How to Tell If You Have What It Takes to Succeed as a Writer

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Today’s post is by author Susan DeFreitas (@manzanitafire), who offers editing and book coaching services.


As a freelance editor, I work with all kinds of different writers—from those racing to make the tight publishing timelines set by their publishers to those who are just starting off on their journey.

Sometimes I’m the very first person a writer has ever shown their manuscript to.

Sometimes I’m the first person they’ve ever shown their writing to at all.

And if there’s one question I get asked by newer writers more than any other, it’s this: Based on what you’re seeing here, should I bother to pursue this?

Or, to put it another way: Do I have what it takes to succeed as writer?

These are generally people who have had some other path, professionally speaking, and are now revisiting their first love, creative writing. They’ve written a book, or part of a book, and now they want to know, considering the time and effort that would be involved with pursuing this passion, whether it would be worth it for them to do so.

I understand why they’re asking, but it’s a hard question to answer.

Because really, what makes writing “worth pursuing”? If it’s the likelihood that you’ll be able to quit your job and pursue creative writing full time, then maybe it’s not—I’ve been an editor for a decade, and publishing professionally twice that long, and I know a whole lot of writers, many of whom are, by any measure, quite successful, but only a handful of whom don’t have a day job.

But consider a parallel: I’m unlikely to ever win a marathon, but that doesn’t mean running is not a passion worth pursuing. Running a marathon is an exceptional human feat, one few individuals will ever achieve, the pursuit of which will make you stronger, more disciplined, and healthier overall.

Writing a novel is also an exceptional human feat—one many dream of but few will ever achieve—and doing so will make you stronger, more disciplined, and, if you believe Psychology Today, a more empathetic human being. Moreover, there’s a good chance that doing so will give you real insight into the human condition, and may even help you make meaning of your life.

How can such a thing not be worth pursuing, even if you don’t publish that novel?

Isn’t a marathon worth running, even if you don’t win it?

But say publishing the book is the goal that’s meaningful to this particular writer, the goal that’s motivating—the goal that must at least be somewhat attainable for her to commit herself to the time and effort it takes to pursue this passion.

What, then, indicates to me, when I read a new client’s manuscript, that this goal may be attainable?

The truth is, I’ve worked with enough clients over the years to know that the best indication of a writer’s promise is not in the manuscript they first send me. It’s in their ability (or inability) to revise, based on my feedback.

I’ve seen newer writers with an absolute mess of an early draft who took my feedback in stride and applied it with diligence and insight, resulting in a second draft that was a quantum leap above the last. When I see this, it doesn’t matter how many issues that second draft still has—I know that this writer has a shot at becoming a published author.

Likewise, I’ve had writers send what strikes me as a pretty solid first draft, only to balk at my feedback in a way that stymies all forward progress. Maybe they’re personally offended that their book isn’t perfect as is; maybe they can’t get their head around the changes that would be required to make it work; maybe they have a short attention span, and they’ve already moved on to their next story idea.

This is the type of writer who embraces the challenge of NaNoWriMo every year but never seems to get around to revising last year’s 50,000 words. The type who has a mind-boggling ten-book series he’s been working on for years but has never revised deeper than surface level. The type who loves every new book project when they begin writing it but hates it by the end, and is always starting something new.

These people have the discipline it takes to write, but not the kind it takes to revise.

And these are the type of writers, in my estimation, who are unlikely to succeed in publishing. (Which is not to say that they won’t continue to gain satisfaction, and all those other benefits, from continuing to write.)

The ability to revise well isn’t just a function of “talent” (a quantity I’m personally rather suspicious of). It’s a function of personality, of temperament, and of your ability to work well with others. Because while only one person’s name appears on the cover of a published book, the words within it are (almost) always the product of teamwork.

This team generally consists of people like me (freelance editors and book coaches) and/or beta readers, as well as agents and acquisitions editors. Each individual provides the author with feedback at some point in the process, and that author must revise in such a way as to meet the issues these folks have raised while remaining true to her own vision.

