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The Number One Subject to Study for Writing Success

Photo by Moyan Brenn.

Sorry – that’s a bit of a clickbait title, I know.  But how often have you seen that kind of writing article?  How often have writing reference books stated their stances in stark, all-or-nothing, my-way-or-the-highway terms?

Cut out all prologues. 

Burn all adverbs. 

If you don’t plot, you’re a mess.

If you do plot, you’re a robot.

(Did I mention that the advice is often conflicting?)

I am a contrarian.  Much of my writing career has been motivated by sheer spite. I’m not proud of this, but I know myself, and I know that if you tell me I can’t do something, I’m going to laugh and wave at you with my proof of accomplishment at some point.  It’s just my nature.

I’ve been writing professionally for nearly twenty years now. In that time, I’d like to think that I’ve learned some things, about the industry, about writing, and about writers.  In that time, there is one fact I believe, profoundly, when it comes to writing and publishing.

There is more than one way to do just about anything.

There are no absolutes. You can write a book by the seat of your pants, or you can plot it within an inch of your life.  You can write strictly to genre expectations, or you can mash up a patchwork of them.  I’ve read and enjoyed both traditional and self-published works.  I’ve seen successful prologues and reveled in a frankly overexuberant use of “-ly” words.  I’ve seen clichés and tropes made fresh and fun.

In my experience, most things are a spectrum. Publishing is not a binary science.  We are encouraged to write three-dimensional nuanced characters.  Why would we expect less than nuanced and three-dimensional challenges when it comes to how we write, and what we write?  We’re simply characters in our own lives, after all.  Simplistic answers rarely work for us.

Too much of a good thing is not a good thing.

Having written writing reference books, I understand the temptation to oversimplify.

It’s very difficult to teach nuance. If writers are confused and in pain, the last thing they want to read is a treatise that says “well, it depends” over and over.  They want answers.  They want clear instructions.  And they don’t have the experience or the perspective to make the kind of judgment calls that are necessary to determine which way to go.

So instead of saying, “Use adverbs sparingly, keeping in mind your genre, your audience, and the expectations attached to each,” you say “don’t use adverbs” because it’s easier to simply assume they’re not going to do it well… best to simply cut it out.

The problem there is, you have beginning writers who take this advice as gospel – often because some writing teachers present it as such.  “This is the way it is!  If you don’t do this, YOU WILL FAIL!”

To which I say:  switch to decaf, oh sage ones. 

The difference between medicine and poison is often in the dosage. Again, it’s not a “use/don’t use” binary.  There’s a spectrum.  It takes experimentation and education to get to the right point.

Besides, nobody’s going to die from an overabundance of adverbs.   Likewise, nobody’s going to contract a terminal case of failure.  I have said it a million times: it’s harder to kill your writing career than you think.

This applies to more than writing craft.

This mindset – right way, wrong way – seeps into more than simply writing technique. It spills out into how we do our work. Sometimes, it can bleed into how we identify ourselves.

“Should I write in the morning? Should I be writing two thousand words a day? If I don’t write every day, am I still a writer?”

It breaks my heart when I hear these questions. It’s fear that drives the questioner, the desperate thought that if they only get the ritual right, by some alchemical process involving getting up at four a.m. and producing a specific word count, they will avoid failure.  If only they do everything right, then their path to writing success is assured.

The problem is, there is no guarantee.  There is no magic combination of ritual and routine that will vault you onto the bestseller lists or produce the perfect novel.

That can be scary, especially if you’re frustrated and feel like you’re failing.  It can be disheartening.

So what are you to do, if you want to be successful as a writer?

The number one thing to study is YOURSELF.

That sounds glib.  It isn’t. I can’t tell you how many writers I’ve met in the past twenty years who are not aware of their processes, their voices, what motivates them, what their lives’ themes tend to be.

The key to finding the nuance, to discovering the point on the spectrum where you fall, is a detailed study of you.

How do you do this?

By keeping a writing journal, to start.  Jot down when you write, how much you wrote. How you felt.  This is how you figure out your patterns… when you write best, what your energy levels are.

Next, write a lot.  You are going to “fail” – although, more specifically, you’re simply going to write badly – quite a bit.  But it’s not wasted. I’d actually argue it’s a critical part of the process.  It is often the only way to learn about your voice and what drives you.  The only way to learn about a story itself is by getting in there and writing it.

Explore your style, your voice, your foibles, your rhythms.  Investigate yourself more deeply than any character you’ve ever written.  You’ve simply been living with yourself, going along for the ride.  Dig deeper.  You have a wealth of information that will directly inform your writing and how it is accomplished, just waiting for you to unearth it.

This doesn’t mean stop learning.

I’m not advocating turning your back on all writing instruction.  (Again, with the extremist thinking!  This isn’t a binary either!)  Learning about yourself doesn’t mean ignoring everything else.  But it does mean thinking critically, and applying judiciously.  Keep seeking out new information, but also use your gut and your common sense.  Test things. Experiment.  Track results.

Do that, and you will find your own personal amalgamation of outside instruction and personal innovation, and create things that are solidly and authentically yours.


How well do you know yourself as a writer – your process, your voice, your writing techniques?  What can you do to find out more?

About Cathy Yardley [1]

Cathy Yardley is the author of eighteen novels, published with houses such as St. Martin's and Avon, as well as her self-published Rock Your Writing series. She's also a developmental editor and writing coach, helping authors complete, revise, and get their stories published. Sign up here [2] for her newsletter to receive the free course Jumpstart Your Writing Career. [2]