FOR WRITERS: 101 Softly-Delivered Writing Lessons

February 12, 2021

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Monica Valentinelli is an author and narrative designer whose works always include magic, mayhem, mystery—or any combination thereof. For more information about Monica, visit www.booksofm.com or find all her lovely links at linktr.ee/booksofm

On January 29th, A.M. Hounchell was trending on Twitter after the author and media personality delivered this piece of “harsh writing advice.”

Original tweet has been deleted. Screen grab by Sarah Hollowell.

In the spirit of the Make Art Not War Collective (of which I’m a member) I’ve compiled these softly-delivered personal writing lessons to share with fellow writing creatives. Many of these lessons did not come easy; I’ve had my share of joys, but I’ve also made mistakes, too. The sad thing is, I found myself cutting several bits because I couldn’t stop writing them. Hah!

I hope one of these nuggets of gentle writing advice will resonate to help you on your own writing journey. If one does, great! If none do, that’s okay, too. What I learned for myself is going to be different than what you need. May we never, ever stop learning and growing.

  1. If you write, you are a writer. If you get paid to write, you are a professional writer.
  2. If you think of yourself as a writer, the days you spend time plotting, researching, daydreaming, reading, and learning still count as writing.
  3. You aren’t lazy if you can’t write when you’re stressed or anxious. The moments you can’t write might be a sign you need to try something else to refuel your creativity. Burnout is real!
  4. Self-doubt is common among writers because there are a lot of unknowns we have to navigate. Paralyzing sources of fear are different for everyone. Sometimes it’s a book. Sometimes, it’s a person you’re working with or a story you’re not ready to tell yet. It’s okay to be afraid and anxious. You’ll need to decide for yourself when you need help.
  5. Writers are storytellers, but we’re also people. That’s why stereotypes of writers don’t always work. People are messy and wonderful and complicated!
  6. There are a lot more people who write than you think. If you are struggling to find a community or writer you click with, it might be hard to believe you’ll find “your people.” You will. It just might take a while. Have faith. I do.
  7. Writers who give harsh writing advice (which unfortunately included me earlier in my career) have forgotten that it’s harder to be compassionate than critical. You don’t have to listen to advice that doesn’t serve you. If you’re giving harsh writing advice/judgements, ask yourself why that is? Do you want to appear confident? Knowledgeable? Why do you need to give advice to accomplish those goals?
  8. If you make a mistake, that’s okay. It’s not the mistake that’s important. It’s what you do next that counts. Apologies are hard, yo.
  9. Your story, no matter how well it’s written, won’t please everyone and that’s okay.
  10. Focus on celebrating the readers you have and not worrying about the readers you don’t.
  11. The publishing industry is constantly changing. What you learn was true six months ago might not be true now.
  12. If you believe a muse exists to inspire you, that’s okay as long as you think so. If you worry you can’t write unless your muse shows up, remember who the muse really is. It’s you!
  13. The person you were is not the person you are now and won’t be the person you’ll become. Now change “person” to “author.”
  14. Most of us are making shit up as we go, because we want to appear confident and successful so people will buy our books and work with us. We really don’t have any answers you don’t already have for yourself. What we might have is more experience. Even then …
  15. If we knew how to write and sell best-selling books everyone has heard about, then there’d be more of them and writers wouldn’t be so underpaid.
  16. When you’re confident in your writing to the point where you’re not worried about release day, it might be time to write something else so you don’t stagnate.
  17. There’s no one true way to be a writer or to write.
  18. Privilege exists and systemic forms of oppression do, too. If you’re struggling, find people who will lift you up regardless of your success. If you don’t believe privilege/systemic oppression exists, this is an opportunity to put the time in and learn for yourself—without calling your marginalized friends for answers.
  19. You have a right to be valued for who you are as a person, not what you can do for others as an author.
  20. Awards are icing. Setting an award win as a goal means that you believe you have the power to achieve it by taking measurable steps. You don’t.
  21. If you help other writers and expect help from them in return, you’re conducting a trade. This can backfire when authors don’t meet your expectations of generosity.
  22. Humor is difficult to write, because what you find funny someone else may think is hurtful. There are a lot of jokes that aren’t funny, and plenty of people only laugh because they’re uncomfortable.
