How Not to Be a Writer: 15 Signs You're Doing It Wrong

How Not to Be a Writer: 15 Signs You’re Doing It Wrong

Ever wonder if you’re doing this whole writing thing wrong? We have a bad writing session. The words are all glomming up in the back of our minds and refusing to flow across the page. Our editor hits us with a tough critique, in which he offers the humble suggestion that we change, well, pretty much everything about our story. Someone reads our story and, instead of laughing and crying in all the right places, his best response is a half-hearted, “Meh.

In the face of evidence like that, it sure doesn’t seem like we’re quite acing the How-to-Be-a-Writer checklist. Maybe we’d do better on a How-Not-to-Be-a-Writer checklist.

Let’s take a look at fifteen sure signs that maybe we really are acting more like non-writers than writers—and how to remedy that.

1. You’re trying to be the next Janet Evanovich/J.K. Rowling/G.R.R. Martin.

If we’re investing all our energy and hopes in surpassing some of the biggest names in the industry, we’re focusing on the wrong thing. Worse, if we’re trying to imitate great authors’ styles in hopes of one day mimicking their success, we’re dead in the water before we even start paddling.

2. Your time is better spent on activities other than reading.

First, if you don’t love reading so much you can’t stay away from it, you’ve probably signed the wrong job application. Second, if you aren’t absorbing storycraft through every pore, you’re missing your most important opportunity to better your understanding of what it takes to write an amazing story.

3. You’re obsessed with following The Rules.

The Rules may be very important guidelines, but writing is about so much more than that. Don’t get so hung up on The Rules that you lose touch with your own guiding story sense.

4. You’re protecting your originality by avoiding instruction on the craft.

The techniques of writing and the theories of storytelling are so much bigger than anything we can realize all on our own. The more we study our craft, the better our art will be—and the sharper our ability to create original material.

5. You change your writing process every time an expert suggests something new.

Writing experts may know a lot, but they don’t always know what’s right for you. We all have to find the processes that best suit our personalities and lifestyles, and once we find them, we need to stick with them.

6. Your genius doesn’t need to be critiqued.

The worst mistake any writer can make is that of claiming a genius that, ahem, doesn’t really exist. Much better to assume you’re less skilled than you really are, so you’ll then be able to ask for (and accept) the help you need to improve.

7. Your tender ego can’t bear to be critiqued.

Yeah, critiques hurt. Sometimes they’re about as much fun as a hug from the Iron Maiden. But delicate writers die. Only the strong survive and, more importantly, write better stories.

8. You believe everything everyone tells you about your story.

Joe over here says your main character is awesome. Lucinda says your ending is a stinkfest. Angus likes your ending but hates your main character. Don’t believe all of them—or even any of them. Weigh their opinions for exactly what they’re worth and make up your own mind.

9. You spend more time checking your email than working on your manuscript.

Procrastination is a parasite. Most of us struggle with it from time to time. But if we’re going to be writers, we must learn to purge it and gain the discipline to focus on what really matters—our writing.

10. You start ten stories for every one you finish.

Sooner or later, every story gets tough, and when it does, we become vulnerable to the lure of shiny new ideas. But writers finish stories. Cultivate discipline and force yourself to bring at least eight out of ten manuscripts to an end.

11. You don’t believe you’re really a writer until you get something published/you’re a bestseller/you get a movie deal/Stephen King blurbs your book.

Writing is not about glory. It is not about acclaim. It’s not about being published. Writing is about writing. Enjoy the journey, do your best, and let the chips fall where they may. You’ll be much happier for it—and your stories will probably be all the better.

12. You’re only writing a book in order to sell a gazillion copies, quit your day job, and retire to the Bahamas.

The other thing writing is not about is money. If you’re very, very lucky, you’ll get to quit your day job. But, honestly, just forget about the rest of it and focus on more productive and probable dreams—like winning the Powerball.

13. You talk about your story more than you write about it.

Talking isn’t writing. Talking won’t get that manuscript finished (see Sign #10). There’s nothing wrong with sharing a little of your story-fueled enthusiasm with friends and family, but for every time you mention your story in conversation, you’d better have written a least a page in your manuscript.

