Two Paths

The path to writing well and the path to publication are two different paths.

I’ll explain in a second. But before I begin, let’s dispense with the “good writing is subjective” conversation. Can we just work from the assumption that everyone in the room understands that my definition of “writing well” and yours differ at least in small ways, and perhaps also in big ways? We can? Cool.

Four Truths About the Path to Writing Well

1. Writing well takes time. Period. There are no shortcuts to writing well.

2. Each person’s journey to writing well is unique. A select few writers get there (relatively) quickly. Most don’t. You are probably in the latter group. Don’t beat yourself up about that.

3. You can study writing until you’re blue in the face (where you’ll quickly learn that clich├ęs like this are verboten), but there is no substitute for simply writing. I recently tweeted this: “You don’t find your writing voice by reading about writing. You find it by writing.” If you take nothing else from this post, take that.

4. Writing resources (craft books, blogs, conferences, fortune cookies) can make the path more interesting. They can inspire a healthy curiosity and ignite an interest in pursuing excellence. They can teach you plotting and character arcs and other helpful stuff. But they can also frustrate your writing life. If you’re constantly reading about how to write, you’re not writing. And if you’re not writing, you’re not growing as a writer. Here’s a tip: If you’re buying more writing books than novels, you’re probably doing it wrong. Reading is your best writing teacher and writing is your homework. Do your homework.

The path to writing well doesn’t always line up with the path to publication. Sometimes the two paths are parallel. Sometimes they’re perpendicular. Sometimes they’re the very same line. This is one of the reasons why your head hurts.

Four Separate Truths About the Path to Publication

1. The path to publication takes time. Almost always. Except when it doesn’t. For some, it appears to happen suddenly. Like “overnight” suddenly. Usually the “overnight” can be measured in years. Usually.

2. Each person’s path to publication is unique. Stop comparing yours to everyone else’s. Especially that guy in your writing group who got an agent last month – the one whose writing truly sucks. Compared to yours, I mean.

3. There is no substitute for studying all you can about getting published. Read the agent blogs and the “how to get published” books. Go to conferences. Listen to the wisdom of those who have gone before, whether you’re pursuing traditional publishing or self-publishing. Heed (most of) this advice.

4. The pursuit of publication will frustrate your writing life. Seriously. Every moment you spend in that pursuit is a moment you don’t spend writing. (Or reading about writing, for that matter.) Along the path to publication you will be angry and depressed. You will be confused. You will be exhausted. You will question your dream. More than once. But if you’re patient and persistent, the path will matter. It will give shape to your dream. Be patient and persistent, okay?

Some final advice: if you haven’t been on the path to writing well for long, please don’t start down the path to publication. Not yet. Just write for a while. Maybe a long while. Write until you find your voice. Then and only then, step onto the second path and try not to stumble.

Oh, and when you finally get published? Well, there’s another path. The marketing path. We’ll talk about that another time.

Meanwhile, wear comfortable shoes.

5 thoughts on “Two Paths

  1. Thanks Stephen.
    I’m really lucky because my wife is walking the publishing path whilst I get to swan down the writing one!
    I guess my question is, how do you decide when you are a good writer? Is this an editors job, or should I just ask my mum?
    Cheers
    Mike

    1. Is your mum an editor? Because that would make the answer so much easier. The real answer is more complicated. Because readers don’t really care if you’re a “good writer.” They just care if you wrote a good book. And by “good book” I simply mean: a book they enjoyed.

  2. Stephen, if I don’t take anyone else’s advice, I definitely listen to you. You’ve been down the road, known the path, shoveled the snow jobs, and produced evidence of beauty and truth. Regarding dreams, mine is now convoluted and directed to staying the course the Lord planned before He “grew” me. I can’t be who I thought I wanted to be. I now want to be who He thought I should be. Workin’ on it. Writing is sometimes the only thing I can do for Him and with Him. Sometimes. I guess that’s why stories remain important in an unimportant big-picture way.

    1. I wonder how many of us can be the person we wanted to be? My understanding of that person changes daily. It’s an evolving story.

      But this is just more evidence that stories matter. Yours. Mine. The ones we dream up.

      All of them.

  3. Thank you, Steve for writing these blog posts and making the life of this lonely, probably insane writer slightly more full, and slightly more sane.

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