4 Major Differences between Amateur Writers and Professionals

1. Amateurs get ready. Professionals get to work.

Amateurs attend workshops, read writing books, get an MFA, build their author website . . . do anything but write their book—because they don’t feel ready.

Professionals, on the other hand, know they will never be ready, so they dive in anyway.

At some point you must trust yourself as a writer. You may not know exactly where you are going, but you have to set out, and sometimes, without calculation on your part, the reader will honor the effort itself.

Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd, Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction

“Perfection is less interesting.” —Anne Carson [Tweet This]

2. Amateurs beat themselves up. Professionals forgive.

Professionals know that to write is to be in a constant state of imperfection. They know that most of the time they’ll be stumbling around in the dark, hitting one dead end after another. To professionals, writing is business, not personal.

Amateurs, however, use every wrong turn and misstep as fuel for their running commentary on why they can’t, or shouldn’t, be a writer.

Elizabeth Gilbert, best-selling author of Eat, Pray, Love, says self-forgiveness is the most important writerly virtue:

Your writing will always disappoint you. Your laziness will always disappoint you. You will make vows: “I’m going to write for an hour every day,” and then you won’t do it. You will think: “I suck, I’m such a failure. I’m washed-up.” Continuing to write after that heartache of disappointment doesn’t take only discipline, but also self-forgiveness . . .

3. Amateurs cling to lost causes. Professionals let go.

In my guest post for storyaday.org I discuss Adele and Gwen Stefani and their recent successes. This year Gwen released her third solo album, and it debuted at number one on the Billboard charts. Adele also released a new album, which surpassed the worldwide record-breaking success of her second album. But both Adele and Gwen struggled for a long time. They worked on their albums for years, scrapping song after song, until they finally found the ones worth keeping.

It’s hard to throw stuff out when you’re an artist. Even when you know it’s not good, you cling to it; you want proof that you’ve accomplished something. Professionals, though, grit their teeth and toss out the junk—giant slabs of it if required. They know that the only work worth sharing is the work that moves them.

“You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.” —Maya Angelou [Tweet This]

4. Amateurs talk about how hard writing is. Professionals write.

In 2012 a young author named Julian Tepper wrote an article for the New Yorker called “In Which Philip Roth Gave Me Life Advice.” At the time Tepper worked at a deli that was frequented by his writing idol, Philip Roth. Tepper recounts getting up the nerve one day to give Roth his newly published first novel. Roth congratulated him and then said:

But I would quit while you’re ahead. Really, it’s an awful field. Just torture. Awful. You write and write, and you have to throw almost all of it away because it’s not any good. I would say just stop now. You don’t want to do this to yourself.

Best-selling author Elizabeth Gilbert responded to Roth’s advice with her own article:

[S]eriously—is writing really all that difficult? Yes, of course, it is; I know this personally—but is it that much more difficult than other things? Is it more difficult than working in a steel mill, or raising a child alone, or commuting three hours a day to a deeply unsatisfying cubicle job, or doing laundry in a nursing home, or running a hospital ward, or being a luggage handler, or digging septic systems, or waiting tables at a delicatessen, or—for that matter—pretty much anything else that people do?

Not really, right? . . .

Becoming a novelist is not some sort of dreadful Mayan curse, or dark martyrdom that only a chosen few can withstand for the betterment of humanity. . . . If you’re lucky, you might be able to make a small living out of this thing. If you’re exceedingly lucky, other people might come to appreciate your gifts. If you are phenomenally lucky, you might become lionized in your own lifetime, like the great Philip Roth himself.

And if that should ever happen to you—if you should ever find yourself both successful and loved—please do try to keep in mind that you have been blessed, not blighted.

Take the First Step Today

If you don’t feel ready to write, if you don’t know what to write about, or if you can’t overcome your inner critic, then simply take one small first step:

Start writing every day.

Don’t expect anything of yourself other than a few sentences—no word limit, no time limit, no editing, no judgingThe goal is to slowly build your writing muscle. At first you’ll feel flabby and foolish and sloppy, but you’ll get stronger.