14. You only write when you’re inspired.

Inspiration is like a very cute puppy dog. You can’t depend on it worth beans. And you sure as heck don’t want it being the master. You have to leash it, take charge of it, and train it. And sometimes that means sitting down to write even when it may appear that inspiration had stood you up.

15. You’re not writing.

Writers write. Bottom line.

Tell me your opinion: What is your worst writing habit?

How Not to Be a Writer

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Great post, Katie! I’m sharing this with my writing group. A lot of great points for them (and a couple for me to remember).

  2. These are all great things to be reminded of, but I have a lot of work to do before I can get them all down. I’m not the worst procrastinator I know, but I’m still pretty bad. At least I’m not as narrow-minded and pretentious as I used to be, although I feel that I now fall into the opposite issue of putting myself down to the point of being afraid to write. Starting other writing projects has been a double edged sword for me since it keeps my creativity flowing, but it tends to be distracting and I’m afraid of eventually falling into the trap mentioned in #10. Thanks for the good post!

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      As always, there’s an exception to every rule, including every single one of these. Some authors do better when they’re able to write more than one thing at once. That’s definitely not a problem. It only becomes a problem if it ends up being a procrastination technique instead of a creativity booster.

  3. #9 & #11 have my name on it. I am a QUEEN of procrastination. Facebook & E-mail (and everything else) can–and do–pull me in so quickly that I’ll spend way too much time doing that rather than writing. And, it did feel really good to be able to say I’ve got a published story somewhere–a solid boost of confidence. Now, it’s been too long since it WAS published, so I’m really wanting to get more out there. :)

    Great post, as always.

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      Procrastination bites us all from time to time. It’s such an easy trap to fall into – especially since the King of Distractions (the Internet) happens to be right at our fingertips when we’re writing. I went through a period in which I just plain had to shut the Internet off when writing time came.

      • Yeah, I’ve teased about getting another PC and having the network connectivity disabled on my present PC so it’s designated strictly as a writing-only machine.

        • K.M. Weiland says:

          Not a bad idea at all, if you can afford it. I also hear good things about a little machine (the name of which I can’t seem to remember for anything) that *only* allows you to write.

        • I bought a cheap old laptop on eBay for under £100. It’s not connected to the internet, but I can still share daily files (in Rich Text Format) via flash drive with my ‘main’ desktop computer, which is my internet connection.

          Now I can sit on my bed, very comfortably, and just write. This little machine is an excellent distraction-filter. I’m getting a lot more written since I bought it.

          • K.M. Weiland says:

            Good approach. Sometimes ancient machines are just the ticket, since about all they *can* do is allow us to write!

  4. Aw, man. I’m guilty of more than five :( Time to change that!

  5. Writers write and writers read! Yes! Yes! Yes! I get bogged down so much by all the “advice” and “rules ” and “what not to do”s and at the end of the day I need to remind myself that I need to read and I need to write–if I train myself to do both studiously and well, the rest will start wrangling itself into line. Thanks for the reminders!

  6. Nailed it. I’d say my biggest sin of the last ten years ago has been not continuing my education. Sure, I read all the books on the craft, attended workshops, and went to conferences, but I never intentionally turned my knowledge into a new skill or habit. It is only recently when I did the really hard work of moving from head knowledge to practice. Sometimes it means going through books (like yours) slowly, applying the knowledge to my story as I went. I talked to Brandilyn Collins (Christian Suspense novelist) at the ACFW conference this weekend. She advised me to keep reading the books on craft, even if many say pretty much the same thing. You’ll find that some reach you at different levels. Eventually the habits become second nature. Until then, we use sticky notes.

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      I read somewhere that humans have to hear/read/see something seven times before they truly ingest it. So there’s a lot of value in reading and re-reading solid info.

  7. There are always going to be days when I spend more time checking my emails than writing my latest ms. Or, ahem, listening to iTunes or checking out my mates on Facebook or reading desperately important blog posts about How Not To Be A Writer.

    I guess the important thing there is to knuckle down at some point and get the grunt work done: 99% perspiration, 1% inspiration etc.