That ability, in my view, is what it takes to get better at writing, and it’s what it takes to be a professional author.

Do you have that ability? If you do, then let me be the first to congratulate you: You have what it takes to succeed as a writer!

Posted in Guest Post, Writing Advice.

An author, editor, and book coach, Susan DeFreitas is the author of the novel Hot Season, which won a Gold IPPY Award, and the editor of Dispatches from Anarres, an anthology of short fiction in tribute to Ursula K. Le Guin (forthcoming from Forest Avenue Press). Her fiction, nonfiction, and poetry have been featured in the Writer’s Chronicle, the Huffington Post, the Utne Reader, Story Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, and High Desert Journal, along with numerous other journals and anthologies. Susan holds an MFA from Pacific University and divides her time between Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Portland, Oregon. Find her online at Twitter, Facebook, or on her website.

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JohnLucinda E ClarkePete SpringerMichael HillS.S.Mitchell Recent comment authors

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C. S. Lakin

Thanks so much for this post. As a writing coach and editor, I do more than 200 manuscript critiques a year. And I can attest to the truth of your words. I’ve seen first drafts that are train wrecks, but some writers have been humble and teachable and worked hard to learn and apply the technique and make improvement. I’ve seen some of these manuscripts become award-winning brilliant books. And I’ve seen books with potential flounder because their author bucked the things they needed to do to improve the manuscript. I always stress we should put in our best effort… Read more »

Susan DeFreitas

Yes! I too work with a great number of manuscripts per year, and this is absolutely what matters most: an interest in improving the book, and one’s craft, rather than protecting one’s ego.

Thea T. Kelley
Thea T. Kelley

Thanks for this. I needed to hear it, because I’m just now in the process of working with beta readers for my first novel. Being a “J” type (Myers-Briggs typology) really helped get me this far, but now I’ll be thinking “P is for Perceiving Possibilities, and for Patience”!

Sarah
Sarah

Ugh. You’ve utterly crushed me because I’m the type of writer who usually can’t get my head around big edits. 🙂 This has been resolved a little on the front end by doing better plotting to start. I find that if I work the whole thing out on paper before I begin to write, I don’t need as many developmental edits. That helps quite a bit. I have really began to appreciate the advice people give to brand new authors: “The writing is the easy part.” It’s so true. Editing is hard! The upside is that this time around, I… Read more »

Susan DeFreitas

Oh no! I never want to crush anyone, so I hope this doesn’t hold you back. And I love that you’ve embraced the challenge of planning/plotting; some writers resist it, but it really does tend to help to cut down on the developmental work required in revision.

Star Ostgard
Star Ostgard

I’m one of those writers who not only resists planning/plotting – I abhor it! I have never been able to finish a single piece that I plotted out ahead of time. But I’m also an edit-as-I-go type, and I’m not afraid of that at all. (Rather do it as I go than face a mammoth editing/rewrite after.) That said, I’ve always had betas or critique partners, and love having a second or third pair of eyes looking things over, reminding me of something the characters said or did that doesn’t mesh with the current chapter. I’ve also been on the… Read more »

George Hesselberg
George Hesselberg

Excellent advice. Coming from the newspaper side of writing, I have trouble identifying with the “don’t touch my copy” point of view. Revise, repeat, improve.

Susan DeFreitas

Yes! I love working with current and former journalists for precisely this reason–they understand and appreciate the value of a good editor. =)

Kay DiBianca

Susan, This is great information, and I completely agree with you. When I finished the first draft of my first effort at a novel, I thought I had a pretty good product. Then I hired a freelance editor and spent more than a year revising, rewriting, and responding to her critiques. Once I got past the shock of constructive criticism, I found the revision process to be very satisfying. I had beta readers who gave me additional ideas on how to improve the story, and others advised me on elements I wasn’t familiar with. I went with a small, traditional… Read more »

Susan DeFreitas

Excellent, Kay! I’m wishing you (and your team) all the best with Book #2.