And how will you know when a certain piece of writing is worth pursuing? I wrote about that in my guest post on storyaday.org: The Real You: What Every Writer Needs to Know about Adele, Gwen Stefani, and Seinfeld.

If you want to give your writing a serious jump-start, check out Julie Duffy’s Story a Day May—a challenge to write a short story every day this month. The point is to write so much that your momentum snowballs, your inner critic gives up, and you get comfortable.

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The Fastest Way to Jump-Start Your Writing Career: My Mentorship Story

“A lot of people have gone further than they thought they could because
someone else thought they could.” (Unknown)

A Shortage of Support

In the past, the driving force behind the fine arts was the “support group.” Artists would find mentors to show them the ropes, then the artists would acquire patrons to support their work, and then these artists would become mentors themselves. A miniature circle of life.

But a lot has changed since the times of da Vinci.

Nowadays, more than 80 percent of Americans want to write a book—that’s 250 million people!—so you’d think writers would have the biggest support group in the world, but in fact, far too many of them have no one to turn to.

The Devaluation of Mentors

Our current culture is obsessed with technology. Human interaction has largely been replaced by tweets, blogs, online courses, and self-help books. But here’s what I’ve learned:

One good mentor is worth all those combined—a hundred fold.

My Mentorship Story

I started this blog four years ago. For the first two years it felt like I was pushing against a brick wall. Then one day I published a post where I broke down Rowling’s outline for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and compared it to Stuart Horwitz’s methods in his book Blueprint Your Bestseller. Within a few months Stuart had contacted me and asked if I’d like to coauthor a chapter for his second book, Book Architecture. (Um, yes!)

Stuart and I emailed back and forth throughout the year as we developed our chapter, which went so well that I also ended up beta reading and offering feedback on the rest of the manuscript. Even though I was excited when Book Architecture was done and ready to be published, I was also sad for the experience to end. I had learned and grown more in that one year than in my past two years of blogging combined.

So I felt incredibly lucky when Stuart contacted me yet again and offered me an internship—a first for him and his book editing firm, Book Architecture.

During my year-long internship, I delved into everything in the publishing world:

  • drawing up contracts,
  • creating style sheets, editorial letters, and agent databases,
  • walking through the entire self-publishing process,
  • and editing on all levels—developmental, line, and copy.

I also was a beta reader for Stuart’s third and final writing book, Finish Your Book in Three Drafts: How to Write a Book, Revise a Book, and Complete a Book While You Still Love It.

As the year progressed, Stuart and I found our collaborative footing and eventually my internship morphed into a mentorship. Unfortunately, not all internships are also mentorships.

In an internship, you’re simply learning “stuff”—a knowledge checklist. But in a mentorship, someone is getting to know you one-on-one and addressing your personal experiences and goals.

Along with all of the valuable “stuff” I learned, I also had mentor talks with Stuart. These talks revolved around any questions I had about the editing business as well as advice from him based on questions I should have asked but didn’t know enough yet to ask them.

In the end, I learned more during my one-year mentorship than I could have learned on my own in five years (or more). In fact, I have not found a single success story where the individual did not have some form of mentorship along the way.

Examples of Modern-Day Mentors

Lena Dunham was mentored by the late Nora Ephron. In a beautifully written piece in the New Yorker, Dunham memorialized Ephron:

[Nora] explained how to interact with a film composer (“Just say what you’re hearing and what you want to hear”) and what to do if someone screamed at you on the telephone (“Just nod, hang up, and decide you will never allow anyone to speak to you that way again”). She called bullshit on a whole host of things, too: donuts served in fancy restaurants; photo shoots in which female directors are asked to all stand in a cluster wearing mustaches; the idea that one’s writing isn’t fiction if it borrows from one’s life.

Oprah was mentored by Barbara Walters. In an interview with Walters, Oprah said, “Had there not been you, there never would have been me.”

