What Not to Say When You’re a Writer (and What to Say Instead)

These are things I hear a lot in the sideways world of Internet writing. No matter how long you’ve been doing this dance: rookie mistakes. This is what I’ve learned about the attitude serious writers bring to their work.

Don’t say: “Can I do (X) in my manuscript?”

I don’t know. Can you? Of course you can—you can try whatever you want. The first draft is the playground draft. POV, setting, character, plot, everything. Just tell the story. If it doesn’t work, go back and fix it on the rewrite. Besides, who knows? Maybe you’ll come up with something genius. But if you don’t stretch your muscles and try new things, even if they’re just new to you, you’ll never grow as an artist. “Can I make my character a daywalking vampire who loves frosting?” Sure you can. I think what you’re really asking is, “Will people be interested in this? Because I don’t want to spend a year writing it if nobody’s going to buy it.” Nobody can tell what the market will do. Just write the thing, if it’s in your heart.

Say instead: “I have done this thing. Does it work?”

Do it, clean it up to the best of your abilities, and get yourself some beta-readers. Don’t show me an idea. Show me writing.

Don’t say: “Has it been done?”

Yes. But you’ve never done it. There’s so much out there. Of course it’s been done. Do it your way. Don’t apologize for retreading familiar ground; instead, tread it how only you can.

Say instead: “This is my project. There are many like it, but this one is mine.”

See above. Do it, clean it up, send it out to readers. Don’t show me an idea. Show me work.

Don’t say: “I suck.”

You’re right. You do. So do I. So did Flannery O’Connor. Every artist knows it. If you’re new to writing or creating, it hurts so hard to realize this, but if you let it stop you, you’re not going to get any better. Dwelling on your suck is not going to help you.

Say instead: “I’m learning.”

Practice is going to help you. Every time you put words down, you’re learning something, whether you realize it or not. That’s why it’s important to put words down regularly. If you’re serious about this, it’s only going to get better, every time.

Don’t say, never say, never ever: “I quit.”

I’ve got to try to be rational here, because when I hear this, I see hot red. If you want this, don’t ever say that. It’s garbage. You can’t quit. This is hard. And there will be days when you’ll wonder, and days when you’ll doubt yourself, and days when you’ll hate everything. Writers don’t quit. Real writers don’t quit. If you want to be a “real writer,” whatever that means to you, you’re not allowed.

Say instead: “I need a break.”

Sometimes, you just need a day. Or a week. Or a year. Or more. But come back to the words. They need you—you’re a writer. You need them for the same reason. The toughest, stupidest, most frustrating years of my life were the ones when I wasn’t writing fiction. I need this. Maybe you do, too. If this is what you’re meant for, what you love, what you really want out of life, you’ll come back. And you’ll be better than ever, because you’ll be ready to learn all over again.

What about it? Do you want to be that jackass at parties, saying languidly, “Oh…I’m writing a novel…“? Or do you want to stand up straight and say, “I’m writing my fourth novel”? If you want the second, you know what you have to do.

12 thoughts on “What Not to Say When You’re a Writer (and What to Say Instead)

  1. So much truth here. I see writers in the group all the time going on about how they suck and are just going to quit. Meanwhile, they’re gleefully waiting for their rush of support from tons of people who’ve never even read their writing, to convince them to continue. No one is going to make you a writer but you. We all have to find our inner strength to press on. Well done.

  2. So many fantastic words of wisdom in this post! It’s always always important to remember that when you write the first draft don’t worry about your audience, who may read, what the critics will think. Write the story for you and the story inside of your heart. Nothing else matters. The more you worry about others, the less it becomes your story. 🙂

  3. Lovely blog today, Em. I completely agree with all of these, and probably need to stop myself from doing a few. Not just in writing, but in everyday life as well.

  4. Reblogged this on Love of a Literary Life and commented:
    Some wonderful encouragement for writers. Straight to the point and real.
    Writing is hard work. It’ll take persistence. Many many many hours, and days and weeks and years. But with each word written you keep on getting better.

    Keep writing!

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