  23. The reason why nobody believes you’ll complete your writing goals unless you finish them, is because there are more people talking about writing than those who actually write.
  24. The writers you worship might turn out to be assholes. Or, they might turn out to be the nicest people in the world. I hope they’re nice for you.
  25. Fame fucks up a lot of people. Sometimes temporarily. Sometimes permanently. Yes, even authors.
  26. It’s impossible to always write characters that precisely line up with our identities, because we’re discovering and exploring new things about ourselves all the time. (I used to think I was neurotypical, for example, until I found out I really wasn’t.)
  27. Writing is always going to be harder for some people and easier for others. That’s okay. It might get easier for you. It might not. That’s okay, too.
  28. It’s okay not to know what you want as an author. It’s okay not to know what stories you want to tell. Part of being a writer is falling in love with discovery. Part of that means discovering what you want for yourself.
  29. Writing media/tie-in fiction teaches you how to write for others, but it doesn’t always resonate with the lessons you need to learn for your own stories.
  30. If you’re dead set against reading other people’s stories, writing might not be your calling.
  31. Not every story is yours to tell—no matter how much research you do. This doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer. It just means that the stories you can tell will be that much better and more authentic!
  32. As you change and grow as a writer, your friendships with other people in the community will also change and grow for unexpected reasons.
  33. If you’re anything like me, you’re a much better writer than speaker. At some point, due to the nature of being a modern writer, you’ll have to confront that about yourself. I am working on it, too. Yeah, it sucks. But, it’s part of the job.
  34. If your goals are unrealistic, you’ll only end up punishing yourself. This can interfere with your writing. Try forming smaller, measurable goals you can achieve!
  35. The idea that success in publishing is a “pie” and there’s only “so much” for everyone comes from a scarcity mindset. If you buy into this, then you’ll subconsciously sabotage yourself.
  36. If you’re struggling to get published, remember there are hundreds and thousands of mid-to-smaller presses to explore. Many of these presses have wonderful communities, too. You don’t have to self-publish or be published by the Big Four. You have options.
  37. It’s not popular to squawk about the Terms of Service on content management platforms, but you might want to read what your rights are. When you submit or publish your content on a website you don’t own, you might be giving away rights you need later.
  38. Practical advice is not always what you want or need to hear. That doesn’t mean it’s overly negative. If you’re feeling defensive, take a pause and ask yourself why that is. What set you off? Is it because that advice was truly awful? Or, is it because deep down you need to think about it more?
  39. Someone will always be a better storyteller than you. Someone will always be worse. Someone will always want to be you. Someone would rather not acknowledge you. Write anyway. Your stories are not for the people who don’t like them. You don’t need to win them over.
  40. Well-written prose doesn’t always line up with great storytelling.
  41. If you don’t feel when writing your story, how do you expect your readers to care?
  42. Your journey as an author is personal and unique to you. Comparing your journey to someone else’s can generate doubt. Enjoy your path. When you do, that’s when you find the authors who are walking alongside you who’ll say “Hello!”
  43. There’s a difference between telling people about your accomplishments and bragging about them. It can be hard to understand where that line is—especially if you’re marginalized. I forgive you for messing this up.
  44. You don’t really want to write like a famous writer you admire. What you want are their fans, the name recognition, the acclaim, and the financial rewards.
  45. Good books can be written by terrible people, and great people can write terrible books. Good books can tank, terrible books can be best-sellers. None of this matters to your writing.
  46. You don’t need a formal education to learn how to write. If higher learning doesn’t work for you, that’s okay. There are other places to look for guidance outside of university.
  47. Nonfiction books about writing aren’t as valuable as sitting down to write. If you’re constantly reading them, find a book of writing exercises to help you transition from learning to doing.
  48. Your perception of another writer’s success is not a reflection on you or your failures.
  49. Writers are magpies, but whisper networks exist for a reason. It’s very hard to know the difference between gossip, gossip caused by a personality conflict, or a warning about a particular individual. The only advice I have here is: Trust yourself.
