I’m no Stephen King, but success is relative, right? As a writer, I’ve certainly had more success than I pictured having by now. A lot of it, of course, has to do with being in the right place at the right time. Beyond luck, however, becoming successful at anything requires persistence in the face of rejection and uncertainty.
But how do you persist? Persistence isn’t a character trait. It’s contextual. It requires a reason and a method. For me, learning to persist as a writer is an ongoing journey – but there are three pieces of advice that have done more to keep me on that path than the rest combined, and I’m very happy to share them with you here.
2 Crappy Pages
Tim Ferris is an entrepreneur and author whose most well-known work is probably The Four-Hour Workweek. In addition to hundreds of blog posts, Tim has written five books, spanning thousands of pages. In order to meet his own writing goals, he relies on a simple method: write at least two pages every day.
The catch is that, in Tim’s own words, those two pages can be downright “crappy” – as long as they’re done. He also points out that he doesn’t go into panic mode after missing a day, but the whole point of this goal is to set a standard for success that’s on the low side, making it achievable on a very regular basis.
To me, it’s all about developing the habit of frequent writing. Just like reading, running, or making your bed, the first days of habit-building are the most difficult. The longer you keep it up, on the other hand, the less effort it takes to maintain. When it comes to writing two crappy pages, it’s important to accept that they might not make the cut of your final draft. They might end up in the trash – or they might inspire you in some way you never dreamed of.
Don’t Get it Right, Get it Written
I’ve seen this quote attributed to different people, but there seems to be some amount of agreement that it rightfully belongs to James Thurber, a prolific 20th-century cartoonist, playwright, and journalist.
At first glance, this seems nearly identical to the “two crappy pages” advice, but there is – at least to me – a subtle difference. “Two crappy pages” is the mantra that gets me to sit down at the computer, but “don’t get it right” is the advice that actually helps me get through those two pages.
As a career or aspiring writer, you probably already know too well that perfectionism is the enemy of productivity. “Don’t get it right, get it written” is all about putting perfectionistic urges in their place.
To that end, I recommend ignoring spellcheck until you’re ready to submit or press “publish.” Turn it off, for that matter, so those irritating little red lines don’t distract you from your goal. Don’t worry about synonyms, either, and for the love of all that is good and holy, do not re-read what you’ve written while you’re still drafting.
Although it took me a while to embrace this way of writing, I noticed a huge increase in the speed with which I could finish a project when I adopted the following method:
When I start a new piece of writing (whether an article, essay, etc), I first put down all my scattered ideas in a structure that’s somewhere between outline and rough draft. There’s no proofreading, no back-spacing, and virtually no formatting.
When I’m ready (typically a day or so later) I do the second pass, which usually ends up being very close to the final draft, only requiring a few re-reads and some light editing.
When I was less experienced, I would often try to start with a clever hook and craft the perfect piece all the way down to a witty button on the concluding paragraph. It’s not that this can’t be done – it can – but it would take me hours to write a single 600-word article, not including research, coffee breaks, or cursing at the blank screen.
Using outlines and rough drafts allows me to write the same amount in a much shorter amount of time and often saves me a lot of frustration in the process. Even if this strategy seems obvious to some, there are plenty of us interested in writing who never attended a single class on how, so I’m grateful for Thurber’s influence on my understanding of the ideal process.
Life Begins at the End of Your Comfort Zone
(This article is about what has helped me succeed as a writer, but if to you, success in writing has nothing to do with money, a career, or professional aspirations, then this particular bit of wisdom may not apply.)
Getting out of your comfort zone is very common advice in the realm of self-help and success, and it may seem completely unrelated to writing. I can assure you, however, that it’s not.
Personally, success in writing is very much about professional aspirations, and every time I turned a big corner towards that success, it was initiated by me saying yes to a project that I felt totally unconfident about.
My most recent relationship with steady work came via a startup that hired me to develop content for several industry-leading executives. The only problem was that I didn’t know anything about those industries. Still, I said yes.
I wasn’t deceiving anyone – my background and skills were well-known to the employer. If they felt that I was good enough for the job, why should I let my self-doubt get in the way? Thankfully, I didn’t.
Even though my roles and responsibilities at that job continually evolved and were riddled with uncertainty and anxiety, I learned more during my 11 months there than I had in any other year of my professional life. Not coincidentally, I also got paid more.
Will saying yes sometimes land you in situations that you’re unprepared for? Definitely – but that’s the point. You’ll come out the other side with new knowledge, new skills, and hopefully a sense of gratitude for the experience.
A Lesson Earned is a Lesson Learned
All the best advice in the world won’t make you a better or more successful writer. Only writing will do that. I’ll be the first to admit that there have been days – even weeks – when I knew I should be writing just “two crappy pages,” not worrying about getting it right, and looking for new and possibly uncomfortable opportunities, but instead sat on the couch feeling sorry for myself.
In other words, all the advice above has been extremely helpful to me, but only to the extent that I actually used it. I believe it can be helpful for you, too – so I hope you’ll put it into practice and find out for yourself.