The 3 Keys to Writing Success

Disclaimer: I don’t know what the heck I’m talking about. But neither does anyone else, I reckon, or that expert would be the only person a writer ever listens to. So it’s possible that, however accidentally, my advice today is worthwhile.

The changeling

If a writer tried to follow all the writing tips flying around on WordPress, agent/publisher blogs, and in writing magazines, she would probably explode like that robot on Star Trek who couldn’t handle paradoxes (by the way, why do electrical things in the twenty third century explode instead of flashing a useless error message like every HP printer I’ve ever owned?).

If you’re a writer, I’m sure you’ve found yourself exasperated by all the contradictory messages (sometimes from the same source) about what you should be doing that you’re not. I used to get frustrated too, but then I stopped listening to advice and became much happier.

I think a lot. I analyze. I study logic. If someone said I reminded him of Spock, I’d take it as a compliment. Through thinking and analyzing and logicating, I’ve formed a hypothesis that the following three activities are the keys to writing success, and the rest is noise. They are drawn from the worlds of business, sports, entertainment, science, and personal observation.

If you see me selling lots of books with my name on the cover someday, that means my test supports my hypothesis, ‘cause the following are going to be my three writing practices from now on. If I’m wrong, you will have long forgotten this post and me. I can’t lose!

Practice, Practice, Practice

Whatever you do—be it knitting, painting, playing Pong, photography, writing, or following some skeleton keyother passion—nothing beats practice. The Malcolm Gladwell 10,000-hour rule, however unscientifically derived, is hard to argue with on a practical level. If you want to be an advanced writer, you’ve got to hammer through the beginner and intermediate stages. If you can’t push through, you aren’t cut out for having writing passion.

Kristen Otte is an author many of you know from WordPress. She writes a cute children’s book series about the adventures of Zelda, her pet pug, as well as sports-themed young adult novels. Her prose is as clean, slick, and professional as any you’ll find in Barnes and Noble. Although I believe there’s such a thing as innate talent, I’m convinced Kristen’s work is that good because the woman is simply possessed by the urge to write. She writes a lot. Her daily tweets typically say things like, “Finished another manuscript today.”

To get good, we gotta write.

Modeling Successful People

Ripped from the pages of business books!

skeleton keyPeople often dish writing advice based on their personal quirks and preferences rather than on proof that what they say is true. I’m sure you have your own advice peeves, but my two are “You have to use an outline” and “You have to join a writing group.”

Since heaps of authors have written blockbuster novels without using outlines (Stephen King, Elmore Leonard, and JK Rowling, for example), and tons more never joined a writing group, the above declarations are really just personal choices. If you write better with outlines, use outlines, and if you enjoy the support and experience of a writing group, join one. But don’t tell me I have to.

I prefer to study what a successful person did to achieve success, not what [irony/paradox alert] people like me say. Everyone takes a different path, of course, but as with practice, you can’t argue with success. If Writer X makes the bestseller list, don’t you want to know how?

It works in business and sports, so why not in writing?

Stop Worrying about What Other People are Doing

Yes, model success. No, don’t compare yourself.

skeleton keyDo you know what type of athlete is most successful? The one who keeps practicing when others are off watching TV. The one who doesn’t worry if someone else scores more points or gets more press. The one who listens to his editor coach. Any sports psychologist will tell you so.

Another bit of advice I often get is to read everything in my genre and know what my competitors are doing. Why? Is that going to make my writing better? Is it going to help me finish my novel? I doubt it. From one writer to another, I wish you success, but when I’m creating, I ain’t thinking about you, and you shouldn’t be thinking about me.

Bonus: A key to blogging success is “Keep it under 800 words.” So, on that note, peace out homey.

Don’t forget to sound off in the comments!

55 responses to “The 3 Keys to Writing Success

  • kristenotte

    Thanks for the shout out. I’ve grown tired of all the writing advice too. I figure my time is better spent writing or reading good fiction. My writing improves each time I sit my butt in the chair.

    By the way, I finished a manuscript today. (No seriously I did!)

  • Eric Tonningsen

    I wholeheartedly agree with these three, Eric, even in areas other than writing. They’re fairly universal to success.

    In the field to which I aspire to become ‘published’ the first practice simply changes to: Stage Time, Stage Time, Stage Time. And as a former competitive swimmer, #1 could easily be: Breathe, Breathe, Breathe.

    As for HP printers, to which I was stupidly loyal for seemingly ever, I finally got wise.

    • ericjbaker

      No doubt! The universal applications for improvement are probably the most useful.

