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Six Sure-Fire Ways to Make Your Writing Career Tank

I almost started this blog like this:

If you’ve always dreamed of being a failed writer (and who hasn’t?), you’re in luck. With these easy-to-follow instructions, you, too, can join the ranks of disappointed,  disillusioned  unknowns–and have a never-ending supply of reasons to complain, whine, and cry into your gin and tonic.

What can I say? I’m in a feisty mood. But I'm not feeling as jaded and cynical as I sound in that paragraph, so, instead, I’ll just say this: There are things that work in the writing life, and there are things that don’t. Having been at this for quite a few years, I have a pretty good handle on which strategies to avoid. On this Writing Tips Thursday, I'd like to share a few of the mistakes I’ve made myself—and ones I come across most often as a writing coach.

Strategy # 1: Write until you think your work is good enough, then send it out. When I first started querying magazines, I’d race through a dozen proposals a day and send them out with little revision—until I learned that one perfect query is way better than twelve mediocre ones. Years later, as a writing coach, I’ve worked with people who scribbled novels over the summer, did two or three rewrites, and then merrily sent their manuscripts to agents expecting success to be right around the corner.

One of the things many beginning writers don’t get is how much work it takes to get published. Although a writer occasionally does achieve success easily and quickly, most writing careers take time, and lots of it.

Instead of writing a few drafts and racing to submit your work, here is what you should be doing:

  • Write until you can’t think of a single possible improvement for your manuscript, then keep improving on it anyway.
  • Let your work sit—for days, weeks, however long it takes—then work on it some more.
  • Read your work again and again. And again. Read it aloud. Read it to yourself. Read it. I don’t mean six times or ten. I mean fifty.
  • Give your writing career time. Expect it to be a long process. Sit back and enjoy the ride.  

Strategy # 2: Listen to your friends’ advice. If your friends happen to be publishing professionals, you are free to move on to Strategy # 3. Otherwise, listen up.

Having friends and family read your work and asking them to tell you their “honest opinion” may sound like a good idea. Who better to give you advice than actual readers? In reality, there are two problems with it.

First, they aren’t going to give you their honest advice, any more than they’re going to tell you your new husband is an opinionated loudmouth with a bad comb-over.

Second, even if they are honest, the only thing they can tell you is that they did or did not like your work. They can’t tell you whether it’s marketable, whether there’s an audience for it, what publishers are going to think of it, or what you should do to improve it. For that, you need an editor.

Strategy # 3: Switch projects in mid-stream. You’re a third of the way through a long, difficult project—a novel, say—and you suddenly get a great idea for a different novel. Or a screenplay. Or a personal essay. Your new idea is so radiantly wonderful that you have to start on it immediately. So, you abandon your current project, telling yourself you’ll come back to it.

In truth, you haven’t come up with a better project. You’ve come up with an excuse for not finishing the one you’ve already started. This is not career planning: It is procrastination.

Strategy # 4: Ignore your editors.This is a tricky one. If you’re familiar with this blog, you know I’ve had some bad editors in my past, as well as some excellent ones, and it can’t always be easy to tell the difference. But, unless your gut is strongly telling you otherwise, keep in mind the Universe made editors for a reason, and that reason is to help you write better. It’s true that a bad editor can send your vision right down the garbage disposal. But most of the time, when writers ignore editors’ suggestions, it has little to do with vision and a lot to do with defensiveness.

So, what about those times when you think your editor is just plain wrong? Do the same thing you’d do if you weren’t sure about your doctor’s diagnosis: Get a second opinion.

Strategy # 5: Take rejection seriously. I can’t pretend I’ve never gotten depressed over rejections. After 76 agents turned down my first novel, I stopped sending it out because every time I did, I felt like throwing up. But a little more seasoning got me to see that having your work turned down is just part of the writing life. It’s not so much an occupational hazard as an occupational certainty. Get used to it. You’re not going to become a doctor if you can’t stand the sight of blood. And you can’t be a writer if you can’t take rejection.

Strategy # 6: Rely on positive thinking I’m sorry, all you fans of The Secret, but the whole spiritual-attraction thing doesn’t work. People become successful for all sorts of reasons—usually some combination of talent, hard work, charisma, connections, and dumb luck—but thinking really hard about how successful they are going to be isn’t one of them.

If thinking positively helps you work harder, feel more confident, take risks, accept criticism better, and be happier, then by all means, think positively. Just don’t fall into the trap of thinking that, by itself, it’s going to bring you success.

How about you? What strategies have you found simply don’t work? I'd love to hear about them, so post them here.