Based on interviews with authors over the years, conferences, editing dozens of issues of Writer’s Digest, and my own occasional literary forays and flails, here are some points of consensus and observations: 15 of them, things anyone who lives by the pen (or seeks to) might consider. It is, like most things in the writing world, a list in progress—and if you’ve got your own Dos or Don’ts to add, I’d love to hear them in the Comments.
1. Don’t assume there is any single path or playbook writers need to follow. (Or, for that matter, a definitive superlative list of Dos and Don’ts …) Simply put: You have to do what works best for you. Listen to the voices in your head, and learn to train and trust them. More often than not, they’ll let you know if you’re on the right path. People often bemoan the surplus of contradictory advice in the writing world—but it’s there because there really is no yellow-brick road, and a diversity of perspectives allows you to cherry-pick what uniquely suits you and your abilities.
2. Don’t try to write like your idols. Be yourself. Yeah, it sounds a bit cheesy, but it’s true: The one thing you’ve got that no one else does is your own voice, your own style, your own approach. Use it. (If you try to pretend to write like anyone else, your readers will know.) Perhaps author Allegra Goodman said it best: “Know your literary tradition, savor it, steal from it, but when you sit down to write, forget about worshiping greatness and fetishizing masterpieces.”
3. Don’t get too swept up in debates about outlining/not outlining, whether or not you should write what you know, whether or not you should edit as you go along or at the end—again, just experiment and do what works best for you. The freedom that comes with embracing this approach is downright cathartic.
4. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket when it comes to pitching something—always be working on your next book or idea while you’re querying. Keeping your creative side in gear while focusing on the business of selling your work prevents bigger stalls in your writing life down the road.
5. Don’t be unnecessarily dishonest, rude, hostile—people in the publishing industry talk, and word spreads about who’s great to work with, and who’s not. Publishing is a big business, but it’s a pretty incestuous business. Keep those family reunions gossip free.
6. Don’t ever hate someone for the feedback they give you. No piece of writing is universally beloved. Nearly every beta reader, editor or agent will have a different opinion of your work, and there’s value in that. Accept what nuggets you believe are valid, recognize the recurring issues you might want/need to address, and toss the edits your gut tells to toss. (Unless the changes are mandatory for a deal—in which case you’ll need to do some deeper soul searching.) Be open to criticism—it will make you a better writer.
7. … But, don’t be susceptible to the barbs of online trolls—you know, those people who post sociopathic comments for the sake of posting sociopathic comments. That’s what trolls do: they troll (on Amazon, Goodreads, Twitter, etc.). It’s not personal. Which means the message at the core of their words means as little as the 0s and 1s used to code it. Ignore them heartily.
8. Don’t ever lower you guard when it comes to the basics: Good spelling, healthy mechanics, sound grammar. They are the foundations that keep our writing houses from imploding … and our queries from hitting the recycling bin before our stories can speak for themselves.
9. Don’t ever write something in an attempt to satisfy a market trend and make a quick buck. By the time such a book is ready to go, the trend will likely have passed. The astronomical amount of romantic teenage vampire novels in desk drawers is more than a nuisance—it’s a wildfire hazard. Write the story that gives you insomnia.
10. Don’t be spiteful about another writer’s success. Celebrate it. As author Amy Sue Nathan recalled when detailing her path to publication in the upcoming July/August 2013 issue of WD: “Writers I knew were landing book deals and experiencing other things I was working toward, so I made a decision to learn from them instead of begrudging them. I learned that another author’s success doesn’t infringe on mine.”
11. Don’t ever assume it’s easy. Writers with one book on shelves or one story in print often had to keep stacking up unpublished manuscripts until they could reach the publisher’s doorbell. (The exception being those lucky 19-year-old savants you sometimes hear about, or, say, Snooki. But, hey, success still isn’t guaranteed—after all, Snooki’s Gorilla Beach: A Novel has only sold 3,445 copies.) Success is one of those things that’s often damn near impossible to accurately predict unless you already have it in spades.
12. Don’t forget to get out once in a while. Writing is a reflection of real life. It’s all too easy to sit too long at that desk and forget to live it.
13. Don’t ever discount the sheer teaching power (and therapeutic goodness) of a great read. The makeshift MFA program of countless writers has been a well-stocked bookshelf.
14. Don’t be afraid to give up … on a particular piece. Sometimes, a story just doesn’t work, and you shouldn’t spend years languishing on something you just can’t fix. (After all, you can always come back to it later, right?)
15. But, don’t ever really give up. Writers write. It’s what we do. It’s what we have to do. Sure, we can all say over a half-empty bottle of wine that we’re going to throw the towel in this time, but let’s be honest: Very few of us ever do. And none of us are ever really all that surprised when we find ourselves back at our computers, tapping away, and waiting for that electric, amazing moment when the pebble of a story shakes loose and begins to skitter down that great hill …