You Don’t Become A Writer in Six Months, Twelve Months, or 24 Months

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Photo by noor Younis on Unsplash

Write something long form to take it to the next level

I’ve been writing professionally for thirty years and I didn’t know anything for the first two years. And I had a completed book deal behind me.

I read the stories here of what people have learned in their first few months of freelancing or attempting to earn a living, after writing every day for a few months. I love that people want this so bad but honestly, this is not really how it works.

A few months ago I read the first non-fiction book I was paid to write. I made $10,000 for three months of work in 1992 and it was published nationally by a large publisher. I had been eking out a living as a copywriter and writing magazine articles for business pubs.

The reading was pretty painful. The book was structured well, which is probably why it sold, but the writing is primitive at best. What is different now? Pursuing a creative craft is not a short term process. It’s a cliche, but you really don’t know what you don’t know until you’ve been doing it for a long time. I learned this playing music and being a music producer. It’s an incremental, lifetime learning process.

That being said, here’s my unsolicited advice. Keep writing these light or confessional pieces here. But simultaneously tackle something hard and lengthy, something that is beyond anything you’ve done before. Don’t worry about it being good or publishing it. Don’t worry about making money with it (believe me, this challenge will help you get closer to making money). Don’t try to write something you think will be popular. And don’t publish it. Wait. Then rewrite, like five times. Then give it to someone to read and comment on.

How long? I’d say 7500–10000 words. That is long enough to require a deeper dive. Remember that a typical nonfiction book is going to be around 100,000 words minimum. A novel, likely more than that. It’s a marathon, not a sprint and you train differently for distance. Short, daily Medium pieces are training for speed.

Why do I think this is important? Because it requires an entirely different experience as a writer. You have to learn to structure it so the reader wants to keep going. To make it continuously compelling over a longer term. Pacing is the key. Even in nonfiction, we structure in scenes like film scripts. Each scene builds the action for the next scene. With nonfiction this is easier because you are working from an outline, one sentence for each scene.

The Longreads site is a good place to see how writers manage this length. The New Yorker is another. What will you get out of this as a writer? First, a big perspective shift on what writers do. We plan, we develop voice, we pace. Second, there’s discipline involved. Staying focused, building a story, having the discipline to go back and rework until it sparkles. You’ll know when it does and it won’t be the first or second draft, no matter what you think. When you think you’re close, set it aside for a week. Don’t look at it. Write a few of those sprint pieces. And don’t publish it (and I really hope you do not write in the Medium app itself- it is really not useful for the editing and polishing process).

While you’re doing this, read Stephen King’s On Writing. If you’ve already read it, read it again. He writes fiction, but process is process and you cannot fault his discipline or his work ethic, which he maintained through hellish issues with drugs and alcohol and a terrible car accident. 61 novels, 6 non-fiction books, and over 200 short stories, all best sellers. That’s a track record. If you have excuses for not writing, please read it. Especially the part about having a few trusted (i.e. honest) readers who critique your manuscript.

Do people prefer shorter pieces? The evidence says no. I’ve had my best luck here with articles around 1500–2000 words. But I’m guessing that a piece like I’m describing here, properly edited, will move you to the next echelon as a writer. It’s really the second step from the bottom but that’s a good start. And do me a favor: don’t write about writing unless you have something really meaningful to share. Writers are notorious for writing about writing and having writers as characters (guilty on both counts!).

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