I’ve been writing professionaly since I was 17.
Today, at the age of 22, I’ve ghostwritten three “real” books (which have sold about 80,000 copies total), amassed more than 50,000,000 social and blog views for more clients, and built a 6-figure career as a writer/marketer hybrid.
Funnily enough, I don’t think of myself as a particularly good writer.
I’ve never been completely satisfied with anything I’ve written…ever.
Writing is a painful process for me and it’s equally painful to read things I’ve written.
I get paid well to type words on my keyboard.
…So I guess I’m doing something right.
And today, I want to share the 7 most important lessons I’ve learned throughout my journey.
If you will take these lessons to heart, you can and will improve your craft as a writer, make more money, and have a greater impact through your words.
1. Everyone Sucks at Writing…The Magic is in the Editing
The first draft of everything is shit. ~Ernest Hemmingway
The point of the second draft is to make it look like you knew what you were doing all along. ~Neil Gaiman
There’s a laughable notion among aspiring writers that great authors and wordsmiths sit down at their laptop, furiously type for hours on end, and then leave their desk with the makings of a masterpiece.
So allow me to set the record straight…
…This does NOT fucking happen.
It took Ernest Hemingway more than 47 attempts to write the final chapter of A Farwell to Arms.
Stephen King’s novel Carrie was rejected more than 30 times before he got it right.
The Help was rejected more than 60 times before any publisher would touch it.
When you look at the true story behind every great writer, you will notice a simple but important theme.
Their first drafts always (and I do mean always) sucked.
And that’s an important point to keep in mind.
No one hits a home run on their first swing. To call someone a “great writer” is a bit of a misnomer. In reality, the most prolific authors are impeccable editors, but often shitty writers.
But the general public doesn’t see this.
They see the finished product. The breathtaking prose. The elegant, almost poetic syntax. The masterpiece.
What they don’t see are the trashcans filled with discarded ideas and drafts…the hours spent laboring behind a screen to get just one page right…the blood, sweat, and tears that go into every piece of perennial content.
And, as a result, when they sit down to craft their own masterpiece, they are quick to fall into frustration and overwhelm. They wonder what’s wrong with them…why they can’t “get it right”…why their writing, even after hours of effort, reads like one of Donald Trump’s “3rd-grade level” speeches.
Because they fail to realize the simple truth that you aren’t supposed to get it right on the first try. Great writing is an arduous process. One filled with missteps, jibberish, and a dash of self-loathing.
And it is only by submitting to the inescapable shittiness of your writing–and the writing process–that you stand any hope of creating something spectacular.
You won’t get it right the first time around. So don’t even try.
Embrace the process and realize that the true magic of writing is in the editing.
2. Compare Backward, Not Up
While writing this response, I got distracted (which happens a lot) and started reading an article by Ryan Holiday.
It was painful.
Not because Holiday’s writing is bad. Rather because his writing is so eloquent that it made me question whether I have the authority to write this article in the first place.
His sentences are so poignant…his analogies so unique…his storytelling so gripping…
…That I was tempted to say “fuck it” and delete this entire post.
But I didn’t.
Because I’m not competing with Ryan. I’m competing with the writer and man I was yesterday.
In the pursuit of anything worthwhile, you will be tempted to “compare up”.
That is, you will be tempted to compare yourself to the best of the best.
As a writer, you will compare your work with the likes of Hemmingway, Rothfuss, King, or Tolkein.
This type of comparison serves no purpose.
The point of writing is not to be more eloquent or refined than other writers.
But to transfer what is in your mind to the mind of another with no loss in the potency of your thoughts or ideas.
Instead of comparing yourself to your favorite writers (which is tantamount to comparing your physique to that of Arnold’s in his prime during your first year of weight training), compare yourself to the writer you were yesterday.
Can you share your ideas more concisely and succinctly?
Are your sentences more refined and poignant?
Can you capture a thought and express it in its purest form better today than you could yesterday?
That is the only thing that matters.
And that is the only metric by which you should gauge your success.
3. Cut the Fluff
I apologize for writing such a long letter–I didn’t have time to write a short one ~Mark Twain
One of my mentors once told me that “Great writing is good writing without the noise.”
And he was right.
The hallmark of a great writer is not their ability to draw from a deep lexicon to craft pompous prose (kind of like I did right there…)
But the ability to express themselves in a way that is both simple and complete.
Good writers can share a powerful idea with one paragraph. Great writers can share that same idea with one sentence.
Verbosity is one of the deadliest sins a writer can commit.
Be ruthless with the words you use and hack away at the inessential until the noise is silenced.
4. Talent is a Myth: Practice Makes the Master
My fiance is not a writer.
Although wildly skilled at other forms of artistic express (like sketching, painting, singing, and dancing) she has never made the commitment to developing her voice and abilities as a writer.
As such, she regularly asks me to edit text messages, emails, and other content.
And when I do, her reaction is always the same.
“Goddamn it! How are you so good at this…it took me an hour to write that and you just made it 10X better in 5 minutes.”
My response is equally predictable.
