Feb 21 2012

Overcoming Psychological Barriers to Authorial Success

I saw this in one of Slate’s advice columns:

Q: This may not sound like a problem, but I seem to be surrounded by incredibly talented people. My boyfriend has appeared on magazine covers for his worldwide surfing adventures and is also a published writer (which is my chosen field, but I’ve found no success in it). My siblings and circle of friends are all artists and musicians enjoying relative success and happiness with these careers. I know this sounds hyperbolic, but all of them seemed to have found something they’re not only very good at, but passionate about as well. I, on the other hand, am a mediocre “jack of all trades” type and want nothing more than to find that thing that I will shine at… How can I find my talent and/or not be resentful of those in my life who already have?

Here are some thoughts:


1. Writing is more of a practiced skill you create than an innate talent you find.  Temperament and attitude are better indicators of success as a writer than talent is.

  • Are you excited about improving?
  • Do you work hard and write often?
  • Do you take constructive criticism maturely?
  • Are you brave enough to make mistakes and learn from them?
  • Do you read heavily, especially within the genre(s) you write?
  • Are you willing to see this through even though it will probably take you years?

If you said yes to all of those, I think you will probably succeed with practice.  If you said no to a few of them, it might be worth looking into other fields or other forms of writing.  For example, if you would feel like a failure if you’ve been writing for a year and haven’t been published somewhere, it might help to start with short stories rather than novels.


2. Some seemingly-untalented writers make vast improvements. Even incredible writers very frequently start out inauspiciously.  For example, Terry Pratchett’s first manuscript (Carpet People) was an absolute disaster, but he’s grown into an excellent author (maybe the best in his genre).  J.K. Rowling got rejected 12 times and many authors top 50 rejections.  Closer to home, P. Mac and I were not the most talented writers in our high school–hell, not even in our family–but we’ve both practiced heavily* and he’s since been published in the New York Times and I’ve had a few hundred thousand readers.


3. Don’t be discouraged if there is a gap between your self-expectations and the quality of your early work.  You won’t impress professionals right away and that’s okay.  When young writers feel frustrated by the quality of their writing, most often it’s because they’re comparing themselves to experienced writers that have had tens of thousands of hours of practice and are in the prime of their careers.  If your self-expectations are high enough that you’ve read through this far, please keep in mind that the only way to close the gap between your self-expectations and the quality of your work is to practice.


4. Unless you’re independently wealthy, I would recommend looking into full-time writing and/or editing jobs to hone your craft (such as communications, journalism, publishing, publicity, marketing, etc).  The typical professional novelist took 10 years of practice to get published.  That’s a long time to go without getting much positive reinforcement–your self-doubts may overtake your drive.  In contrast, a full-time writing job will give you writing assignments where you can plausibly succeed in the short and medium terms.  That sense of success will help propel you forward.  Additionally, the steady pay and practice will help you develop your writing skills and keep your anxiety level to a minimum.


And this concludes our hopefully encouraging note on talent, effort and the publishing industry.  And now, back to our regularly-scheduled, morbidly depressing content, such as 5 Ways to Survive a Writing Career Without Buying Food.

12 responses so far

12 Responses to “Overcoming Psychological Barriers to Authorial Success”

  1. B. McKenzieon 21 Feb 2012 at 7:11 am

    *”but we’ve both practiced heavily…” Pretty heavily. Over the past five years, I’ve written about 1000 words per day for Superhero Nation. In all, my 1200 posts and 5000 comments total almost 2 million words.

    Over the course of that practice, I think my writing improved considerably. What I was writing 3 or 4 years ago embarrasses me now. If you feel the same about your earlier work, use that as encouragement if you ever feel inadequate about the quality of your current work. Your current work isn’t perfect BUT within a few years you develop so much that you can look back on it and blush. Just keep practicing and your skills will improve.

  2. Smallvilleon 21 Feb 2012 at 1:17 pm

    thats true i think all through life especially as you grow up, for me i look at some work i had done like two years ago and i just thought who the **** did this (oh me) and felt borderline annoyed with myself and i know it stupid but i cant help that feeling and i get it currently when i do stuff, it can rally get on my nerves and it affects how i work and how effective i am, it makes me want to give up easily sometimes and not try and stick with what im doing.

  3. Danion 21 Feb 2012 at 2:37 pm

    My early writing is gold I tell you. Perfect, amazing – ah nevermind, can’t keep up the charade. Those first stories are horrible. Makes the room stink up as you write. Keep at it though. That is the best advice to follow. Keep writing every day. It gets harder at first when you realize you are writing bad but then something happens and you slip right down into the easy category.