    Don’t think I’m guilty of any of the others. Erm, mostly.

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      We all fall into these traps sooner or later. Life’s too complicated and unpredictable to allow even our most determined of writing plans to succeed 100% of the time. But good intentions *do* carry us farther than not.

  8. Bassam Ahmed says:

    simply magnificent :)

  9. I think my worst habit is ‘research.’ I love to read and get caught up in tangents that have nothing to do with the story I’m working on. The internet is a huge time suck for me.

    • Obviously it’s never good to get sidetracked from your story, but maybe the “excessive research” will come in handy later on. If anything, I think doing too much research is better than none at all for both life and novel writing. Great comments everyone!

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      I’m inclined to agree with P.S. – that it’s better to over-research than under-research – in most situations. But, at the same time, research can easily become one of many procrastination techniques. Personally, I like to set some kind of limit on my research. Either I tell myself I’m going to research for a specific amount of time (e.g., three months) or I’m going to read a specific research list – and then call it good and get down to the writing.

  10. Wonderful tips! Thanks for the reminders!

  11. I agree with all of them except for the reading thing. I like listening to books, but I have to force myself to read works. (Though, I often read as I exit via print and paper and critique a lot of others works) But, I don’t read for enjoyment, if I want that, I listen to it. When I read, I seem to nitpick everything and can’t enjoy the story at all. I do read stories I like when I physically copy them to try and learn more about style, but I don’t think reading is a major drawback to writing. Just because I don’t love reading, doesn’t mean I don’t love stories/writing/telling stories.

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      Reading/listening – I don’t know that it makes a big difference *how* we ingest stories, just that we *are* ingesting them.

  12. Truer words were never spoken (er… written :)). Hear, hear!

  13. I dream about a future time when I’m a successful author. Dreaming is okay. But the problem with these dreams is that my desire to fulfill them puts extra pressure on me–extra pressure that drains me. It drains me so much that I find I’m unable to write. And as you’ve said, ‘Writers write.’
    Thank you for this article.

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      Dreams are wonderful. But we can’t let our anticipation of the future get in the way of our ability to live and enjoy the present. Being published is awesome, but it brings its own stresses and limitations. Strive toward publication, but don’t forget to enjoy this season of being un-published. It offers its own special joys and freedoms.

  14. I tend not to be a fan of “to do” or “don’t do” lists for writers, but this is pretty decent. lol
    Have you ever gone through the database of writer quotes at Goodreads? My goodness… talk about conflicting advice and do’s/don’t do’s…

    I think you have to spend time finding out what sort of writer you are. It’s the same principal as finding out what sort of student or learner you are… visual, auditory, kinetic or some combination. I write in the shower, while vacuuming, lying in bed, and as I talk about my story. Not physically, but mentally. When that activity is over, I dive to my story and apply what I’ve worked out during those activities. I have this handicap, you see… I can’t find inspiration or even story logic while sitting and staring at a blank page or a knotted up MS. I have to be engaged in something else. Then BAM! I have to digital voice recorders just in case I can’t get to my PC…. LOL

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      I couldn’t agree more. The single most important thing any writer has to learn about writing is his own personal writing process. It’s valuable to read about what works for others and to experiment with the methods we think may suit us. But we should never slavishly follow writing advice, and especially about the writing process.

  15. Playing on Facebook more than writing…I downloaded the free (they do ask for donation) ColdTurkey app that will block the social media sites + whatever other sites you find distracting for however long you say it should block them. You can keep available research sites like WIkipedia, if you choose. Writing time has already improved, and I’m still just beginning to use it.:)

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      There are a lot of great applications that can block out unwanted distractions. They do not, unfortunately, eliminate the dog from wanting to go out, however. :p

  16. I think #8 is one to be especially careful of. Feedback has often led to some big problems solved and even breakthroughs in my novel, but I’ve also received my fare share of oddball ideas that would have definitely killed my story if I went along with them. I want to be a published author someday, but I still can’t help fearing that my stories will get butchered by editors/publishers. In the end, novel writing is still technically business and that can often change the author’s original intention.