  50. You don’t have to drink, be poor, or be depressed to be a writer. It’s not romantic to be broke. There’s no shame in asking for help, either.
  51. Nobody really wants writing advice. What we want is reassurance that we’re on the right path to their version of success.
  52. Forming a relationship with an agent is important, but this person is your partner in business. If they don’t truly believe in you, then it’s time to find an agent who does. Otherwise, they can’t effectively sell your books.
  53. Be proud of yourself and your work, because no one else will ever truly understand your journey as an author as intimately as you will. It’s totally cool to be your own cheerleader! Especially for small wins!
  54. If you’re experiencing a moment of doubt, write something you know you’re great at! Then, flip to something you’re bad at to stretch your writerly muscles.
  55. Writing by yourself can be a great experience, but it can also be the worst thing possible for your work because you can lose perspective when you’re isolated.
  56. Sensitivity readers are cultural experts who are donating their time and performing heaps of emotional labor to help you. They’re not there to argue with.
  57. It’s impossible to write a universal experience that’s the same for everyone. The idea that every mother’s pregnancy is the same, for example, comes from a lack of representation.
  58. The more historically accurate you get, the more readers will find your story odd for two reasons: one, we’re constantly re-examining history and two, it’s hard to counteract popular misconceptions and beliefs. I say do the research anyway. It’s worth it!
  59. A writer’s job isn’t to tell the truth. Our job is to tell our truth.
  60. If you’re always focused on a writing goal that takes years to achieve, you’re missing out on what’s happening right now. Your present informs your future and becomes your past.
  61. When you network, try to find writers who value the same measuring sticks as you do. It’ll make conversations easier and reduce friction if you share similar values of success.
  62. Bad behavior does exist. You’re not dreaming. We tend to talk about the bad more than the good, because we treat “the bad” as a problem to be solved or be aware of so nobody gets hurt. But the good does exist, too.
  63. Treat your peers as people you’d want to collaborate with. If they don’t regard you the same way, then you know where you stand. Find new peers if you need to.
  64. Credit is free. Not everyone gives credit. Some people take it even when they don’t deserve it. This happens more often than you think. This is why it’s important to credit yourself for the work you’ve done. Be proud!
  65. Editorial feedback isn’t the same as a critique or a review. The only way to learn how to handle an editor’s criticism is by working through it. They’re not your enemy!
  66. You may not want to work with people who don’t have your best interests at heart, but you might have to. It does suck. It’s okay to walk away if you need to. I know you might not be able to.
  67. There’s no shame in writing ad copy or flipping burgers to pay the bills. Financial situations are different for everyone.
  68. Learn how to say yes to your writerly self and no to other people.
  69. You learn a lot about other authors by how they treat someone when they’re perceived to be a failure.
  70. There is a price for having integrity and fighting battles behind-the-scenes. Not everyone’s prepared to pay it. Not everyone can.
  71. The best thing you can do for your writing career is to explore a life (hobbies, friends, jobs, etc.) outside of publishing.
  72. Librarians are rock stars. (Go librarians, go!) They are fantastic sources of book love.
  73. Assumptions about the right way to conduct business will wind up in disaster. There isn’t one way to run a business and not everyone treats publishing as one. Yet, capitalism still exists. Just do the best you can.
  74. Every form of writing is unique and may require specialization. For this reason, if you want to write a novel—then do that! You won’t know how to write a novel if you’re focused on writing short stories.
  75. If you’re on Twitter (or other social media platforms), and you’re not writing, ask yourself why. Are you missing community? Dopamine? What? Knowing why you need it is helpful. Understanding what it can and can’t do for you is also important.
  76. A lot of times when someone asks “What do you write?” what they’re really asking is: “Where will I find your books on a shelf?” If you write more than one thing or can’t answer their question right away, don’t despair! That’s common. Follow up with: “I’m so glad you’re interested in my work. Oof, I write a lot. What do you like to read? That will help me give you a specific answer.”
  77. Luck and timing influence success more than you think they do. Some authors get lucky by being in the right place at the right time. That doesn’t mean they’re better writers. It just literally means that: They got lucky. What can and does influence your luck is whether or not you have a manuscript to sell. Hint, hint. Keep writing!
