how to get ahead as a writer: putting the deliberate into deliberate practice, part two



Part One is here

1. READ.
Reading is so non-negotiable that I wrote what is practically a manifesto about this– and I’m not talking casual, three-books-a-year reading, or even three books a month. John D MacDonald put the standard at three books a week (tip: it helps to get rid of your TV set). Stephen King says that reading “is the creative center of a writer’s life.”

Read books. Lots of books. Especially the type of books you think you want to write.

And honestly, so few aspiring writers actually do this — read enough — that to commit yourself to this kind of reading will give you a huge competitive advantage. Huge.

Okay. I’m stating the obvious here, but everybody who wants to write knows how easy it is not to do it. I am no exception. I procrastinate like hell. But writing is like sex (or at least good sex): the more you get, the more you tend to want. Find the time. Write around “the edges of your life” as one successful novelist put it. Work it into your schedule and make it part of your routine, so that sitting down and starting to write becomes as reflexive as any other habit. Establish rituals that will anchor you. I write at the same place every day and listen to music. As soon as I’m at my desk, confronting my laptop, and turning on iTunes, I can feel my writingmind leap to attention. It knows it’s bidness time.

There are two elements to your writing practice:

a) Voice.
The more you write, the more you develop it, and a fresh, killer voice is what editors want and need. Your voice is your signature. It stamps everything you do. The great thing is, you don’t have to struggle to ‘learn’ your voice – you shouldn’t be consciously thinking about your ‘voice’ at all. Your voice is everything you read and think and dream about filtered through the unique prism of your personality and developed naturally over the course of (say it with me boys and girls) ten thousand hours. Any type of writing will help you find your ‘voice’, whether it’s journaling, blogging, commenting in online forums, even emailing (one reason why I adore my writer friends: they give great email).

b) Storytelling.
Good writing and good storytelling are two different things. Writing is the medium through which the principles of storytelling make themselves manifest; writing is the how, and storytelling is the what. If you put in ten years of journalism or business writing, you might have developed an ease with language and a distinctive voice, but it doesn’t mean you’re experienced in the ways of plot, character, tone, pacing, etc. If you want to write fiction, you need to be practicing the art of writing fiction. There is no substitute.

Most aspiring writers don’t or can’t do this. Which, like reading, is a chance to vault yourself into a subset of aspiring writers who have a much greater chance of success.

Show your work. Learn to take criticism. Learn to love criticism, because great criticism is probably the one and only ‘shortcut’ (I use the word loosely) to becoming a much better writer.

Do yourself a favor and be ‘teachable’.

Criticism itself is a skill. Your ability to give constructive criticism, to identify why a piece isn’t working and how to change that, grows with your knowledge of craft (and vice versa).

You also need to learn how to absorb the criticism you receive. You must recognize what is relevant to your work and what you can safely cast aside. Although a lot – if not most — of the criticism will indeed prove fairly useless, the ego throws up all sorts of defense mechanisms that can obscure your judgment and enable you to create these deluded explanations about why your piece is perfect and other people don’t know what they’re talking about. I once watched a writer receive what I thought was excellent advice from a prominent agent regarding his manuscript, that nonetheless would have required a massive rewrite he didn’t want to do (he “didn’t have the time”). He rejected the agent’s advice, saying that he was following his own artistic vision and refused to compromise, yadda yadda. Did the agent represent him? No. Did the book sell? No. Did the book deserve to sell? In my opinion, no – but it had amazing potential, and if he had opened his mind to the agent’s advice I think he would have had something remarkable.

The ability to write well includes the ability to revise – to treat your work as fluid, shifting, organic. Your original vision is never set in stone. Allow me to emphasize this: IT IS NEVER SET IN STONE.

Revision = re/vision = re/envisioning your manuscript. The best ideas are rarely if ever your first ideas. Give your story a chance to surface the real, true vision of what it needs to be.



And, because this is 2010, I would add a fifth step:

5. BLOG.

If you want to be a successful writer, do you need a blog? In a word, yes.

The future is here, and more future is coming at us fast. There will no doubt be exceptions that prove the rule, but success will go to those who can connect with their readers online (and continue to grow their readerbase). When I discover a new writer I like, I find that I now expect him or her to have some kind of online presence – and if they don’t, I get annoyed. I feel unloved. And I’m not the only one.

Blogging is a skill and an art all its own, and a great fiction writer who becomes a great blogger, and knows how to move around online, will be mighty like a Jedi. Blogging is also so new that you don’t have to log 10,000 hours to become among the best at it. But, like anything else, it has a learning curve, and requires practice.

I might be biased because I love to blog almost as much as I love to write fiction, but I also think blogging helps you write better fiction. That, however, is a post for another day.


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Jan 22, 2010

11 comments · Add Yours

I’ve stumbled a bit on the reading part. And ironically, I realized that I have had such a difficult time writing fiction because my well is dry. When I first began to write, it was only after I’d binged on hundreds of books during the previous year (that ubiquitous phrase “I can do this!”), but as I began to grow as a writer, I began to read less and less. Now, six years later, I can barely eke out a book a week, and when I do sit down to read, I feel guilty for not writing. :/


I know, striking that reading/writing balance — if ‘balance’ is really the word — is difficult. I seem to move in seasons: I read a lot and write less, and then I write a lot and read less. I’ve learned to just go with the ebb and flow of my instincts and trust that it balances out in the end. Sometimes you just need to fill the well.