  4. Chihuahua0on 21 Feb 2012 at 2:56 pm

    ” And now, back to our regularly-scheduled, morbidly depressing content, such as 5 Ways to Survive a Writing Career Without Buying Food.”

    …by stealing it! Or mooching it!

    Usually, I don’t read inspirational articles, but I decided to read this through. I say point number one is the best one. Even someone missing all four limbs can use a speech-to-text machine to create the next best-seller. Sure, it’s hard, but it’s 90% skill…I guess.

  5. Linebylineon 22 Feb 2012 at 7:23 pm

    So it boils down to practice, and a heckuva lot of it. Makes sense to me. But that last point leaves me just a bit troubled.

    What about us poor hobbyists, who have no desire to be professional novelists and have less time to practice writing (or at least writing fiction) than someone who aims to do it for a living? Are we doomed to either mediocrity or treating our hobby as a second job but without the paycheck?

    Obviously, there’s a point when you just have to break down and just do it, and I admit to being horrible at making myself do that, so in my case it’s probably a moot point.

    I guess what I’m asking is, is it feasible for people who just want to do a little writing for fun to get good enough at it that it’s worth doing? (My first instinct is to say, “If you’re having fun, it doesn’t matter if it’s not all that good,” but if it keeps on not being good, it’s not going to be much fun.)

  6. B. McKenzieon 22 Feb 2012 at 10:35 pm

    “I guess what I’m asking is, is it feasible for people who just want to do a little writing for fun to get good enough at it that it’s worth doing?” I’d have trouble answering that for you because I don’t know how you define “good enough that it’s worth doing.” Also, how much is “a little writing”? Do you have the ability/drive to spend, say, an hour a day writing?

    I don’t know if my idea of quality is similar to yours, but here are some of my personal milestones and a guesstimate of how many hours I spent to get to each one.

    –Readers first spent more time reading my work than I spent writing it: 6 months (at 1-2 hours per day, that’s 250 of my hours)

    –350,000 page-views: 18 months (750 hours)

    –I started including my blog on resumes: 24 months (1000 hours). It took me time to practice the writing enough to be confident in it.

    –I received my first job interview question about the blog after 30 months (1250 hours). I ended up getting that job. (Currently, I would estimate about half of job interviewers ask me about it).

  7. Linebylineon 25 Feb 2012 at 3:35 pm

    Hmm. To be honest, I haven’t answered those questions for myself. Maybe when I do, the answer to my question will become clearer.

    I have a sneaking suspicion this is just the little cartoon devil on my shoulder trying to talk me into being lazy instead of practicing. 😉

    But thanks for your response, all the same. It’s good information.

  8. Comicbookguy117on 25 Feb 2012 at 4:04 pm

    Hey guys, I’ve recently posted, on my review forum, a script for the first issue of a comic book that’s from my own personal universe and has nothing to do with my ultimate DCU concept. I’d very much enjoy some feedback please.

  9. Anonymouson 27 Feb 2012 at 3:14 pm

    whats that free writing site thingy that you mentioned somewhere B.Mac

  10. Smallvilleon 27 Feb 2012 at 3:15 pm

    By the way thats me

  11. B. McKenzieon 27 Feb 2012 at 4:04 pm

    “What’s that free writing site thingy that you mentioned somewhere, B. Mac?” I’ve mentioned a few recently and maybe 100 altogether. Could you be more specific? (What sort of writing website was it?)

    A few that come to mind:
    –Comichron: Free comic book research on sales trends and bestselling titles.
    –Critters Writing Workshop: Free online reviews.
    –Write or Die: writing productivity software that was, until very recently, free. Currently $10. Can mostly be replicated with Microsoft Word and a timer.
    –Duotrope: a list of publishers looking for novel and/or short story submissions in particular genres and subgenres.

  12. MoguMoguon 10 Apr 2012 at 3:07 pm

    I remember my first venture into serious writing. It all started with a lie and I came up with a short story. It was horrific, to say the least. From then on I pretty much kept at it out of spite (since the person who reviewed that first ever attempt also happened to be a mutual crush and I hate being embarrassed). I ventured into fanfiction and always took writing seriously. I didn’t think about publishing until 9th grade and am still trying to improve to get there. I can safely say there has been vast improvement since I first started, it took a lot of practice though (and I’m still mediocre at best, hahaha)

    Lately, I’ve been struggling to write. Getting anything on the page has become increasingly difficult for me. I’m so worried about publishing and comparing my work to others. Writing fanfiction is completely different. I can write freely. I think it’s because there’s no pressure.
    So, I need to make writing fun for me again and let that first draft be crap.

    Blah, rambling.

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