Am I Wrong to Pursue A Writing Career?

For today, I’ve got a question from a reader! Take a look at what L.S. wanted to know:

I’ve been writing for a few years (I’m 17) and I know I want to be an author. It’s all I want to do but I know my writing needs work – a lot of work. I’ve heard from some people that the only way to improve your writing is to practice, just keep writing and reading. Is that true, or is it different for everyone? And is it wrong to pursue this as a career?

It seems like the most common advice is to do something else, “write in your free time”. I originally decided that if I made it to college, I’d major in Creative Writing. I thought that would help me become a better writer, but I’m worried now that it would be a waste of time.

There isn’t a single writer in the world who hasn’t doubted whether writing is the path for them. These questions are definitely normal. The first thing I have to say is that you’ve got plenty of time on your hands. A lot of writers discover their passion for it early. This is the part you might not want to hear, though: a lot of writers start early but then spend years and years and years honing their skills. To answer your question, yes, practice and reading are the best ways to improve as a writer. That’s not just for some people, that’s for everybody. The more you write, the better you get, and the more you read, the more you absorb for your own craft.

Even though you’re thinking of majoring in creative writing, don’t think you’ll get out of college with that degree and begin a career writing books right away. The truth of the matter is, you’ll learn a lot more from years and years of practice than you ever will in creative writing classes. Those classes were nice but did little to prepare me for writing a book and getting into the publishing world. Heck, my MFA in creative writing was only marginally better than college in terms of craft and literature curriculum. Luckily, nobody cares about your degrees or your resume when you’re a writer. They only care about the work, as should you. That’s your responsibility to hone, so don’t feel like you need to put so much pressure on your degree.

Being an author isn’t an easy career to get into. Most people don’t realize how long it takes to start writing good, saleable books. Most people have no idea how slowly the publishing world moves. I talk to writers all the time who say it took them ten years of solid writing to finally get a manuscript that sold. But if that’s the only thing you can possibly imagine doing, if writing is an irresistible, compulsive thing for you, then pursue it. Most people try and then drop out. This is a field where tenacity is pretty much a requirement.

The thing you really need to explore right now is your voice. For young writers, the voice is usually the last thing to develop and solidify. It’s true. To carry any kind of book for 300 pages, a writer needs a mature, dynamic and compelling voice. A voice that feels like a real human being, not just some caricature or persona. If there’s any advice I’d give you, it’s to educate yourself, put in grueling writing time every day and to work tirelessly on your voice. That and don’t give up just because it’s hard. The most worth-it things are always difficult.

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  1. LSmith’s avatar

    Your answer is more encouraging than you may think! I love writing enough that I’d keep trying, whether for ten years or twenty or more. Well, I would if I thought I had a chance. And now I think I really might. Thank you so much for your help and advice!

  2. Mary’s avatar

    Aww, good! Because if this can be called “encouraging,” then you might really have a great chance. The most important thing to remember is to always strive toward your best work, to challenge yourself every day and to never let yourself get away with complacent writing.

  3. LSmith’s avatar

    I’ll remember that! Thanks again. :]

  4. Shaun Hutchinson’s avatar

    I wrote my first story when I was eight (I’m pretty sure it was eight though it could have been nine). I wrote on and off for the next twenty-two years before I sold my first book (Shameless plug: The Deathday Letter, Simon Pulse, Summer 2010). There are a couple things I learned in that time.

    1. Write until it hurts. Set aside specific times. For me it’s mornings. I get up and write for a couple of hours every morning. Some mornings I write such drivel that I have to toss it out and start anew the next morning. But that’s not important. What’s important is that you get into the habit of doing it every day, no matter what other distractions you have.

    2. Finish stuff. Finish short stories, then longer stories, and then a book. Likely none of it will be publishable, but do it so that you know you can. After I finished my first (horrible) book, finishing the next was cake.

    3. Brace yourself for rejection. This is the hardest, but something I wish I’d been better at when I started.

    4. Find yourself a stable day job. I spent a lot of my twenties in and out of college, job-hopping, and moving around. The whole time, I kept telling myself that if I could just have six months and a quiet house, I’d finally write that book. It wasn’t until I settled into a (boring) career, that I finally realized that routine and financial security are key. Even after having sold my first book, I’m still at my day job and probably will be for a while, but the key here is that I don’t worry about where my next paycheck is coming from or whether I can afford food, which frees up my time and gives me the peace of mind to focus on writing.

    5. Don’t focus on publication, focus on writing. If you just worry about being the best writer you can be, then you’ll know when you’re ready to try to publish.

