Brutally Honest Advice About Writing

Right now, I'm hearing a lot of authors who were previously successful are having to go back to a day job and writing on the side or giving up the writing completely because it has become so hard to earn a living.

How Do I...

Ironically, I'm also getting requests again for advice on how to make it as a writer--mostly from young people. Just this past week, I've had 4 such requests.

I answer everyone, and I believe in being honest--especially with beginners. Perhaps some of you who are readers and thinking about becoming writers might be interested in my standard advice. Here it is.

Brutally Honest Advice About Writing

1. If you had a story you wanted to write, and you've written it, then don't worry about anything else. Especially if you can't easily think of other stories you want to tell. Especially if you read what follows and think it sounds like a lot of hard work. It is a lot of hard work. So go find what you want to do with your life and forget about writing as a career.

2. Still here? Okay. If you want a writing career, these are the basic things you need to do in order to give yourself the best shot. Learn how to tell a story the best way you can and present it the best way you can--text free of errors, a cover that looks like something NY publishing would put on it, and a book description that reads like the back cover copy of a bestselling hardcover book. Also, learn how to effectively market and promote your book and your brand. Then make sure you have the persistence to do all that over again.

3. Use your name, or a compelling pen name, and brand it and what you write and how you write it every way you can.

4. Know your chosen genre inside and out by reading extensively in it. Then know your audience. Who is the reader who wants your book? Young? Old? Male? Female? Age, and every other demographic you can imagine.

5. Start studying books on narrative technique right now so you can master the skills necessary to translate your ideas into a story that is compelling. Check out any of the books from Writers Digest publishing. Your local used book store probably has dozens. Study them exhaustively and do the exercises they give.

6. Brush up on grammar. Just because it's digital publishing doesn't mean it can be full of grammatical errors or typos. If you publish, some reader reviewers will crucify you grammar, manuscript, and sentence construction are deficient.

7. As I said, read a lot in your chosen genre, but don't just read. Analyze the books you read. Take them apart for characterization, viewpoint, setting, exposition, dialogue, etc. See how other authors use words to create the story vividly and compellingly.

8. Write a lot. Then write some more. Build the discipline of writing every day.

9. Join a critique group and online writers' communities. Make sure the members of the critique group are of every skill level. They don't even have to write in the same genre as you if they're sufficiently experienced to recognize good writing, regardless of genre. Learn from those who blaze the way.

10. Avoid asking these for their opinion on what you write: your parents, siblings, best friends, significant others, or co-workers at your day job. You'll never get an objective answer. People close to you always have a vested interest. They fall into these groups: afraid to hurt your feelings or they're not readers and don't know what's good or they have hidden resentments and will use this as a means to wound you. 

12. When you finish your manuscript, have it professionally edited. If you can't afford a freelance copy editor (Google search for that), find a retired English Lit teacher, librarian, bookstore owner, or well-read book lover, and see if they will read your book and tell you their honest opinion.

13. When the manuscript is ready, get someone competent to proofread it.

14. Get a professional cover done with correct size parameters and dpi. (Many freelance artists do affordable book covers. Several have websites with pre-made covers that they customize for clients--from $10.00 on up.) Nothing screams amateur like a bad cover. (Readers don't buy books from someone they think is an amateur.) If you want to compete, you have to have a good cover because that's the first thing readers see.

Takeaway Truth

It's like baseball. We all start out in the minor leagues. Whether we get to go to The Show is dependent on many factors, some beyond our control. But you have to do the above 14 things to even have a shot at the big leagues.


  1. Great advice, Joan! I would add that expecting to catch lightning in a bottle with one book is unrealistic. Your best bet, if you truly feel you are called, is to get more books finished.

  2. So true, Lily. In the writing biz, being a one-hit wonder is a ticket to a dead-end street.