“This is what I do for a living and I spend 6–10 hours a day practicing.”
People often believe that great writers are “lucky.” That they have a talent or innate ability that others don’t.
And this belief is grade A+ donkey shit.
No one is born a great writer. Writing is a skill. And like any other skill, it can only be developed through practice, repetition, and pain.
To make a full-time living as a writer, you must submit to this truth.
You will only become a better writer with time and practice. And it will take years of practice.
There is no muse descending from the heavens to whisper literary marvels into your ear.
There is only pain, practice, and consistency.
If you want to be a good writer…write more. It’s that simple.
5. “Writers” Don’t Make Money
Growing up, I’d always heard that “Writers don’t make real money.”
At the time, I thought this was bullshit.
But as I’ve grown older and invested more time and energy into my craft…I’ve realized the truth.
“Writers”, in the traditional sense, don’t make money. At least not most of them.
And those who do spend years, often decades, slaving away behind a keyboard before they are ever rewarded with real compensation.
The Stephen Kings and George R.R. Martins of the world are a rare breed.
And the uncomfortable truth is that most people don’t care how good your writing is.
There are thousands, if not millions of writers far more talented, eloquent, and practiced than me who don’t make a dime from their writing.
And the reason is simple.
No one gives a shit about your writing…they only care about how your writing benefits them.
And, to be blunt, if you are writing to entertain others, you’ll be hard-pressed to find even a modicum of financial success.
Entertainment is a ubiquitous part of the Western experience. With the click of a button or the tap on a phone screen, we have unlimited access to TV, video games, porn, and a whole host of other distractions that have been engineered to toy with our brain chemistry and keep us “hooked”.
The only (expedient) way to make a full-time living as a writer is to learn how to use your words in ways that other people value. And to combine these words with secondary skills that enhance and increase this value.
Whether you are persuading (copywriting), informing (content), or some combination of both, you must find a creative outlet that both satisfies your personal needs and delivers something of value to the marketplace.
Although my primary profession is a writer…I’m also a marketer, a salesman, a manager, and a consultant. And the only reason I’ve achieved financial success through my writing is because I’ve paired it with other skills valued by my target clients.
Sure, if you’re willing to spend the next 15 years in a state of destitution, working on your manuscript from a halfway house (like Steven Pressfield), you might be able to dine in the hall of the literary greats.
But if you want to make money as a writer and you want to make that money before you need the assistance of a little blue pill to please your lovers…Accept that writing in and of itself isn’t enough.
You need to bring more to the table. Whether it’s SEO, email marketing, copy, or leadership…you must develop other high-income skills that make your writing profitable.
Otherwise, you’re going to be a starving artist for a long, long, long time.
6. Consistency Trumps Motivation
I don’t want to be writing this.
In fact, I never really “want” to write.
I can count on one hand the number of days in the past year where I’ve actually felt inspired to write anything.
But here I am. Hungover. Tired. A little cranky (nicotine withdrawals are a bitch). And doing the work.
Aspiring creatives, from artists to writers to musicians, all have this idea that, before they can produce great work, they must feel inspired. Which is why they are (and will likely remain) aspiring creatives.
Those of us who have bridged the gap from aspiration to action, understand the truth.
You will never fucking feel like doing the work.
And if you do? Then you better drop everything else, lock yourself away in a basement, and work until your eyes pop out of your head…because motivation is a fickle and fleeting mistress.
She will apparate when you want her least (e.g. at 2 in the morning when you’re trying to sleep) and dissipate when you need her most.
But it doesn’t matter.
To achieve the success you desire, you must commit to showing up every day whether you feel like it or not.
Artists only starve when they believe the lie that inspiration is a prerequisite for creativity and a necessary condition for great work.
Consistency is all that matters.
If you will sit down every day, whether it’s for 15 minutes or 5 hours, and do the fucking work, you will eventually find the success you desire.
If you wait until you’re struck by a bolt of inspiration…you will be waiting for the rest of your life.
7. The Way You Write Matters Less than What You Write About
The final lesson with which I will leave you is this…
The way you write doesn’t matter.
There is no objective standard for great writing or any other art form.
Work that is loved by one person will be reviled by another.
What matters more than how you write is what your writing means.
When you look at the greatest writers of all time, you will notice they are all tied together by a powerful theme.
They had a story or idea worth sharing. Their writing can be verbose and pompous (the book Antifragile by Nicolas Taleeb comes to mind). Or simple and elegant.
But they all had something worth saying.
If you find yourself struggling as a writer, don’t focus on the writing itself.
Focus on developing more salient ideas.
Expose yourself to new ways of living and thinking. Travel the world. Read a wide breadth of books on a wider breadth of topics. Learn new skills. Experience more of this marvelous planet and create a deep well of stories and anecdotes from which to draw.
Great writing means something.
It doesn’t just tell a story. It speaks to the human condition, crossing the barriers of culture, race, and time. It articulates something that we’ve all felt but never known how to put to words.
And the only way to be a great writer is to live in a way that gives you something worth writing about.