Don’t feel guilty! Banish guilt from the room!

I experienced a similar realization one year at university — I hadn’t been writing much, and when classes ended and my friends & roommate left, I was stuck on my own with no TV and was only working part-time. So all I did in my off-hours was read, and almost immediately felt again the urge and inspiration to write fiction. So I made the connection — and I’ve learned that if I really can’t make myself write, the best thing I can do for my writing is read good fiction, because that seems to prime & pump my writing muscles & then I’m back at my laptop (and happy).


Hi Justine,

Great post, love it when I see someone who just lays it out how it should be done.

I think this is probably the first site I have come across which advocates seeking criticism. I thrive off it.
I’m a dumb ass and I know it, but by admiting it, you are being genuine and honest, what else do people want?



Great article – would be found by more if you optimized your title tags


Hi Justine,

Great tips! Reading is what got me started writing, but it’s also the first thing I started to lose. I used to plow through at least a book per week. Then I started writing and blogging. Between that and being a good husband and dad, the books just kinda fell from my priorities.

I do, however, realize the error of my ways. I’ve read 6 books so far this year, including King’s “Under the Dome” which is a whopping 1100 pages.



This is all well and good, but when one is responsible for earning a living and maintaining a family, how is it realistic to do all this stuff you’ve been listing? I’d love to write 20 hours a week to meet the quota of becoming a good writer in ten years; I’d LOVE to be able to read three books a week. I’m lucky to manage five pages of fiction a week and one book a month.

Sometimes I think your lifestyle may distort your perspective just a bit. I’m not begrudging you it, but it’s not the norm.

And I think writers who don’t have as much time to write or read can be as good or better than writers who do. Enthusiasm and dedication are wonderful, but will not turn a mediocre writer into a good one.

This all sounds more hostile than I intend it, but—I don’t have time to rewrite it right now. ;)

Thanks for letting me throw my two cents in.


Jeff, I adore you too much to begrudge you anything, but I did the bulk of my ten thousand hours before I got my “lifestyle” : I was obsessed. Am obsessed. And no, it’s not the norm. It’s decidedly not the norm. But face it, neither is getting published.

A writer’s reading is not just about “enthusiasm and dedication” — please don’t think that — it’s about the acquisition of craft. There was an agent at a seminar in San Francisco who really drove this home (or tried to): her exact words to us were: “Take your writing time, slice it in half, and spend half of it reading.”


Wanted to add two things:

always throw your two cents in! please!

and it’s a fair point to bring up the privileges of my lifestyle, so please, no worries on that. but your post also reminds me of a speech Gary V (the wine microcelebrity dude) gave about obsession and following your passion, etc. — when someone from the audience brought up the issue of finding the time, Gary said, in all seriousness, “do it at night! from 7 pm until 2 am is an excellent time to CRUSH IT!” and I don’t think he understood why some people laughed.

this is one reason why I think so many writers were unpopular in high school (I was). that lack of a social life gives us A LOT of time to read & write, so when we hit adulthood (and life starts to get truly busy) we have that advantage.


Thanks, Justine. I adore you, too.

I agree that anyone who truly wants to write will find the time. I guess my point is, that amount of time may not add up to 20 hours a week, certainly on a regular basis. I guess I’m getting all codependent and worrying some aspiring writer might read this stuff and convince themselves they don’t have what it takes. It’d be nice to get 20 hours a week in, but if you don’t, it’s not a sure sign you’ll never be published.

I’m reminded of something Harlan Ellison said about people should be grateful to him for discouraging so many aspiring writers. There are enough crappy writers out there already, said he.

Yes, being obsessed helps. I’ve never been blessed with that curse.

And yes, kudos to you for getting through your crap writing time early. I did not have a strong enough sense of capability, nor belief in myself, to do that. Thus, now that I’m older, I feel the press of time.

OK, I’m blathering. Turning your blog back over to you.


Justine, thanks for supporting a 12 book quota. I told someone I met at a dinner party (and happened to be traveling home with) that I probably get through about 8-12 books a month (including audiobooks). The response was, “Well, you’re still a student.” I am a student, but from 9-5, like most people, I work on my ‘student’ stuff, that is my PhD dissertation, teaching work, or other research. I fit my reading and personal writing around that work quota. Sadly, we reached this point in the conversation just as I was about to get off the tube (subway). He remained on the train and went on his way in happy indignation. I imagined him whizzing off, cursing us students and our swathes of free time spent reading obliviously while he and the majority drudge under the yoke of employment with nary a page of fiction in sight. Ho hum. 12 books indeed.



Loved this post. Your blog came up automatically this morning after I had posted my most recent post. I started blogging as a writer on Friday 16 April this year. (I blog for my business too.)

‘Becoming a writer by practicing writing” is my little mantra as I practice my writing swing in my blog.

You’ve gained a new follower!




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