  78. If you need a fresh perspective on your manuscript during your revisions, try changing the font! Or your writing environment!
  79. You’re not a weirdo if you don’t have a novel-writing playlist. Not everyone can write to music.
  80. If you’re always seeking the perfect conditions to write, then you won’t write.
  81. How fast or slow you write is no reflection on the quality of your prose.
  82. When someone tells you they didn’t like your story, that doesn’t mean they don’t like you as a person.
  83. It’s okay to suck. I give you permission. Why? Because I believe that worrying about whether or not you suck will only lead to not-suckage. My first drafts can be awful! But, I can always revise a draft, and I will put the work in.
  84. You don’t have to submit, sell, or publish every piece of your writing. It’s okay to write something and decide not to let it see light of day.
  85. You don’t have to announce what you’re working on or tell people you’re writing. You can be private about your projects. Sometimes, not talking about it helps reduce pressure.
  86. Several tropes exist because they’re prominent in media. You can’t avoid tropes, but you can be aware of the harmful ones and avoid repeating those.
  87. The first person you need to take care of is yourself. If your deadlines are affecting your mental health, it’s better to communicate how you’re doing than suffer. This doesn’t mean you’re weak. It means you’re very, very strong for taking care of you. Your future writerly self will thank you for it.
  88. 99.9% of failed (funded) publishing projects do so because of maligned expectations. Communication difficulties are a danger sign that points to this.
  89. Resolving conflict is a skill that leadership doesn’t always possess and we’re rarely taught. The real reason why people avoid conflict is anxiety caused by a lack of skills and positive experiences.
  90. Being an advocate for writers doesn’t mean you’ll be viewed as a good writer or as a hero. Advocating for writers will benefit you, however, because the better writers are treated the better you will be. Also, you’ll have more confidence when you stand up for yourself.
  91. If you’re not neurotypical and you are a writer, it’s better to find other writers who share your brains. Otherwise, you could internalize without knowing it that “you’re doing it wrong.”
  92. Sure! You could use your free time to play with your cat or pet your dog. Or…
  93. Books are written to be read by total strangers. Yes, that is scary. It’s also exciting!
  94. Once you publish a book, you don’t have any control over its reception. Yes, that’s hard.
  95. The only thing you can control is the blank page. Put some words on it, please. You’ll feel better.
  96. Reviews are for readers. They help a reader decide whether or not your book is for them. No amount of your enthusiasm or criticism of a review will change their minds. By the time you enter the conversation to refute a bad review, most readers have already made up their minds about your book.
  97. Social media is a distorted mirror and not everyone is their intimate, true selves on these platforms. You know this already, but it bears repeating. If you’re yourself, then you have less to worry about than if you were pretending to be someone completely different or fake.
  98. Marketers aren’t evil. Marketing is an entire field of career-minded professionals! It’s very, very big. There’s no shame in participating in your book’s campaign as an author; that doesn’t mean you’re a marketer full-time. Marketers receive a bad rap because of horror stories (and capitalism), but often they’re just trying to help generate excitement about your book or make readers aware it exists.
  99. The successful writers of today began their journey years ago, and their advice for you now may no longer be relevant.
  100. You may experience a moment where you question whether or not you should quit being a writer.
  101. Lastly… About that harsh writing advice… Are other writers your competition? If you believe you’re racing against other writers, you are assuming that your competitors are just like you, have the same goals, and share similar circumstances. Take that as a sign you need to get out of your head and talk to other writers. Listening to other authors is the hardest thing you’ll have to learn—we are storytellers, after all, and at times we love the sound of our own voices. But sometimes, the best thing you can do for yourself is listen, really listen, to other authors’ stories. When they tell theirs, that doesn’t make your story any less valid. It simply means they trust you enough to share their journey—much like I trusted you when I opened up about the lessons I’ve learned. When someone opens up to you? It’s a gift. Don’t waste it.

I hope you’ve enjoyed 101 pieces of gentle writing advice and you found something meaningful. I will ALWAYS shamelessly rattle my coffee jar, which can be found here: https://ko-fi.com/A527F5H. You can also find me on Patreon here.

This essay originally appeared in Monica’s Marvelous Musings newsletter.

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