      I have no idea why I kept buying HP stuff when all it did was give me fits all the time. I switched to a Brother printer a year and a half ago and the thing churns out page after page reliably and without a squawk. The ink is way cheaper too.

  • uju

    Love the first advice.

    I started a new blog some months ago and only vegan paying attention to it now. Didn’t realise i wanted to write a million and one things until i published my first post in the cover of darkness.

    P.S Under 800? What happened to long reads? 😦

    • ericjbaker

      You have a super secret blog besides the one I read? Hmmm. Curiosity piqued, but privacy respected.

      Long reads are alive and well in books and e-books and magazines, but I think people tend to weigh their options with blogs. As in, “The title looks interesting, but how many words am I willing to invest in?”

      If I read you already, I don’t think that much about the length, but if I’m buzzing through the latest writing posts or tracking a social issue, and I see “1532 more words” after the sample, I might not click. And my attention span isn’t that bad to some folks I know.

  • David J Delaney

    Stephen King’s words ‘You have to write a lot and read a lot’ will become a writing adage in time to come. I find it difficult to string a sentence together after no having written in a while. Great post.

    • ericjbaker

      Thanks. Given King’s unprecedented success, I’m inclined to lend an ear when he talks of writing. And I agree that writing is similar to playing an instrument… you have to keep your chops dusted off.

  • Jill Weatherholt

    My head exploded earlier in the year from the writing advice I was being bombarded with. Of course, it was my own fault. I subscribed to over fifty blogs by professionals who talked about writing, publishing, etc. Recently I said “NO MORE” and unsubscribed to many…now I study my craft books and just write.
    Great tips, Eric…especially number one.
    Happy Friday!

    • ericjbaker

      Hi Jill! I feel pro advice is sometimes offer more so to fulfill content obligation than anything else. There’s X amount of space to fill, and someone has to fill it. After a while, though, the focus gets lost. Just Write. What else is there?

  • Ensis

    Great post–It’s really refreshing after being bombarded with all the other “shoulds” out there.
    And future robots explode due to the tiny antimatter particle powering them, after breakdown of the magnetic containment field resulting from paradoxes. Duh.

  • Richard Leonard

    Loved the disclaimer so I had to read on! Reminds me of someone’s advice that read (And I think this would be my advice too) “My advice would be to not ask me for advice”.
    But you can’t argue with these three, that’s for sure.

    • ericjbaker

      I wonder if I’m blogging my way out of future income. Suppose these three keys do lead to publication. Then when they offer me cash to lecture at a writing conference, I’ll have to sell out.

      Ah, what a remarkable conundrum that would be.

  • katecrimmins

    I used to teach public speaking. That is all about practice. I would be amazed when people thought they could wing it, then got tongue tied or drew a blank. Mark Twain said it took him three weeks to write an impromptu speech. Same is true of writing. Practice, practice, practice and the rest will come. Good advice.

    • ericjbaker

      Haha. I took a public speaking class in college and did a presentation with a technical component that I somehow managed to pull off flawlessly. The professor, who was quite a senior gentleman, said, “That was the first time I’ve ever had a student incorporate AV and not screw something up.”

      I said, “Yeah, Don’t ask me to do it twice.” I’m no gambler.

  • jhmae

    Well put, especially the knock on advice about reading everything in your genre. Where the %$#^%@ am I supposed to find the time? And I have to read the crappy stuff, too? By the time I’m done I’ll be dead! 🙂

  • nrhatch

    When people offer advice, they are merely saying what they would do if they were in our shoes. Only they are not in our shoes ~ we are.

    They are entitled to their opinions, and we are entitled to ours. We do not have to like Green Eggs and Ham, even if they are a favorite of Sam-I-Am!

    Whether or not something I write resonates with a given reader depends on the reader. If I write honestly, my intended audience will appear while those who are not intended to be in my pool of readers will drift away.

    When we are enjoying the journey, we stop worrying about finding our intended audience ~ we trust that our intended audience will find us.

  • livelytwist

    I’m trying to get to 10,000 hours. It requires focus and discipline. Good thing I don’t have a vibrant social life. The advice I heard is different, read everything outside your genre. You did mention contradictory advice, didn’t you? 🙂

    • livelytwist

      @800 words (or less even), I agree. When I exceed, it’s because the post is a fast-paced story or a collaboration. I’ve debated this with other bloggers and tried to explain that people behave differently online, they tend to scan for information, they don’t read, unless the writer can seduce them with his words . . .