Oprah was also mentored by Maya Angelou. At Angelou’s funeral, Oprah gave a eulogy and said, “I think mentors are important . . . Nobody makes it alone. Nobody has made it alone.

Usher has frequently spoken about mentoring Justin Bieber. In an interview with Pharell Williams, Usher paraphrased a line from Italian diplomat Galeazzo Ciano:

Success has a million fathers. Failure is an orphan. [Tweet This]

Now the Question Is: How Do You Find Your Own Mentor?

1. Never stop chasing your dreams.

Jon Hamm didn’t get a single acting gig for the first three years after he moved to Hollywood. Not surprisingly, his talent agency dropped him. Hamm gave himself five years to get his acting career on track; if nothing happened, he’d quit. He said:

I knew a lot of 40-year-old waiters and I didn’t want to be one of those.

In the nick of time Hamm landed his first big Hollywood movie, We Were Soldiers, and he was able to ditch waiting tables. A few years later he became the infamous Don Draper of “Mad Men,” which was voted the seventh best-written TV series of all time.

Paula Hawkins has a similar story. Hawkins got her start in the book industry writing a guide to finance. The publishing house that took on the guide asked Hawkins to also write some romance novels under the pen name Amy Silver. Hawkins said she never felt comfortable with the genre and realized that she wanted to write suspense and psychological thrillers. When her fourth romance novel flopped, she decided to try writing one last time before giving it up for good. The result was the fastest-selling hardcover ever recorded—The Girl on the Train.

How many people in history have given themselves a deadline, not knowing that success had been waiting just beyond it?

This mindset of “all or nothing” is not healthy or helpful. I realize we all must face reality—we have families, jobs, bills—but facing reality does not mean throwing away your dreams.

Maybe you have to figure out a different approach or perhaps you have to go at a slower pace, but at least you’re still in pursuit. Because if you’re not actively trying to help yourself, you have very little chance of finding someone who will want to help you either.

As Stuart says in Finish Your Book in Three Drafts:

If you look at the subset circle of people who didn’t make it, the entire subset of people who quit is contained within that.

2. Keep an open mind as to whom your mentor could be.

The secret to success is not in having a mentor but in having the right mentor. Luckily, the “right” mentor can come in all shapes and sizes.

Don’t limit yourself by thinking that your mentor has to have higher credentials than you or has to be more successful than you or even has to be in the same field as you.

Former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said:

Here’s an important warning: you don’t have to have mentors who look like you. Had I been waiting for a black, female Soviet specialist mentor, I would still be waiting. Most of my mentors have been old white men, because they were the ones who dominated my field.

And the CEO of General Motors, Mary Barra, said:

Don’t always look high when creating your mentor network. Colleagues have great insights about you that you may have overlooked.

Oprah Winfrey, Maya Angelou, John Glenn, and Walter Cronkite all had mentors who were either high school or elementary teachers.

One of Colin Powell’s greatest mentors was his father. Ansel Adams also credited his own father and so did Cal Ripken, Jr., who said:

I don’t know what value you can place on [a mentor], but the right words spoken at the right time from a person that’s been through it before can make all the difference.

More than anything else, a successful mentorship is founded on mutual respect and admiration. One of Steven Spielberg’s mentors was George Lucas. Spielberg has himself mentored many people, including J. J. Abram. Spielberg said:

The delicate balance of mentoring someone is not creating them in your own image, but giving them the opportunity to create themselves.

Stuart and I are very different people at very different points in our lives. We live over 1,400 miles apart and have never even met. But the mentorship has been successful. I attribute our success to the fact that we not only respect our differences but also capitalize on them—we treat them as assets rather than as deficits.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, who mentored Henry David Thoreau, summed it up best when he said:

What I need is someone who can make me do what I can. [Tweet This]

3. Look first for mentorship moments. Then let them progress naturally.

A mentorship is not something you can force. Don’t walk around asking people to mentor you—that’s like asking a stranger to be your best friend. It has to be a natural process that evolves over time.