Ernie Zelinski

My adage has always been, “Do it badly — but at least do it!” This approach has served me well over the years. All of my creative works have been non-fiction, however, except for an inspirational fable. You mention teamwork but I am not a big fan of the word “teamwork” and the two words that comprise it. I agree more with marketing guru Seth Godin who claims, “Books work as an art form (and an economic one) because they are primarily the work of an individual.” Sure, I may ask for advice at times and follow it. But I… Read more »

Liesbet

Great feedback from the field. Thank you. Writing comes very easy to me, but I’m the first one to realize that I need professional help at this point of my travel memoir journey. Luckily, I enjoy editing as much as writing. And as far as constructive criticism goes: bring it on. 🙂

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[…] Each of us started our writing journey somewhere. Many started writing as children, some started later in life, but at some point we decided to be an author. Louise Brady shares 10 tips for the aspiring author, and Susan DeFrietas examines if you have what it takes to be a writer. […]

S.S.Mitchell

I feel like revision is the least creative part of the process, which is why some find it hard to face. The most passionate of writers, often just want to write. I actually enjoy the editing process but it can be a challenging listening to feedback when it’s not what we wanted to hear. Us writers are sensitive about our art but also need to realise that it’s also a business.

Susan DeFreitas

So true! Though I do think the more secure we feel in our own vision, the easier we’re able to separate the wheat from the chaff, as far as feedback goes: either the vision isn’t yet clear on the page, or the person responding is not in our target audience.

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[…] https://www.janefriedman.com/do-you-have-what-it-takes/ “As a freelance editor, I work with all kinds of different writers—from those racing to make […]

Michael Hill

Of course one has to listen, and hear too. And one has to write. rewrite, and rewrite again. The problem is that editors are human also.(Mostly I would imagine…I haven’t met any in real life). In most situations there develops an orthodoxy, a common view that works, a given way of doing things, and rightly so, but to my mind one of the hardest things is to(after much thought and cogitation)step away from perfectly good, experienced, rational advice and go one’s own way.But I believe it occasionally has to be done.

Susan DeFreitas

I believe so too, Michael. Those who revise well don’t just take every piece of feedback they get and follow it, they use that feedback to get their bearings on their own north star–and, ultimately, strengthen their own internal compass.

Pete Springer

As someone who retired after many years as a public school teacher, I appreciate your thoughts. It’s natural for people to question whether they have an aptitude for something, but it also comes down to one’s enjoyment of that pursuit as well as their willingness to improve. The folks in my critique group are all superior writers to me, but I’m enjoying the journey of learning. Instead of comparing myself to them, I prefer to look at how far I’ve come in the last year.

Susan DeFreitas

Sounds like you’ve got the right attitude, Pete! Cheers.

Lucinda E Clarke

When I was lecturing in scriptwriting I could tell by the first assigment which students had the ability to write – together with the vision and talent. Often it was a mere handful from a class of 70 aspiring screen writers. Then you have to add the dedication, the long hours, and, as you mentioned the wisdom to take in and apply criticism and suggestions.

John

Excellent, concise, clear article. And great advice! I would also put forth that the “ability (or inability) to revise based on feedback” is a key indicator of potential in most professions and many aspects of personal life as well. It’s so important in so many aspects of life to be able to receive and act on feedback. People really have to be open-minded with a focus on improvement.

Susan DeFreitas

So true!

John

Good article! Concise, clear, truthful. Many people I come across every day are not self-aware enough to receive AND act on feedback that would help them if they only saw the forest for the trees. I would therefore also propose that “…the ability to revise, based on feedback” is a solid piece of advice for any career or pursuit, not just writing. 🙂

Susan DeFreitas

Absolutely, John! The world would be a better place if we were all just a little better at taking feedback…