This past year, I decided to finally pursue my dream of writing.
After years of secretly scribbling journal entries, stories, and little poems here and there, I felt I was finally ready to make my treacherous first steps toward creating something more substantial.
Initially, I set out to write things that others would actually read, not just something that benefitted me as a writer. I wanted to try and make the world a little better—even if it was just with a few articles about Life Tips.
For months, I had been held back by the simple fact that I wasn’t sure how to begin. It was frustrating. I felt like I had the skill to write, but I didn’t know where to begin.
I still didn’t know what to do, but I was finally frustrated enough to do something about it; so I turned to the Internet. And I found the answer I was looking for in the unlikeliest of places—Seinfeld.
Jerry Seinfeld, the brilliant comedian and star of the show bearing his name, once explained his method of success:
Every January, he goes out and buys a large, year-at-a-glance calendar and hangs it on his wall. Every day that he would write new material, he had the “exquisite pleasure” of marking a big, red “X” for that day.
It sounded cliché (and stupid), but I didn’t know what else to do—so I decided to give it a shot. I figured worst-case scenario, I would lose five bucks, and have a new calendar.
But I wanted to set some stricter rules for my little project, because I sensed that such lenient guidelines would lead to laziness. So, rather than marking an “X” for every day that I would write any new material, I decided to do it only for days when I would spend either an entire hour writing, or 1,000 words. Preferably the latter.
Why 1,000 words? That’s the number that Stephen King recommends for writers—he does 2,000 words himself, but I’m also no Stephen King. Not yet, at least.
And so, with nothing but Seinfeld’s sage advice and Stephen King’s word-count billowing my sails, I set off on my literary adventure. It’s been short and rocky, and I am learning a lot every day. Here are some of the unexpected universal bits of wisdom I’ve acquired thus far. I hope they will help set you on your own journey:
1. Discipline is crucial
I like to think that everyone is capable of writing well. The way that successful writers distinguish themselves is by holding themselves accountable to their trade. They treat writing like any other job or skill.
If you are serious about writing, then it has to become a priority in your life. This might mean less sleep, less time with friends and family, and less of other things in your life. It is going to be a sacrifice a lot of days. But the days you don’t want to write are usually the days that produce some of the most important writing.
Get that big calendar, mark those big X’s in red marker, and try to get a sequence of productive days going. Don’t break the chain!
2. Writing something bad is better than writing nothing at all
One of the biggest obstacles between the desire to write and an actual finished piece is overcoming your own self-doubt.
The reality of writing is that nothing is ever perfect the first time around. Ernest Hemingway once famously said:
“The first draft of anything is shit.”
I’m no Ernest Hemingway, but after a few months even I know that this is 100% true. And, building on what he said, a lot of people will probably think your final draft is shit too—after all, everyone is entitled their opinions on writing.
If you are serious about your writing, ignore them, and ignore the voice inside your head telling you to delete what you’ve written. Move on, ignore the haters, and try to improve.
With every draft you improve a little bit. Sometimes it might be worth salvaging that awful first draft you wrote—it might even contain bits and pieces of your best writing. Or maybe your best ideas. The literary diamond might be hidden inside some coal, but it might very well be in there!
Writing something, even if you hate it, is very valuable! Keep persevering! I promise you will see results if you keep it up.
3. A little every day is better than a lot once in a while
I hate spreading out my work. Growing up, I was the kid that would leave assignments and readings until the night before—only to crank out an above-average (but unspectacular) trophy for my efforts. I decided at a young age that this way of doing things was the most economical use of my precious time, and that was that.
I was wrong.
If you are serious about writing, you will soon learn that writing is not something that comes to you on command. Rather—at least in my experience—you need to live your life, paying close attention to details and observing human interactions, and then write it down.
You should almost be filling in the gaps of your day with writing. Do it for 15 minutes right when you wake up—before making breakfast. Or write for 30 minutes during your lunch break. Or jot down some ideas and observations that you notice on a bus, or at the gym.
Don’t kill yourself by trying to sit at a desk and force writing to happen. That will only frustrate you and fill you with a sense of overwhelming writer’s block. And that frustration will probably bleed into the rest of your life.
I recommend setting aside an hour of every day to dedicate to actually sitting at a desk and writing. The rest of your time, fill it how you please! Go to the gym or spend time with your kids. A little each day will improve your writing much more than a lot once a week.
4. People might actually read your stuff
This is something that baffles me. I always make a point to send out copies of my newest pieces to select close friends and family, but getting them to read what I write is often like pulling teeth.
I don’t blame them for this, of course. They’re doing me a favor by reading what I write, after all.
THAT BEING SAID, it is astounding how many people might actually read your story. Medium has this nice statistics page for each user that allows you to see how many “views” and “reads” each piece has, and the numbers are significantly higher than what I expected.
If you post things on Facebook and Twitter, especially if you have hundreds (or thousands) of friends and followers, your writing will probably be seen by a lot of people you know.
Bear in mind, most of these readers will never mention your article, or make that extra effort to hit “like”, leave a comment, or share the article—but know that they are there. And they are judging you—as they should.
Don’t be surprised if a random co-worker or an acquaintance comes up to you someday and says that they enjoyed your article.
