Equipping Writers for Success
The Writing Life
The Writing Life
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The Secret of Success
by Moira Allen
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The question, of course, is "What is the secret of success?" It isn't always phrased that way, but the meaning comes through every time. "How did you get to where you are? How can I get to where you are?"
Someone recently asked me how he could obtain the same level of traffic for his new website (started a month earlier) that I receive for Writing-World.com (started over 13 years ago). Hint: At least part of the answer lies within the parentheses! When someone asks me how to get to where I am today, I'm tempted to say, "Keep counting those birthdays!"
That's not as dismissive as it sounds. One of the secrets of success -- and one that "People Who Ask This Question" (PWATQ) often least want to hear -- is, quite simply, time. There are, in the writing world, very few genuine "overnight successes." There are overnight discoveries -- but generally one finds that the discoveree has been laboring at his or her craft for years.
On the other hand, many people ask this question precisely because they have already been laboring for years, and find themselves no closer to success than when they began. Time is important, but time alone does not bring success. Time makes us older; it doesn't, by itself, make us "better."
The key is not just time, but what one does with that time. And here, I believe, the "secret of success" can be summed up in two words: "Education" and "Experience."
Education, experience, and time are inextricably linked. You cannot have education without time; you cannot gain experience without time. Education is essential for a writer, but it is worthless without experience; experience, conversely, may lead one nowhere without education. So let's break this "secret" down into its component parts.
Let's start with education, because -- well, because that's where a writer's career should start. Thousands of would-be writers are doomed to failure from the very beginning, because they do not want to take the time to learn the business of writing. Many writers have been seduced by the belief that writing is a purely "creative" enterprise, and that all that "left-brain" stuff about business and market research and record-keeping just isn't what creative people are all about. Unfortunately, it is what successful creative people are all about, and so the first step in uncovering the secrets to success is discovering the process that enables one to be successful.
Education needn't mean going back to school. It simply means gathering knowledge. It means taking information and turning that information into "knowing." To be a successful writer, you need to "know your stuff." Today, much of that knowledge can be gathered from a host of free resources (Writing-World.com being one of them). It can be gathered from online classes, mentors, coaches, and critique groups. It can be found in books. In short, it can be found in so many places, at so little cost, that there is virtually no excuse for a would-be writer not to be "educated" about what is involved in becoming a successful writer.
However, education is only half the battle. One can learn any number of facts, and be no closer to success, if one does not actually put that knowledge into practice. In other words, one also has to get out and do something. One has to write, of course -- and a surprising number of PWATQ don't, actually, do that. (Quite a few, in fact, are the sort who have a "great idea" and "just need someone to write it down" and "we can split the profits.") One can't become an effective interviewer by reading about how to conduct interviews (though it's a wise place to start); one actually has to go out and do interviews. One can't become an effective researcher by reading loads of tips on conducting research; one has to start hunting up those elusive facts for oneself. One can't break into a market by reading market guides; one has to actually submit.
And here's where education and experience intertwine. Without a grounding education in the business and craft of writing, a writer is blundering in the dark. He or she may gain experience -- but rarely will it be useful. Without "education" in such issues as how to craft a marketable article, how to format a story for submission, how to locate and contact appropriate markets, and most of all, how to identify areas and skills that need improvement, a writer's "experience" may be worse than useless. At best, it will become a litany of "things that didn't work," an endless source of frustration.
I see this frustration all too often in e-mails from writers who are writing or have written a book -- and are now unable to comprehend why they are unable to find a publisher. When a writer contacts me and confides that she has a "wonderful book" but "just doesn't have a lot of money to pay a publisher," I know I'm dealing with someone who has skipped the "education" part of the equation. Unfortunately, all too often, the writer in question doesn't want to hear about the need for education, because she wants to get that book published now -- not spend the time needed to learn how the business works. Equally unfortunately, that writer is going to spend pretty much the majority of her writing career wondering why success remains such an elusive "secret."
But... I can hear the PWATQ asking... But what about talent? Inspiration? Creativity? The Muse? Aren't those important -- nay, even essential -- as well? Are they not, in fact, even more important than the dull, plodding steps of education and experience?
Talent, inspiration and creativity are certainly important ingredients in the formula for success. However, talent alone won't make one successful. I've known many talented writers who have never done anything with that talent -- and I've known plenty of writers who would not describe themselves as "creative geniuses" yet who have, nevertheless, done extremely well for themselves. Inspiration is wonderful; knowing what to do with that inspiration is even better.
Education is worthless if not applied to experience. Experience, conversely, can lead a writer down all the wrong paths if not guided by education. Education requires time to acquire and assimilate -- and by definition, experience can only be acquired over time. Time, education, experience... the key to success isn't a secret, it's a formula, available to any writer, anywhere.
The real "secret" is the bit that, right now, only you know -- and that's whether, as you're reading this, you're nodding... or shaking your head. Because the only real "secret" to success is the road we choose for ourselves.
Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com, and has written nearly 400 articles, serving as a columnist and regular contributor for such publications as The Writer, Entrepreneur, Writer's Digest, and Byline. An award-winning writer, Allen is the author of eight books, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. In addition to Writing-World.com, Allen hosts VictorianVoices.net, a growing archive of articles from Victorian periodicals, and The Pet Loss Support Page, a resource for grieving pet owners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and the obligatory writer's cat. She can be contacted at editors "at" writing-world.com.