Robert Herjavec, TV star of “Shark Tank,” wrote:

As you consider mentorship, I encourage you to take the pressure off.

Stop the “will you be my mentor?” emails and start being present to embrace the learning opportunities all around you. Ask your colleagues and executive team members for their points of view. Seek advice from your direct leader or leader once removed.

Start having conversations and soaking in the mentorship moments.

Three years ago when Stuart contacted me to coauthor a chapter, I could never have guessed that I’d end up where I am today with an editing business of my own. All I was focused on then was embracing the opportunity and learning as much from it as I could. Don’t be concerned if a mentorship moment doesn’t turn into a full-blown mentorship.

Herjavec also wrote:

When I consider mentorship, I see it as a series of moments with key individuals over the course of my career. Have I always had one individual guide me along the way? No, that wasn’t my experience. But there are multiple people that have offered advice or a sounding board along the way . . .

Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, agrees with Herjavec:

Throughout my career, I’ve benefited greatly from the wisdom and experiences of mentors. Some executives credit one or two key people for coaching them to success, but I believe effective mentoring takes a network.

Different people see different aspects of us as we progress in our careers and handle the opportunities and challenges along the way.

Financial advisor Suze Orman, who mentors personal trainer Jillian Michaels, said:

Everyone in life can be your mentor whether they know it or not. [Tweet This]

4. Ask not what your mentor can do for you, but what you can do for your mentor.

The most important thing to remember about a mentorship is:

THE MENTOR DOES NOT NEED THE MENTEE.

Stuart has twenty years of experience as an editor. His book Blueprint Your Bestseller was named one of 2013’s best writing books by The Writer magazine and his clients are bestselling authors who have appeared on “The Today Show,” “The Tonight Show,” and “Oprah.”

Stuart mentored me as a favor—not out of necessity. But like all great mentors, he also treated me as an equal. Not once during my internship did he give me a go-get-the-coffee job. That’s not to say that all my work has been enlightening and rewarding and inspiring—every job has its drudgery—but a mentor shows you how to most effectively and efficiently tackle the drudgery.

In the end, you only get as much out of a mentorship as you put into it.

A mentor’s job is not necessarily to make your road any easier. It’s to show you that the road is worth taking.

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Why Being an Amateur Writer Is an Asset

“The less you know about a field, the better your odds. Dumb boldness is the best way to approach a new challenge. —Jerry Seinfeld” Tweet: The less you know about a field, the better your odds. Dumb boldness is the best way to approach a new challenge. —Seinfeld @RiteLikeRowling

Modern-day society is so dependent on proof: Where’s your degree? Your certificate? Your salary? Your followers? Your award? Your little piece of paper that says I can listen to you?

The only credential you need to write is that you write.

In fact, being an “expert” isn’t always an asset:

We’re all terrified of being revealed as amateurs, but in fact, today it is the amateur—the enthusiast who pursues her work in the spirit of love (in French, the word means “lover”), regardless of the potential for fame, money, or career—who often has the advantage over the professional. Because they have little to lose, amateurs are willing to try anything and share the results. They take chances, experiment, and follow their whims. Sometimes, in the process of doing things in an unprofessional way, they make new discoveries. “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities,” said Zen monk Shunryu Suzuki. “In the expert’s mind, there are few.”

—Austin Kleon, Show Your Work

Finding Fans

In today’s selfie-obsessed world where we call our blogs “platforms” and our Twitter followers “contacts,” it’s important to remember that we’re not supposed to be somebody to everybody.

Stop worrying about how many people follow you online and start worrying about the quality of people who follow you. Don’t waste your time reading articles about how to get more followers. Don’t waste time following people online just because you think it’ll get you somewhere. Don’t talk to people you don’t want to talk to, and don’t talk about stuff you don’t want to talk about. If you want followers, be someone worth following. . . . Make stuff you love and talk about stuff you love and you’ll attract people who love that kind of stuff. It’s that simple.

—Austin Kleon, Show Your Work

Sharing Your Work

Where should you start, then, if you’re an amateur?

