On the surface, writing seems easy. You plop into a chair, uncap a pen or power on your computer, and rack up a word count. Right?
If you’re a hobbyist, that description is generally accurate. But, if writing is your profession, any burst of creativity also brings an explosion of related tasks. Authors dedicate time to honing their craft, maintaining an online presence, preparing proposals and query letters, researching topics, organizing book launches, giving interviews, securing passive income, negotiating contracts, booking speaking engagements, networking, and…let’s see. Did I forget anything?
Oh yes, actually writing.
Tackling all these responsibilities can daunt even the most determined writer. But you can keep stress at bay by pacing yourself and developing a healthy amount of productivity in three crucial areas.
1. Ongoing Education
To avoid beginner (or intermediate) mistakes, familiarize yourself with the basics, such as how to write a query letter or where to send an unsolicited manuscript. These days, your options for learning the business and craft of writing are endless.
Many websites, like Story Embers, offer a wide variety of articles, and published authors often run webinars and live training sessions. You can hoard tips and templates from their social media accounts too. Even if you set a low goal of digesting one article or podcast episode per week, you’ll still gain a brand-new piece of knowledge. Of course, while you should definitely take advantage of all the free material that’s available, remember that some resources are worth paying for.
For starters, don’t neglect one of the most enjoyable approaches to growth—which you probably don’t need any extra encouragement to engage in. “Read, read, read,” author Julie Marx says. “Read only good quality writing and in the genre you want to write. Find an author who inspires you. Study how she writes descriptions you love.”
Janet Surette, author of Scarlett’s Spectacles: A Cheerful Choice for a Happy Heart, echoes that sentiment. “I’ve been schooled simply by reading more children’s books to discern why some bore me, move me, or even take my breath away. Then I allow those books to mentor me and help me craft manuscripts that are likewise delightful.”
Story Embers contributor Daeus Lamb outlines a practical and easy method for gleaning stylistic techniques from fiction in his article about The Book Thief. I pay attention to interesting words and phrases that my favorite authors use too. Then I try to adopt a similar (but still distinctly me) way of shaping my prose.
Outside of reading, C. E. Stone, author of The Sorcerer’s Realm, increased her skills mostly through contest feedback. “The judges’ comments showed me what I was doing right, but more importantly, they showed me what I was doing wrong.”
While a critique is certainly a perk, not all contests offer it. Some invite the writer to a complimentary workshop instead. Others simply announce the winners. I’ve entered all three types of contests—and have even won a few. Each one presented an opportunity to stretch myself to follow a theme or prompt, edit according to a set of guidelines, and meet a deadline. I carry those lessons into my other projects.
If you’re able to invest more money and time, look into online courses like the ones here at Story Embers, Christian Writer’s Institute, or Writer’s Digest University. Most of these allow you to view the modules at leisure and return later if desired. Prices vary, but with some shopping around, you can stay within your budget. I keep an eye on courses I’m interested in, and when a sale pops up, I snag the deal.
Since writing conferences tend to be expensive, you’ll likely need to save up so you can afford registration and lodging. But most authors agree that the experience is valuable—and not just because of the classes. One of the biggest benefits is something you can’t get through articles, books, or even a course: the chance to pitch your story premise in person. Numerous authors, myself included, have landed a book contract after a conversation with an editor or agent at a conference.
Janet Surette used to be skeptical of conferences, partly because of the cost but also for other reasons. “My kids were young, my writing was surely fantastic enough as it was, and how hard could it really be to get an agent or editor to notice my email in their inbox?” Attending one, however, changed her perspective. “As I like to say, it appropriately crushed my dreams and then logically rebuilt them. We can dream and write all we want, but if the process and outcomes aren’t rooted in some industry reality, then we may never produce a salable manuscript, regardless of the time and heart we pour into it.”
Did you notice how Surette highlights the concept of a “salable manuscript”? She’s referring to an overlooked advantage of writing conferences: being surrounded by leaders who have an active finger on the pulse of the industry. They can provide inside information about current trends and the kinds of submissions publishers are craving.
When you have the support and fellowship of like-minded people who understand you, you’ll be better equipped to face challenges. Membership to a large writing organization like ACFW or SCBWI usually comes with a pass (for an additional fee) to smaller, more intimate local chapters that meet on a monthly basis. You’ll also have access to critique groups, which can be a huge asset. These close confidants will keep you accountable and suggest revisions to improve your latest draft.
If you need a starting point in your search for a writing group, scroll through this list. Sometimes these organizations host contests and conferences open solely to members, so joining one can mean you’ll have several educational outlets all in one place!
