21 Things I’ve Learned About Writing in 21 Years

Strap in, kids. This is a long one.

This week, I celebrated my 21st birthday. It’s been a wild past year. This year has seen my conquer so many of my fears. It’s seen me reach for my dream job and grab it. It’s seen the launch of this blog, the final rewrite of my novel, and the birth of so many new ideas.

I’ve been writing my whole life, and I’ve learned a lot about writing in these few years that I’ve been alive, so I thought I’d share all of the most important things I’ve learned, one for each year. This runs a little long, but bear with me.

21 Things I’ve Learned About Writing in 21 Years,

Lets go:

1. work with a team

Every writer needs a squad. These are the guys that are going to lift you up when you feel down, who will be honest when you bounce ideas off of them and tell you whether or not they’re stupid, and who will help you get through those really, really boring days. Writing can be really isolating. We need a few good friends to help us out.

2. not everyone will get it, and that’s okay

On that note, it’s important to remember that not everyone will understand why you have to write. They won’t get why you’re writing that novel, or why you want to freelance, or why you want a job at that major publishing company. It’s okay. Don’t worry about them. They don’t need to understand. You know what you want. Go get it.

3. “write what you know” is terrible advice

Over the course of my life, this has been one of the most common pieces of advice anyone has ever given me. Mostly, it was used to try and discourage me from writing fantasy and science fiction. Don’t listen. Every writer is in the business of being in someone else’s shoes in a world they may not initially understand. It’s how we learn.

4. writer’s block isn’t real

Trust me. It’s not. Your brain would love for you to think that it is, but usually writer’s block is a case of one of three things: a lack of self-care, procrastination, or a lack of confidence. Take a shower, eat something, sit your butt in your chair, place your hands on the keyboard, and tell your inner editor to go away. Chances are, your writer’s block will too.

5. you have to be willing to bleed

Writing hurts. Physically, emotionally, mentally. There will be days when you don’t want to do it. There will be days when your back aches from sitting in a desk chair, and your wrists ache from typing, and your eyes are watering from staring at a screen. Your head will be wracked with headaches, your brain will feel fuzzy, and your heart will pound.

You will sweat.

You will cry.

You will scream.

You just can’t give up.

Your project is worth it.

6. characters are people too

When something in your story isn’t working, be willing to let go. Sometimes all the story needs is for you to take your hands off of it for a while and to let it breathe. Talk to your characters. Get to know who they really are apart from you. They’re real people, and they make real decisions, and those will affect the plot.

It will not always go the way you want it to. Embrace that. Your story will thank you for it. Half the fun of writing is discovering new twists that you hadn’t planned on in the first place.

7. self-care is really important

I touched on this earlier, but if you’re not taking care of yourself, then you will have nothing to give to your story. It’s really important that in the midst of all of your crazy late-night writing sit-ins, that you take a moment to breathe, to shower, to eat, to get outside, and to have some human interaction. When you come back to your project, it will be with fresh eyes and a clear mind.

8. read, read, and read some more

Your brain is not an infinite pool of writing material. You must read if you want to write. I’d even argue that you have to read more than you write. Reading is how you discover new turns of phrase, new metaphors, new similes. It’s how you find out what works and what doesn’t. You meet new character archetypes and new plot tropes, and learn how to rework them into your own project.

Read whatever you can get your hands on. Good books, bad books, poetry, song lyrics, cereal boxes, the news (…maybe not the news), all is fair game when you’re learning to write.

9. learning to write never stops

You will be learning to write better until the day you die. There isn’t a person on this planet that is a “perfect writer”. We aren’t ever quite ready to publish our book. We must write anyway. We must publish anyway. That’s how we grow.

10. you CAN do what you love and make it your career

I always knew that I wanted to be writer. I was telling people that I wanted to write novels when I was four years old. Most people were just like, “that’s great, hon”, but many told me as I grew up that it was impossible to make any money that way.

This is simply not true.

Put yourself out there, research, hone your craft and eke out your niche. You will find a job. Sure, the world has a lot of other writers, but the world doesn’t have you.

