business, life, relationships e.t.c

    I have come from a country where one can build a strong presence even without social media (through word of mouth and deep involvement in church activities!) so it has been something learning how powerful social media is here and learning the ropes.

    Thank you for your insights, always helpful and powerful!

  20. Two things in my brief stint:

    1. There will be days when you do not want to write. You will hate what you write. But you should write anyways.

    2. There will be times when you think you have an awesome post or book but you will get no feedback or told that it is horrible. Learn to move on and keep writing.

    1. As they say, “Better bad press than no press.” On your first point, it seems the more I write the less likely I’m going to have those “I hate this” days. For me, somehow consistency breeds desire. It’s kind of like my exercise life. I have to rise early (4:30ish) to play basketball with friends. I hated early mornings but, through consistency, I now crave them.

      The other side of that pancake, as Bill Parcells would say, is that, as you noted, I will have down days where I don’t want to rise early, play basketball, or write the next great American novel.

  21. Jeff,
    The dream of being a writer is totally different from the reality of being a writer. The lives of the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen inspired me but,in no way does my life resembles theirs! The non-stop networking and marketing are the harshest realities to get used to.

  22. The challenges in writing–having to rewrite then rewrite again, having to deal with silence (the worst of critics), having to crack your own whip (‘cuz no one else cares)–have an odd way of clarifying your passion. When no one raves and no money accumulates, do you still want to write? I appreciate the difficulties because they teach me that I’m serious about this work and I’d do it even if I didn’t get paid (although the current question is: Would I still do it if I ever did get paid? :-D). Good stuff, Jeff!

  23. Establishing the habit of writing is hard….There are always reasons not to write, and I find  many innovative excuses for avoiding it. 

  24. There are times when you will work very hard to write something thought provoking or entertaining, and when you’re finished, you will realize it stinks.  Sometimes hard work itself isn’t enough.

  25. Jeff, Thanks!
    You’re a breath of fresh air.

    I love the paraphrase,  “art is supposed to be a support system for life (not the other way around).”  For many of us, art is the structure that supports our life.

    Keep up the good work.
    Bob

  26. I am currently writing a piece on my grad trip to cambodia and sometimes to describe things I just want to say OH MY GOD! OH MY GOD! OH MY GOD! but I know I can’t really do that to describe what I felt. 
    So, sometimes words can fail a writer. Even though you may have impeccable English, but being able to use words that precisely describe the emotion felt or a scene is an art in itself. 

  27. Hi Jeff, I’m loving your blog. 

    The truth is: there are no hard truths. After getting rejected by several agents, I decided to self-publish my memoir. A few months later, I’d landed 3 x publishing deals. I’ve also optioned the film rights. (Full story here: https://www.fearfuladventurer.com/archives/5940 ) I had no prior writing experience, no published articles, and no credits to my name. I know some influential people, but my deals were completely unrelated to who I know. It’s very sensible to not get attached to the idea that you’ll stumble upon success overnight, but you should always keep that possibility alive inside of you.  

  28. As a Creative Writer in a design-based agency, the client’s voice becomes our copy ‘voice’. People think that as a Creative Writer or Copywriter, we have a free voice and a free style of writing but the client’s ‘voice’ always takes precedence. That’s hard because sometimes, the clients have zero knowledge in advertising, or even proper English.

  29. One of the hardest things I’ve had to learn about writing is that I don’t know as much as I thought I did. But the good news is that writing is a way for me to not only get better at writing but to think more deeply about the subjects on which I’m writing.

  30. Once I fathomed the idea of writing and my love for it: the process became fluid.

    I started to become hungry for it. I started to wake up and immediately head straight for a book or my laptop to begin writing something — anything!

    I fully agree, you must love it in order to do it. Once you find this love . . . oh man, the sky is the limit. Writing, for me, went from wanting to do it, to I have to do it or else I’ll die. Literally. 

