This Is What 300 Writers Say Made Them Successful
The secret tips, tricks, and habits of those who make a great living writing.
Red Smith, a legendary sportswriter, was once asked if it was hard to write his daily column. “Why no,” he said. “You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.”
Any person who’s ever tried to string a bunch of words together and make them sound interesting can feel Smith’s pain. Writing is brutal — and writing for a living can feel like you’re Jack Nicholson in The Shining typing the same sentence over and over again.
And we all know how that turned out.
On my podcast, Write About Now, I interview writers of all types — novelists, journalists, screenwriters, showrunners, and business gurus — about how they stopped bleeding, started writing, and landed at the top of their profession. I launched the show two years ago and during that time I’ve done a deep dive into the techniques and tactics of over 300 successful scribes. After a while, I noticed some common themes start to rear their poetic heads. Call them writer hacks, but just not the type that draw blood. Here are six things successful writers do.
1. Writers write a little every day
It seems obvious, but you can’t be a writer if you don’t actually do the writing part. But so many aspiring writers have a zillion excuses why they don’t put fingers to keyboard: They don’t have any good ideas, they don’t have enough time, they don’t have enough confidence, they don’t have anything interesting to say. You could write a novella about the reasons you don’t write a novella. But here’s a little secret: You don’t have to pen your masterpiece every time you sit down to write. It doesn’t even have to be good. All it has to be is consistent. Writing takes practice. It takes discipline. It takes showing up. The hardest part is sitting down and actually making yourself do it. Some days the words will flow like a river. Other days it will drip like a leaky faucet. Either way, make yourself write every day, even if it’s just for 15 minutes.
2. Writers read
Just like you need to write, you also need to read to write. “A big part of becoming a professional writer was so I could become a professional reader,” author Austin Kleon told me. All successful writers read — a lot. And we’re not talking about browsing through their social media feeds, although most writers do this to procrastinate. We’re talking about reading well-written stories by reputable writers. It’s fine to read 850-word listicles like this one (in fact, don’t forget to like, comment, and share!), but you need to expand your horizons. Find a writer who you really like and read a few of her books or articles or screenplays, and take some notes. Try to imitate their style and voice in your own writing. They say that “good writers borrow and great writers steal.” Reading gives you the keys to the mind and method of the author. Do enough of it and you will start to pick up their skill through osmosis.
3. Writers pay attention
Here’s a little exercise: After reading this story go outside for a walk and don’t look at your phone for 10 minutes. Just observe and listen. You will be amazed at how many things you notice that you previously would have just ignored. Great writers pay attention. They’re like computer bots taking notes on your behavior and everything that you do and say. There’s a reason that you see yourself reflected in great writing — Big Writer’s watching you. Paying attention also leads to great story ideas. Contrary to popular belief, inspiration doesn’t just strike you like a lightning bolt. It comes from experiencing the world right here, right now. As the bestselling novelist and prolific New York Times culture writer, Taffy Brodesser-Akner told me in our podcast interview: “Notice what you’re noticing.”
4. Writers write stuff down
It’s all well and good to notice stuff around you, but if you don’t write it down chances are that you’re going to forget it. Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld famously carry around little notebooks everywhere they go to jot down their weird observations. This practice was imparted on another Seinfeld writer, Peter Mehlman, who told me on the podcast that he got the idea for the Sponge-worthy episode after hearing an ad for a woman’s contraception product on the radio. If lugging around a notebook seems old school to you, you can use an app for it. I know writers who swear by Evernote. Another writer I know texts herself ideas. The point is to store your thoughts in a place other than your head. Inside tip: Whenever you’re feeling blocked, it helps to take a look at your ideas list.
5. Writers let it flow then they take it slow
Great writers know that the first draft is the worst draft. But they are content to just vomit their thoughts down on the page just to get started. They know that there will be time later to go back and do a bunch of edits and revises. Great writing is editing. That’s often the fun part. The important thing is not to edit yourself as you go — not only will it take you forever to finish, but it will also keep feeding all those judgemental thoughts swirling through your head telling you that your writing stinks.
6. Writers write what they like
We spend a lot of time trying to figure out what other people want us to write, rather than just writing what we want to write. Part of this stems from our natural entrepreneurial spirit to “write to the market”—the popular idea that you can find holes in the publishing space that need filling. This kind of writing has led to content mills and endless Kindle ebooks on such niche topics as yoga for cats. But I would argue it’s never led to any truly good writing. And it rarely produces any writing that you would feel proud to call your own. When you’re passionate about what you’re writing, when you’re interested in what you’re writing, and when it comes from an authentic and genuine place, that translates onto the page. You can’t fake it. As blogger and novelist Clare Pooley said on my podcast: “Write the story that you feel you have to tell and not the story you think people want to hear.”
There are plenty of other writing hacks, and perhaps one day I will sit down and share some more. But, for now, I’m going to spare my veins the trauma and leave it at six. There’s only so much writing a guy can take.
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