The best way to get started on the path to sharing your work is to think about what you want to learn, and make a commitment to learning it in front of others. . . . Be on the lookout for voids that you can fill with your own efforts, no matter how bad they are at first. Don’t worry, for now, about how you’ll make money or a career off it. Forget about being an expert or a professional, and wear your amateurism (your heart, your love) on your sleeve. Share what you love, and the people who love the same things will find you.

—Austin Kleon, Show Your Work

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The Best Advice for a Beginning Writer

If you could give a budding writer only one piece of advice, what would it be? Below are some of the most well-known and talented writers of our time who tackled the question.

Writing Advice from the Greats

The most important thing is to read as much as you can, like I did. It will give you an understanding of what makes good writing and it will enlarge your vocabulary.

—J. K. Rowling

You have to read widely, constantly refining (and redefining) your own work as you do so. It’s hard for me to believe that people who read very little (or not at all in some cases) should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written . . . Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that. Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life.

—Stephen King

Above all else, the writer has to be a good reader. The kind that sticks to academic texts and does not read what others write (and here I’m not just talking about books but also blogs, newspaper columns and so on) will never know his own qualities and defects.

—Paul Coelho

If you ask me what I am reading on any given day, it is most likely going to be a work from a great author from long ago. Every writer stands on the shoulders of the old authors who have shaped and refined language and storytelling.

—Laura Hillenbrand

A Different Perspective: You Don’t Have to Write Every Day

If you’ve had a bad writing day, or if you’ve been struggling with your writing recently, I found this article by Cal Newport to be a reassuring read. I think Newport’s point of view is an important counter to Stephen King’s (who says you absolutely have to write every day).

In the end, the goal of advice should be to help you figure out what works for you, not what works for someone else.

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Overcoming Page Fright

The scariest part about beginning is simply that: beginning—sitting down and starting. Page fright is agony; even the most celebrated writers have dealt with it. Ralph Keyes gathered a few of those writers in his book The Courage to Write:

All my life, I’ve been frightened at the moment I sit down to write.

—Gabriel Garcia Marquez

It’s really scary just getting to the desk—we’re talking now five hours. My mouth gets dry, my heart beats fast. I react psychologically the way other people react when the plane loses an engine.

—Fran Lebowitz

I suffer as always from the fear of putting down the first line. It is amazing the terrors, the magics, the prayers, the straightening shyness that assails one.

—John Steinbeck

What is so awful about starting? Why is it so difficult? Keyes wrote:

The best time of writing is before any words have been committed to paper; when all is prospect, clear in one’s mind, and clearly brilliant. The problems begin when one attempts to record that vision on paper. No matter how gifted and experienced the writer, this simply can’t be done . . . “The awful thing about the first sentence of any book,” agreed Tom Wolfe, “is that as soon as you’ve written it you realize this piece of work is not going to be the great thing that you envision. It can’t be . . .”

No book on paper can ever match the one in one’s head. What Paul Valery said of poems is true of all writing; it is never completed, only abandoned. Once writers realize this, they’re faced with a cruel choice: shall they leave their premature baby in a basket on some publisher’s doorstep, or shall they hide that poor child in the basement and turn away from writing as an impossible dream?

Accepting this harsh reality is the most important step in overcoming page fright.

Once we are aware of our fears, we are almost always capable of being more courageous than we think. Someone once told me that fear and courage are like lightning and thunder; they both start out at the same time, but the fear travels faster and arrives sooner. If we just wait a moment, the requisite courage will be along shortly.

—Lawrence Block

And once we accept this fear, we might even be able to turn it into a strength, as William Faulkner did. He wrote:

All of us failed to match our dream of perfection. So I rate us on the basis of our splendid failure to do the impossible. In my opinion, if I could write all my work again, I am convinced that I would do it better, which is the healthiest condition for an artist. That’s why he keeps on working, trying again; he believes each time that this time he will do it, bring it off. Of course he won’t, which is why this condition is healthy. Once he did it, once he matched the work to the image, the dream, nothing would remain but to cut his throat, jump off the other side of that pinnacle of perfection into suicide.