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      Authors are different in their approach to this, but, personally, I recommend *not* showing your manuscript to anyone until it’s finished. I do much better if I’m able to maintain my personal vision for a story, uninfluenced by others, until I’m convinced I’ve made it the best I can on my own. Only then, do I seek outside opinions to help me identify weaknesses and further strengthen the story.

      • I’ve considered going with your strategy for future projects, although I think that it’s worked so far for my current/first novel since I had trouble finding the story’s direction and I didn’t plan ahead until later. I guess that’s what story structure is for. :)

  17. I needed to hear this today. Thanks for the swift (but gentle) kick in the pants! I’m a writer who’s working on too many stories at once….and actually writing less. “…procastination is a parasite” and “talking about writing isn’t writing” are a difficult dose of reality to hear. I’m heeding your wise words and getting back to work…..focused on ONE thing until it’s completed. I’m the blogger of, “Journey with Julia” and hope you get a moment to check it out. I’m looking forward to learning more from you. Thanks so much!

  18. Christian Ares says:

    Great post !! …although I would dispute number 7-Critiques Hurt- being hugged by Iron Maiden would not be the worst thing since I am a fan and their music is what I grew up with. On the other hand being hugged an iron maiden might hurt considerably more than a crituqe, well maybe…

  19. there is only one habit and it is not bad: DOUBT.

    we can fix all the others but never the doubt….and we have to doubt otherwise we would write one good novel and never write again

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      There’s a great quote by Orson Scott Card about how writers have to simultaneously hold two opposite beliefs: that the story they just wrote is utter trash – and that it’s the best thing ever written.

  20. These are the points I really needed to read tonight!

  21. Great article. I’d have to say the worst habit for me while writing is suddenly coming up with new characters and liking them better than my main character

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      Delightful minor characters do have a way of wanting to take over our stories. Sometimes they can actually end up being better protagonists than our first choices. But, usually, we’re going to be better off shoving those little upstarts back into their proper places.

  22. Great list! Two more are getting discouraged when that first published book doesn’t sell like wildfire and, after that experience, redirecting all your energy to marketing that first book and letting your writing become secondary.

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      Good one! It’s important for us to keep writing, no matter what is happening with our previous stories. Whether they’re languishing in a drawer, making the agent rounds, selling like hotcakes, or, as you say, performing poorly on the market, the best thing we can do for ourselves or our writing is just to keep at it.

  23. What an awesome post. I am from Nebraska as well (Lincoln), and currently live in Arizona, all the while wishing I could have a cheese Runza.

    You’ve got yourself a new follower and I’m definitely guilty of #10.

  24. Great article!

    Another few signs:

    – You obsess over your stats, checking your sales reports several times a day.
    – You often change your working methods because other writers claim higher productivity by using product X or software Y.

    The thing is, there’s nothing wrong with checking your sales, or changing your methods if the old methods don’t work, but don’t obsess and don’t fix what isn’t broken.

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      You’re right. In truth, there’s not much wrong with many of these things I’ve listed here – in moderation. It’s only when we allow a habit to knock the overall balance of our writing life out whack that we get ourselves into trouble.

  25. One huge problem I have is the lac of investment/cash! I would love to afford a really great editor (who could be as critical as they pleased by the way). In the absence of such an expert I have had to use many beta readers and one cheaper, newly qualified editor. I imagine the difference in learning and story development is huge. This is one part of being an Indie I begrudge. I envy the trad-published writers who have the benefit of an editing team.

    *Swoon!

    I also procrastinate. I think I’m a tad obsessed with keeping my inbox empty. And reviewers opinions have begun to get to me. I have make a concerted effort to accept that we can’t all love the same books and leave it at that. I’m still new at this, I’m always learning, I’m still developing my style even, so I will absolutely stumble over one or all of these at some point, if I haven’t already. Great advice Katie (Which I’ve shared). X

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      You might want to check out the editors I’ve listed here (both of whom I can personally recommend). Both are comparatively very reasonably priced.

  26. Just wanted you to know that I have signed up for all of the comments on this blog because I’m learning a lot from you and your other readers/writers. Thanks for the constructive advice, everyone! xoJulia

  27. Great article!
    For me, I seem to spend too much time researching history for my historical fiction book than actually writing it.

