Once I decided to write a book, I wanted help. My years as a journalist had taught me that any piece worth reading was the result of strong partnerships between writers and editors. So I launched a critique group.
It was one of the best things I did for the health of my manuscript. My critique partners suggested changes that strengthened it, and I was diligent about incorporating them. That front-end work made the editing process with my publisher shorter and swifter.
Over the years, I’ve fielded questions about how to succeed at writing. No magic formula exists. Success is unique to the individual. But there are several things you should do and remember. Whether you’re a best-selling novelist or just starting, if you write fiction or nonfiction, these efforts will make you better.
- Read. One of my mentors, Jerry Jenkins, often says that great writers are great readers. Read what you love. Read about the genre you write in—historical fiction, romance, suspense, or science fiction. If you write essays or short stories, pick up a copy of Writing and Selling Short Stories & Personal Essays, and To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction. Read magazines and books about writing. The Writer, Writer’s Digest, and Poets & Writers are excellent magazines. This is but a tiny scratch on a vast surface. Google searches and your local library will deliver many other options.
- Write. This seems obvious. But dedicating hours at a time to writing can be tricky. We’re dwelling in the most distracted period in history, thanks to technology’s double-edged sword. If you have a full-time job, you must write before- or after-hours, or on weekends. If you have children, you must write during school hours. If you work from home, you must write—and resist the urge to do laundry or dishes. We all face hurdles. A worthy goal is two hours a day. If you can’t meet that, set a weekly goal.
- Find a style manual, and stick to it. Style guides are your friends. If rule books existed for other realms of life, like parenting, the world would be a better place. Take advantage of them. Whether it’s the AP, The Chicago Manual, or the APA, the best publications use one, and they’ll expect you to follow suit. Some publications have their own in-house style guides. Make sure you know this before submitting. If I hadn’t learned the AP‘s style manual, I would’ve failed out of graduate school. For good cause: inconsistency, inaccurate references, typos—these riddle writing that doesn’t adhere to a style. A good editor always spots these blunders and declines otherwise good copy.
- Join or start a critique group. I mentioned earlier how pivotal my critique group was while I wrote my debut book. If you find a group that specializes in your genre, that’s optimal. But don’t fret if you can’t. None of the writers in my group had covered my topic—maternal mental health—but they’re sharp, versatile editors. They raised concerns other discerning readers would have, and it made a great difference in the quality of my work.
- Join a professional guild or writing group. I belong to the Jerry Jenkins Writers Guild, an online community. I pay a nominal monthly rate for access to master classes led by different authors, live workshops and question-and-answer sessions led by Jerry, and a variety of other tools and resources. Jerry’s guild is one of the best deals out there. You can find others through Writer’s Market, part of Writer’s Digest. There are several in-print guides from Writer’s Market, and you can usually find them at your local library.
- Edit your work. This is the most important thing a writer can do. It can also prove one of the most challenging. Give serious consideration to feedback from your critique group or other reviewers. Your first draft won’t be your best. Revising once, twice, many times—this is key. Prose that seems effortless to the reader requires much effort from the writer.
- You’ll face rejection, but it’s not the final word. Every writer deals with rejection. It’s discouraging. But we’re in good company. An editor once told F. Scott Fitzgerald, “You’d have a decent book if you’d get rid of that Gatsby character.” In 2002, Book magazine ranked Jay Gatsby as the number-one best character in fiction since 1900, among a list of 100 characters.
- Imposter syndrome is common. Many people, no matter their profession, face the self-doubt called imposter syndrome. We worry that our work isn’t good enough, that someone will find out we’re frauds, and we’ll be ruined. Author Joanna Penn says it’s all part of the creative process, something we must manage as we write. Like rejection, imposter syndrome is to be expected when you write. Neither is a reflection of your ability or worth.
- Be persistent. This is a powerful antidote for rejection. Persistence is more than half the battle as a writer. Keep writing and editing. Keep improving your work. Keep submitting. Don’t give up. Our stories are the stuff of life, the stuff that binds us in community and gives us hope. Sharing your story can soften the world’s sharp edges.
- Attend conferences when you can. Annual conferences abound for writers. They can be great places to network, peddle your work, meet with agents, and participate in workshops. You don’t need to attend one every year. If you’re able to find a local, affordable conference well-suited to your genre, investigate it. Ask others who’ve attended how they’ve benefited. If it seems like a match, give it a try. Poets & Writers offers a database of conferences, and the Association of Writers and Writing Programs touts a directory of conferences. Writer’s Market also offers information about conferences.
Enjoy the process. Writing is a gift. May you find the time, the inspiration, and the resources to get your words on paper and in print.