If you’re afraid of starting, or if you’ve already started but been brought down by fear, now is the time for a new beginning.

The scariest moment is always just before you start. After that, things can only get better.

—Stephen King

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What the Best Writers Know about Making It Work

Sometimes hating your novel is part of the process. That is not a cosmic joke to rail against. It just is. You will sometimes actually hate the process of writing your novel even as you fully understand that there can be no other process, no way around it. This disliking, this worrying, this fearing the worst, this plodding rather than soaring, all this is sometimes part of the process . . . You can choose to say, “I can do this even though it hurts.” That honors the process. Or you can dishonor the process by fantasizing that it must be different for luckier mortals. You can suppose that some writer somewhere, whom you envy and hate, is dashing off beautiful page after beautiful page, turning out masterpieces with ridiculous ease, laughing all the way to the computer and back, doing his effortless genius thing while you refuse to get out of bed. You can fantasize in this fashion to let yourself off the hook and avoid the reality of the process. Don’t. . . . [Much] of the time you are writing your novel you may not be pleased with it. Embrace that! Stop wishing it were otherwise. Stop avoiding nature. Stop hoping that reality were more like a pleasant dream. Stop craving the fantasy that you are a genius and that everything that flows from your pen will be honey. Embrace the reality that some of what you produce will be inspired, that some of what you produce will be dull, and that there will never be a substitute for showing up and moving your fingers over the keyboard.

—Eric Maisel, Coaching the Artist Within

I love hearing the story behind the story: how the author got the idea; how the idea progressed; the author’s struggles and successes with it. Getting a peak “behind the scenes” makes both the book and the author less intimidating, more human.

This weekend I read the mega-bestseller The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. In Green’s acknowledgements, he thanks his editor and publisher “who stuck with this story through many years of twists and turns . . . ” I sleuthed around online and discovered a Question and Answer page on Green’s website that talks about the story behind The Fault in Our Stars and the story behind his life as a writer in general:

Q. Are you currently working on a novel? A. Yes, I am always working on a novel, although I guess it depends on how you define “working” and “on.” I’ve become very superstitious, however, about saying more than that, because while I was writing the book that became The Fault in Our Stars, I promised many different stories – a zombie apocalypse novel, a novel about kids stranded on a desert island – and then delivered a very different book. [The Fault in Our Stars tells the story of two teenagers that have cancer and are grappling with mortality.]

Q. How do you deal with writers’ block? A. I just give myself permission to suck. I delete about 90% of my first drafts . . . so it doesn’t really matter much if on a particular day I write beautiful and brilliant prose that will stick in the minds of my readers forever, because there’s a 90% chance I’m just gonna delete whatever I write anyway.

How many of us give ourselves permission to suck in our writing? And I mean really stink it up—not just kind of, but really letting things get appallingly bad.

I think most of us know deep down that every story has to start out ugly before it can get pretty, yet we still don’t give ourselves the space to mess up. And ironically, that is exactly what separates the professional writers from the wanna-be writers:

Professionals want it badly enough that they give themselves permission to suck.

What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks “the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.” And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, “Okay. Okay. I’ll come.”

—Maya Angelou

You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.

—Octavia Butler

For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.

—Anne Lammott

Look, writing a novel is like paddling from Boston to London in a bathtub. Sometimes the damn tub sinks. It’s a wonder that most of them don’t.

—Stephen King

The good news is, it’s never too late to give yourself permission to suck. The beginning of your life as a writer may already be set in stone and it may not have gotten off to a great start, but it’s still in your hands to decide if you’re going to end your writing life. You certainly can if you want to. But if you’re not ready to say goodbye, if there’s still a shred of a writer left in you that’s desperate to stay alive, then let your writing suck. It’s how all of the best writers make it to the top.

The only way you can fail at writing is to give up.

—Diana Gabaldon

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