      I save posts that are 1500- 2000 words and over, for last, and when I finally read, I see how the post could have been shorter. It seems we writers like the ‘sound’ of our words. No wonder Stephen King says that we should kill our darlings- those words we cherish. Oh my, am I giving contradictory writing/blogging advice? Lol!

      • ericjbaker

        Good point. Fiction tends to breeze along faster than an essay. I ghost write blog posts at work and my cap there is 500 words. I’ll stretch it to 800 here because the stakes aren’t very high (my life as a blogger would make a terrible TV show).

    • ericjbaker

      Unfortunately I have not logged my writing time, but I’m sure it’s an inky ledger. I don’t have a vibrant social life either. I’ve traded in my flesh and blood friends for cyber friends, it seems. C’est la vie.

      Perhaps we should read everything inside and outside our genres, which is everything. I’ll start with A and you start backward from Z, and maybe we’ll meet at M in 75,000 years.

  • Hollis Hildebrand-Mills

    I am going to write this down before I forget it. Then I’ll go back and read your advice. Your “model yourself after successful people reminds me of something that worked for me: Don’t go on a diet for fat people. Eat what thin people eat.

    Also Data (much later Star Trek) had no tolerance for ambiguity either. but I think what you are going for is the clearheaded-ness of Mr. Spock. the cool clean uncluttered thinking that does produce more creativity.

    Now I’ll read the rest. Thank you for a different slant for artists to be motivated.

    • ericjbaker

      Hahaha. My young lady isn’t as young and fit as she used to be (happens to the best of us) and had a meltdown about 45 minutes ago when she tried on a new swimsuit she ordered online. I could stand to slim down by 5 + 20 pounds myself, so I said “Let’s do it. Together. Right now. Start a diet!”

      The point being that your witty comment was timelier than you realize.

      Data can be forgiven for his inability to deal with ambiguity and sarcasm. He’s only as good as the person who programmed him.

      • Hollis Hildebrand-Mills

        So glad the “Eat what the thin person eats” came at exactly the right time. I don’t even want to go near a bathing suit!

        Yes, I learned Data is all computer, wants to be human. And Spock is half Vulcan (logic) and half human! (Husband likes the show more than I, but I do too!) Have a super nice (and dietary) weekend!

  • Sue Archer

    Very nice, Eric! I especially like not worrying about what other people are doing. Lots of advice out there on modelling your writing after other people’s styles, and honestly I think that’s just discouraging. I’m curious – have you ever read The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle? Expands on the 10,000 hours thing in a more scientific way and is inspiring to boot. I highly recommend it.

  • jdhoward

    If I had to go by just one rule, it would be the Practice, Practice, Practice.
    I’m an HP person, too. And no my printer does not work well. At all. I prefer HP computers – they have been serving me well. And with my cat using it as a springboard to jump on the headboard, I can say it’s quite durable. Great post, flows naturally.

    • ericjbaker

      I never had a brand necessarily, but I have had 2 HP computers and a few printers, and not a one of them cooperated. I also had 2 canon printers that were finicky as well. My current Brother printer works like a champ, and my Dell laptop does what it is supposed to, though I’d like one with a bit more juice.

  • Janna G. Noelle

    Hello my Spock-ish twin blog brother! Great post, great advice. I think “Don’t worry what others are doing” is a rule to live by not just in writing but life in general.

    And, of course, practice. Two years ago, I actually did a count of how many words of writing I’d done since I’d started writing within striking distance of Stephen King’s theoretical 1,000,000 words. I may well have reached it by now. I like to measure my practice in actual words rather than hours since my writing hours seem not to produce as much as some others. But then we come back to rule #3 – don’t worry what others are doing.

    I will disagree with your bonus blog length rule, though, at least for me. I’ve experimented with a number of different lengths over the years and fine no correlation between longer length and fewer views/likes/comments. More than anything, I find the depth at which I examine the topic in question to be the determinant. If I make my point at a very (what I consider to be) surface level, the engagement goes up. But I’m a researcher by nature, and sometimes just want to delve to the theoretical core of an issue. Times like that, I’m writing more for myself than anyone else.

  • ericjbaker

    I wonder if revising counts as writing. I spend as much time on second and third drafts than I do on the first, so it’s hard to say how much writing I’ve done. It’s way way past 10,000 hours and 1,000,000 words if you count essays, blog posts, and business content. We all learn at different speeds, I suppose. I learn concepts quickly and motor-skill-related activities slowly, which is probably why I got good grades in college and could never sink more than three consecutive shots in billiards no matter how hard I tried.