2. Building a Social Media Platform
Publishers gravitate to authors with a platform because they need the assurance that fans will eagerly buy the books upon release. Some writers bank on their expertise as a speaker or professional in their field. But if you’re not a well-known personality already, social media is an efficient and affordable way to gather an audience. How much time you devote to it depends on your schedule. But even if you only have a few minutes, you can still make progress.
Routine is key, because you can’t form a virtual relationship without consistency. After all, social media is not all about you. It’s about you and your readers connecting. And that connection fosters a community of people you can cheer for, and who will cheer for you too.
When I launched my Instagram, I lacked focus. I posted whatever struck my fancy, whenever I felt like it. I soon realized that this confused my audience and stunted my impact. Someone recommended I pinpoint six details that define my mission and who I am, then plan my posts around that vision. Careful evaluation boiled it down to three statements. I love God, I write humor, and I’m a teacher. So I want my faith to shine through, and I’m a little nutty. That helped me choose a mascot, or brand of sorts: a squirrel.
Next, I interacted with my followers more intentionally. I left likes and comments on their posts. I retweeted and applauded their successes. And I shared content that could easily be identified with my brand. Silly poems. Whimsical animal doodles. Writing snippets. Moments in the classroom. The occasional Bible verse. I even posted at the same time every day. And you know what happened? I attracted a bunch of authors, artists, and readers with similar interests.
C. E. Stone poignantly sums up the goal every author should aim for: “Be genuine, be reasonable, and be realistic. Everyone can spot a fake, and as Christian writers particularly, we’ve got to be the real deal to better reflect Jesus.”
3. Prioritizing (and Protecting) Writing Time
With all the responsibilities stacked on your plate, you may be tempted to let writing slide. Don’t. Balancing everything may be difficult, and you might lose sleep, but your gift won’t flourish if you ignore it. And that’d be a shame. Marie Sontag, author of California Trail Discovered, explains why: “Nobody sees the world the way we do. And no one sees God like we do. He has given each of us a unique personality and unique life circumstances that reveal Him to us in a unique way. Others need to see this revealed in our writing.”
Since God has blessed us with a special ability to touch others’ lives, we need to purposely and stubbornly make writing a priority. Rose recently discussed how to “write a novel in minutes (yes, minutes) that you collect whenever possible,” and Surette’s advice is along the same lines. “I always have a notebook in my purse to wrestle and wrangle words in spare moments. I also keep any current manuscripts handy in my writing portfolio so I can pull them out while I’m waiting for a pole vaulter or volleyball player to finish training. When I need a longer and concentrated time, I’ll either spend a morning at a coffee shop or book a 1–2 day writing retreat at my parents’ house so I can write while someone else feeds me and nobody needs me.”
I’ve snatched moments here and there too. I’ve jotted down poems and article ideas during breaks at work, dictated a story into my phone while on a walk, and carried a manuscript with me on a flight. No matter how short, eventually these slivers of time add up to something substantial.
But as helpful as that strategy is, committing to a regular writing time is even better. Consider whether you work best in the morning, midday, or evening. Set a goal—say thirty minutes or a certain number of words—and fulfill it. No excuses.
Get your family on board too. Share your vision and motivations with them. Tell them that their love and support plays a vital role in your success. You might be surprised at how establishing boundaries comforts your children and spouse. It’s because you’re demonstrating that they’re still important to you. Youngsters are more willing to give you the space you need when they know they’ll have your full attention afterward.
Although implementing these three habits requires effort, once you’ve settled into a rhythm, they’ll drive your career. Now, if you’re like me, you may be unsure where to begin. Or, worse yet (and also like me), you undertake all the potential applications of a piece of advice and get overwhelmed. Instead, try incorporating these simple call-to-actions (which are based on each of my points above) into your month:
- Select and read a book in the genre you want to write.
- Choose a contest, course, conference, or critique group to join.
- Pinpoint six details that define your mission and keep you and your message authentic, recognizable, and marketable.
- Set and hit a word count goal.
As you gradually check off each item, you’ll enrich your writing life and train yourself to continue pursuing your dreams one step at a time.
Elementary school teacher Lori Z. Scott usually writes fiction because, like an atom, she makes up everything. Her down time is filled with two quirky habits: chronic doodling and inventing lame jokes. Neither one impresses her principal (or friends/parents/casual strangers), but they do help inspire her writing. Somehow her odd musings led her to accidentally write the 10-book best-selling Meghan Rose series and purposely write more than 150 short stories, articles, essays, poems, and devotions. In addition, Lori contributed to over a dozen books, mostly so she would have an excuse to give people for not folding her laundry. (Hey! Busy writer here!) As a speaker, she’s visited several conferences and elementary schools to share her writing journey. Some of Lori’s favorite things include ice cream, fuzzy socks, Batman, Star Trek, Star Wars, books, and hugs from students. Guess which one is her favorite?