    Kateri Maloney

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      Research can be addicting! I like to set a time limit on my main research (usually a couple months), then strictly limit my Internet surfing for various factoids during actual writing time.

  28. 9 and 10 are my flaws and number 12 would be nice but thats not realistic sadly. I do try and work on it but then life or ideas just get in the way. But there is nothing else for it then keeping at it (and to think some people believe being a writer is glamorous LOL).

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      At the end of the day, the most successful authors are those who, if nothing else, have mastered the art of keeping on. Determination and discipline vanquishes many foes.

  29. The biggest issue with sharing a story idea is that, someone else will come and say that this is wrong, write this way. (Notice they don’t say try this way. Its like they are ordering us to work as they want)
    Three of my manuscripts have gotten into dump thanks to just telling my mother since she insisted. So one lesson I have learned the hard way is; don’t let anyone in your mind. Apply noise cancellation filter and only let those ideas, which is good for your WIP come in.
    It is hard, but worth it. (Since not every idea others have is bad. So we need to learn to filter them in our minds)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’ve learned the hard way not to share my unfinished drafts or even talk about them too much. Until they’re finished, they belong only to me.

      • Yeah! Now recently, I have learned in harder way not ever mutter a word about what I am working on. Keep it top-secret classified document. At least, in your personal life. In internet, you can get some good enough tips and advice, so share them every now and then (writers have enough dignity to know how much to tip others and from where to start challenging the writer himself to do it himself)
        But, non-writers simply don’t. My advice to everyone, don’t share early. You can even burn up your enthusiasm and suffer a tremendous writers block. I know it, I am just recovering from it.

  30. Honestly, a couple of these hurt. I won’t deny it. UGH LIFE. Being fourteen and having just moved half way around the world is no picnic and certainly an obstacle to writing. My first major story has been in the making for about five or six years and I’m still only one third way in. WILL IT EVER BE DONE? I just have to persuade myself to do it. It’s hard for me to put the right words down when all I see in my head is picture. I don’t write for the words, I write for the story. If making a movie was just as fast, as cheaper, and as difficult as writing a book, I’d make a movie. I can see it. I just need to translate it from picture to word. *facepalm* It takes forever.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’m exactly the same way. When I was young, I called my stories “my movies.” The best any of can do is try to capture a piece of the perfection that lives in our imaginations.

  31. Hey! Great article! I’m sticking some of these on a sticky note and paste it somewhere where I can read it everyday! (By my laptop).

    I have this one problem, one…certain confession to make.

    I call it the “third chapter curse”. One moment I’m writing , writing , making a great introduction then suddenly during or before or even just AFTER the third chapter…I freeze up, my work is I finished and I never touch it again…though it constantly haunts me in the back of my mind.

    There has been many cases where I start writing story then…get scared of it. Scared that my characters aren’t well developed (even after lot periods of meet n greet session and the hundreds of questionnaires) scared that the plot is slipping away, scared that everything was a complete waste of time and now I have to scrap it!

    It’s frustrating, to see people successfully finish their story and I can’t even pass the third chapter.

    Is there any way I can make past this wretched obstacle?

    Thank you!

    • my work is unfinished**

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      My first recommendation would be to focus on properly structuring the story, so you know *how* to move forward. But it sounds like plain ol’ insecurity is what’s getting you, and that’s a problem most writers have to confront sooner or later. For better or worse, the only way to conquer it is to just keep writing. You might find this article helpful; it’s about how I learned to stop over-analyzing my first drafts.

Trackbacks

  1. […] of the community’s I am a part of had a thread using KM Weiland’s list of 15 signs you might not be acting like a writer as a checklist. The article contains some useful advice, so I recommend taking a glance if you do […]

  2. […] How Not to Be a Writer: 15 Signs You’re Doing It Wrong from K.M. Weiland at Helping Writers Become Authors […]

  3. […] In the meantime – have a read about the 15 things writers probably shouldn’t do. […]

  4. […] How Not to Be a Writer: 15 Signs You’re Doing It Wrong K.M. Weiland on how you might be approaching the business of writing the wrong way. […]

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