11. …but be willing to sacrifice…a lot

I’m not here to lie and say a writing career is sunshine and unicorns and rainbows out the butt. It’s not. That would be a grossly huge fib, the fibbiest of fibs, the biggest fib to ever fib…you get the picture.

Making a career out of writing requires a lot of self-motivation, self-discipline, and a willingness to fail.

You will suck, like, terribly.

You will not get hired at first. You have to be persistent, you have to believe in your dream, and you have to be willing to do whatever it takes in the meantime while you’re getting there – even if that means working at a fast food restaurant and then going home to grow your own business in your time off. It won’t be easy, but it’ll be worth it.

12. make friends with other writers

Get on Twitter or Facebook. Meet new people in your industry and get to know them. Make connections, make long-lasting friendships. These are the people who know what they’re doing and who you can learn from. Study them. Learn how and why they do what they do. Support their endeavors, be active, be vocal. The solidarity in the writing community is incredible. Your writer friends will get you. They will help you out through the hardest of nights. They will keep you going.

13. your self-critic needs to go die

Curb stomp that jerk. She has no place in your life.

14. write first, edit later

This goes along with #13. When you’re writing your first draft of anything, just write. Don’t go back and edit. Don’t stop too much to think about your sentences. Just write. Get it out. Let it flow. It might be a crappy full page, but there isn’t a crappy full page of writing in the Universe that can’t be fixed later.

15. your novel will take a long time to write, and that’s okay

Books just take forever to write. It’s a fact of life. It’s a labor of love. It’s only through time that we can truly get to know our characters with any sort of intimacy, and it’s that intimacy that creates stories that shake the world. So don’t worry about how fast other people are writing. Work at a pace that makes sense for you. 

16. your first novel will be awful

Your first novel is, in all likelihood, going to be your worst one. Unless you have a really good editor who helped you make it great, your first novel is really, really going to suck. That’s okay. It’s all part of the learning process. You don’t really know how to write a novel until you’ve done it.

17. the first draft of anything is shit

Raise your right hand and say it with me: I will never let anyone see the first draft of anything I write, except maybe my dog.

There are two reasons you should never, ever, ever let your first draft see the light of day.

  1. Your first draft isn’t anything. It’s just you shoveling sand into a box so you can make something out of it later.
  2. If you embrace just how awful your first draft truly is, then you’ll be less likely to take forever to write it, and more likely to just get the words out onto a page, feel that sense of accomplishment, and then be ready to work it into something readable later. It’s all about the process.

18. everyone you meet has something to teach you

That guy you saw at the grocery store who smelled weird and kept muttering to himself? Yup. He’ll probably be a character later.

So much as it depends on you, be kind to everyone you meet. They all have something to teach you, no matter how small. They will contribute in tiny ways to this massive project you’re trying to create. You might not notice it at first, but when you look back on your writing you will see, within the massive design, each individual thread that makes up the fabric. In the end, nothing will be wasted.

19. the only person that can tell your story is you

If you have a story to write, then you must write it. No one else can write it for you. No one else will. So do it. Your characters are depending on you to have their voices heard. Someone out there needs you to write that story. Someone needs the message you’re trying to convey. Believe that. Stop worrying about whether it looks like you’re “copying” JK Rowling, or Tolkien, or Kafka, or any other writer, and just focus on being you.

20. it’s okay that it’s not perfect

Your piece will never be perfect. Yes, it takes a long time to write something well, but there comes a point when you have to stop shifting words around, editing apostrophes, and bite the bullet and send it in. Just finish it. Never leave work undone.

21. be fearless

Remember how I said only you can tell your story?

Tell it.

Tell it in the most honest way you know how.

Don’t be afraid of offending people. Don’t worry about what other people think. Don’t be afraid to make a mess, to set things on fire, to change the world. No well-behaved writer ever made history.

Go out there and make it happen.

The world needs to hear your story.




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2 Thoughts to “21 Things I’ve Learned About Writing in 21 Years”

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