5. Most people will probably never read your stuff
Just to play devil’s advocate, I need to point out the obvious truth:
For every reader you have, there will be at least a thousand non-readers.
The truth is that most people simply don’t care what you have to say.
Or, they are simply too busy living their lives to bother reading about yours. After all, why should they give a shit about what you have to say?
“Who are you, anyway? Fuck you, in fact—you pretentious no-name. On what authority do you deign to teach me how to live?” they might say to you.
And that’s normal. You aren’t J.K. Rowling (yet), and your work isn’t going to be Harry Potter popular (yet). Write what you know and what you like— “do you”, in other words.
If your writing is good and consistent, you might find an audience. Keep it up for long enough, and you might grow this initially small audience into something larger. This larger audience might even pay you for it someday. But you will never get paid for writing if you stop writing.
6. Some people will dislike what you write
This is pretty self explanatory, but it applies to writing in two different ways:
If you write fiction, you will always find people who will simply dislike your short stories or novels. And this will hurt, because it will feel like they are disliking your imagination and hard work. I promise this is not the case.
Not everybody has the same taste in literature—especially fiction. Some readers only like science-fiction. Or maybe they read exclusively fantasy. Or maybe they read only detective novels. You will need to find your audience if your work is particularly esoteric. This takes time. But don’t assume that everybody will dislike what you write, based on a few bad reviews or negative comments.
I’ve had several hateful comments directed my way—especially about my piece on “Obama and The Supreme Court.” I’ve had my credibility thrown into question, and I’ve managed to accidentally burn some previously un-burned bridges through my writing. Some of these un-frienders were kind enough to let me know why they hated my articles so much: because they (fundamentally) disagreed with what I was saying, and apparently hated me for it.
“You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.” — Winston Churchill
At the end of the day, there will always be those who dislike what you have to say, or how you say it. They will only hold you back. Which leads me into my next point…
7. Some people will dislike how you write
This one is a little harder for a new writer to swallow. Putting yourself out in the open for people to see, judge, and criticize is terrifying—a bad review or negative comment can sting for weeks if you let it.
Let me repeat something I have already stated, because it should still be fresh on your mind, and because it is very important.
There will always be those who dislike what you have to say, or how you say it. And this audience will grow.
I repeat, do not let them hold you back from writing new material! And, for the love of God, don’t let them “fix” your writing—be true to yourself, and to your art.
8. Pictures make things harder
I’ve come to realize that the majority of things I want to write are not actually what people want to read 99% of the time. People are usually not interested in long, descriptive narratives that seem to only benefit the author.
Rather, they like bullet points and lists—things with structure, order, and that are readable in a few seconds.
Modern readers also love multimedia to accompany their readings nowadays. Most popular online articles have videos, pictures, and maybe even a meme or gif included. These are wonderful, but they also can create a nightmare for new writers unfamiliar with copyright laws.
It’s far too long to explain thoroughly, so suffice it to say that:
You should always give credit to the photographer or original author if you can find one.
It would be a real shame if your article actually got read by an audience, and one of those readers just happened to be the photographer of the picture you used without permission.
Honestly, you are most likely never going to get caught—simply because most likely nobody will bother reading what you write. But, you should do the right thing for the sake of artistic integrity. You wouldn’t want your writing to be used without your permission, right?
Don’t be an asshole, and give credit to fellow artists if you use their material.
9. Read more
This is the simplest one on this list, because it involves literally no writing at all. Just read every day. A lot. And read everything you can get your hands on—from horror to Sasquatch erotica and back.
This is not for enjoyment, so you shouldn’t treat it as such. And for the love of God, do not put this off.
This is your research as an artist. You owe it to your writing—your craft—to learn from others. I recommend reading for three hours every day.
If you don’t know where to start reading, make a tree of your favorite authors, and read all of their work. Then, find out who their favorite authors and literary influences are/were. Read them too. And then their influences.
Keep expanding your literary tree ad infinitum! These writers will serve as your mentors.
I have this nasty habit where I finish a book and buy two more. I used to think this was a problem—and, financially, it probably is—but for the sake of this paper, I will call it a blessing! I have so many books to read that it makes my heart sing! My tsundoku is hardly a curse to me; it is a mountain that I look up at every day with eagerness to undertake.
I encourage all of you to build your own mountain of unread books. This can be as important as reading.
And you can’t use poverty as an excuse. There are so many resources available, that you can only blame yourself for not reading. There are free e-books online, and there are public libraries everywhere! Also, if you have any friends, I’m sure they’d be happy to lend you some books. (Hell, send me an e-mail and I’ll loan you some.)
I don’t care how you do it. Go read!
10. You will start building momentum
It might take weeks, or it might take years. But eventually, I promise that your writing will build momentum. Like every other skill, writing takes a lot of dedicated time and effort. And it will not always be fun.
I like to think of writers sort of like Marines: a lot may say they want to be one, but when the time comes—will you have what it takes?
If you do, I promise that the hard work and long hours at the computer will be worth it eventually. And if you ever get discouraged, always remember the wise of words of the Philosopher, Dory:
“Just keep swimming.”