    6. Finally: read. A lot. Experience as much as you can. All the stuff you learn will help you be a better writer.

    Plus, everything Mary said :)

    Good luck! Hope to see you on a shelf someday.

  5. Mary’s avatar

    Yo Shaun! Long time no see. =)

    If you ever want a place to guest blog, smarty-pants, the good ship Kidlit is all yours. I’m just sayin’. You’ve got some good advice, and I love hearing real people’s stories of how they got where they are.

    Point four is the most interesting of your advice. I think a lot of people could benefit from that advice and take it to heart. In my life, I am deathly allergic to office work. So a career with any kind of stability has been pretty draining for me. When I did go to work in an office right after college, I was too drained each day to write anything. That’s why I quit. I took the route of taking odd jobs for a while, now I’ve found a good job that pays well and gives me a flexible schedule where I work from home… the best of all worlds! But it really did take a lot of risks and luck and tenacity to find the right fit. So to all the writers reading this, I second Shaun: career choice while you write is very important. Don’t underestimate the effect of how you spend your working days on your writing life. For me, I had to find just the right thing.

    Some great advice, again. Rock on!

  6. Lisa’s avatar

    Thanks for the helpful discussion. I would love to find a career that’s flexible and provides more opportunity for my writing to take place. Now I pretty much only write on the weekends unless I have spare moments. Maybe in 20 years I finish my book. :-)

  7. Shaun Hutchinson’s avatar

    Sorry for the absence, I’m stuck in revision-land. July 1 deadline = EEK!

    I just may take you up on that offer :)

    I totally agree that the job has to be the right one. Mine’s in IT. I managed to convince my bosses (who know nothing of my writing) that I should be allowed to come in at noon two days a week. That allows me to write first thing in the morning four days a week. Averaging 1500 words per session gives me the ability to write a 60k word book in about 40 days (it takes much longer…but it’s possible). Mostly it’s about finding that stability and really making it work for you.

    My agent told me about a writer friend of his who writes during his lunch breaks and weekends.

    If writing’s important to you, Lisa (which is sounds like it is) then make it a priority and you won’t go wrong.

    You’ve got a great site here, Mary! I’ll be back when I’m out of the revision hole :)

  8. MssJos’s avatar

    Great advice! I wish I’d had someone tell me some of this stuff long ago! :)

  9. Linna’s avatar

    I’d never thought of being a writer–the kind of writer who conjures up a fresh, new story. Still, your tips and advice are so helpful and encouraging. I’m rather passionate about being a reporter, and writing is the skill I try improve.

  10. Jessica Marie’s avatar

    I would say do whatever makes you happy, but then again I am a history major. ;)

    Most colleges allow you to double major or have a minor, so you could do that with something a bit more conventional like marketing or business?

  11. Mya’s avatar

    Ahhh this comes at the perfect time, especially since I’m doubting myself for not having majored in English in college. A great relief! Thank you!

  12. Jessica’s avatar

    Great advice to aspiring writers! I need to start writing my book….This advice will totally help! Thanks!

  13. Katie’s avatar

    I absolutely have to agree with you! I’ve been writing since I was 12 (I’m almost 25 now) and at that age, I thought that I’d be published by now. Hasn’t happened yet, but I wouldn’t be the writer I am today without practicing writing and constantly reading.

    Excellent, kind advice for any reader seriously considering writing as a career.

  14. Mary’s avatar

    Thanks for all the kind words Linna, MssJos, Mya, Jessica and Katie. I’m really glad some of this advice is hitting home. =)

  15. Mary’s avatar

    Oh this helps! I’ve been struggling with the idea for a long time…as long as I can remember!

  16. Janie Bill’s avatar

    Mary,
    What great news a degree in writing isn’t required. I must admit those who hold creative writing degrees seem elite and intimidating. I have two degrees and considered returning to gain a literary degree, but then decided the same amount of time could be invested with actual writing. There are so many outstanding writing technique books and hundreds of accomplished authors love mentoring that with dedicated intention, developing one’s craft in a closet, converted into a gun room but used as a study, is possible. The answer to this question is, can you stop yourself from writing? With each impulse, flash of idea, racing concepts, the answer is revealed, until the next uncontrollable drive to gather words in an attempt to share your vision.

  17. Kristen’s avatar

    Thanks for an inspiring post! It can get very frustrating, but there is nothing else that I can see myself doing. Writing is my oxygen. Whether or not I’m published I will keep at it because I have too…

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