    Good point on the blogging. Not everyone’s goal is more clicks, for one thing, and a good topic will hook more readers than an obscure or arcane one, regardless of length. My writing-themed posts usually do best, I imagine because other writers are so prominent on WordPress, but I still try to keep them under 800 words because it can’t hurt.

  • brickhousechick

    Darn it! It’s like when “they” tell you that in order to lose weight you have to work out. Isn’t there a magic pill out yet for losing weight AND for being a successful writer? I guess I will practice, practice and practice some more. Blah. 🙂 Great advice.

    • ericjbaker

      I don’t know why, but your comment cracked me up.

      • Arkenaten

        I would have only echoed your sentiments, so I simply agreed with them in as short and concise a manner as I could.

        When it comes to examples, I generally follow those authors I admire and avoid ”Help for writers ” like the plague.
        That said, I have enjoyed pretty much all of your ”grammar” type posts.

        Maybe it depends on the style of delivery?

        • ericjbaker

          I’m not a fan of the condescending delivery, which may not be intentional on the part of the blogger/writer, but it happens. I try to go for humor and convey a “we’re all in this together” mentality, because, realistically, who the heck am I to give anyone advice?

        • Arkenaten

          A thick skin helps. As one author wrote on her blog, so much of the publishing industry is a lottery.

          For instance, have you read a really good review of 50 shades of grey?
          I haven’t.

        • ericjbaker

          It’s the new Twilight in terms of being the go-to book for bashing. But many people enjoyed it, so there you have it. The market determines taste, despite what industry insiders and critics think.

        • Arkenaten

          I agree, and this is the point.
          All the great advise in the world is still no guarantee of success.
          I have never got into Harry Potter . See JK crying?

  • L. Marie

    Great post, Eric! I totally agree, especially with the practice, practice, practice. I can’t think of anyone who became good at anything without practice. Gladwell mentioned the Beatles and how often they played gigs. Look at how enduring their music is.

    One piece of advice someone gave me that I follow is to read widely. Fiction, nonfiction, how-to books, mysteries, fantasies, hard-boiled detective novels, classics, graphic novels. Reading a broad spectrum of books has been very helpful to me in my fantasy writing (and especially in curriculum writing). Researching swords reminded me to pick up Guns Germs and Steel (an excellent book). Writing about flawed heroes reminded me of what I’d learned through epics like Beowulf and the Odyssey.

    • ericjbaker

      Side trip: I agree. Gun Germs and Steel is a good one, as is Diamond’s previous title, The Third Chimpanzee.

      Reading non-fiction has inspired a lot of the themes in my fiction. I blogged on this once before (somewhere buried in my archives). The theme of my WiP was inspired by a book that discussed 1960s-era girl groups through the lens of the civil-rights movement. Which is weird, because my novel is an apocalyptic survival adventure. All that reading goes in, mixes around, and comes back out in some unusual ways!

  • haydendlinder

    Eric, I think you are missing the obvious here. The 23rd century robot was HIGH Tech man. Your HP? Not so much.

    Good advice though. Thanks for the post.

    • ericjbaker

      Judging from the photo, I’d say 23rd century robot designers were into 1960s steampunk.

      “Hey, let’s go with a heating vent look for our robot.”

      “Sure, but he must explode when he breaks. Deal?”

      “I’m in.”

  • tracycembor

    I read a piece of advice from David Farland that I found helpful. It was about accessing different kinds of goals. “Training goals” stuck with me because I knew there were things I was writing that weren’t “right,” but I wasn’t sure how to fix them. By making +1 to my writing craft a goal, I was able to take time to learn and grow and not feel guilty about “taking away” from my writing time.

    • ericjbaker

      I just went and read it. Good piece. I think it’s all “writing” if it helps us get better. Sitting in the dark and thinking about the story is writing. I came up with a needed tweak to the ending of my WiP that I wouldn’t have considered when actually revising it.

  • augustmacgregor

    The most popular advice I read about writing is to write more. I think that makes so much sense. Keep going, keep writing, keep trying — and eventually the writing will improve. That’s been the case with me. I picked up my writing pace this past summer, and I feel better, more confident, about my writing. It’s really good advice! And I feel that reading a ton helps, too.

    • ericjbaker

      That’s really it, isn’t it? Once in a while I’ll dig out a piece of writing from a few years back, and the rough bits are so obvious to me now. It’s hard to see improvement as it’s happening, but I can see that it happened.

      Thanks for the comment!

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