  31. It’s similar to acting, honestly.  You can be a great actor and LOVE it, but if you don’t know anyone in the business, and if you don’t know how to market yourself, then tough.  You probably won’t make a living at it.

    I’ve done the acting thing, and I just didn’t love it enough to market myself.  Still, I tried — but I burnt out.  I can’t be a part of the theatre world any more.  I don’t want the same thing to happen with writing, so I write to write.  I write to meet people — to form community.  Of course, there’s a part of me that hopes I can write a book or something, but when I really think through it, I’m not so sure that’s what I really want.  I don’t want writing to become something else — a chore, a business, etc.  I like it now for what it is.  I can write what I want, how I want, and when I want. I really don’t think I’d like to do it for a living because it would take the joy out of it for me.

  32. The one truth I have discovered since starting to write is that the mirrors we face in the art we create can be far more paralyzing than anything external coming against us. Our own mental hang-ups about ourselves can freeze us in our tracks far worse if we don’t have faith to take risks within the craft(s) we’ve been given to exercise.

  33. Started writing my blog about how my sister got killed and found myself writing about me and my violence past. To honest-and my friends are asking me to stop writing because its somehow, makes them feel uncomfortable. After all we are from the hood and I know alot of secrets.

  34. When you are writing a book for a publisher and given a release date, you don’t know what the “stream” it will be entering will look like by then—you’re always going on what you know at the time, yet it will have to be competitive with everything else that other authors are also currently working on.  Publishers also have to work with this projection problem and make educated guesses, of course. To an extent, we’re all working blind.

  35. Great post.  You nailed this one on the head.  I would say that the best lesson I learned is how to take editorial critiques.  It can be tough having someone tell you your work needs improving.

  36. I’ve learned that I need to be on fire with learning, passion or purpose to write in way that touches others

  37. Dear Jeff, what do you mean by connections? Is it people within the industry? What if you don’t know any? Can you become a writer?

  38. Being poor, it is difficult to get support from family who needs your support to survive. Its hard to find those late nights and weekends away. Even worse, when you have people who love you so much, tbey become jealous and do not trust yoh enough to allow you to be alone… Negativity clouds a creative mind..sad situation, especially when you beliwve in your talent to be the means to overcome. Etc..

  39. Me and my girlfriend, who I live with, just got into a huge argument about the sacrifices that both of us have had to make for me to focus on trying to become an author. She especially has made some really hefty sacrifices for me, and while I really appreciate it, I have never ONCE felt like she truly believes I’ll make it. She just doesn’t understand how it’s possible that I can succeed when SO many other people who SAY they want to be writers fail. The only answer I can give her is, “Either they stopped trying, didn’t try hard enough, weren’t smart enough, or it wasn’t really what they wanted.” But that’s not enough for her. All she sees is another person who wants to be a writer in a sea of people who, on the surface at least, want that very same thing and haven’t gotten it.

    After reading this I just feel more secure in my convictions. None of these hard truths surprised me. I love the work for itself, but I also want it to be my livelihood. No matter what I was doing in my life I would be writing. Even if I knew for sure 100% that I could never make money at it, I would still do it. Maybe not as much as I do now, maybe not as regularly, and maybe I wouldn’t try very hard to finish what I start, but I would still write.

    Despite being an introvert who has always had trouble making friends I fully accept and even look forward to certain aspects of the self-promotion and networking part of the process. Fellow writers, editors, agents–those are people I’m looking FORWARD to meeting. Those are the people I hope to make not only my business partners, but my friends.

    I don’t really care about money, past what I need to get by, so I don’t mind giving my work away for free to get a leg up, or getting paid poorly for as long as it takes to build a name for myself.

    She sees my success as unlikely, uncertain, and practically unattainable. I see it as inevitable. All I need is time.

  40. Anyone can become an author, and almost everyone can be published. I’ve read crap written by professors that have no business being published, yet, they are indeed. However, having a book published does not mean you’ll be compensated, at least not with your first one.

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