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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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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