Alan's Blog


Reading (and Writing!)


The Key to Becoming a Successful Writer

Being a successful writer doesn't mean you have to write a best-selling novel that earns you millions of pounds (or dollars). Very, very few writers achieve that sort of success. Getting a book published doesn't necessarily mean you're a successful writer (in financial terms) as it may not bring in enough money for you to give-up your day job. I know writers who have had more than one book published but still go about their day job as that provides the necessary income to pay their bills. I've never had a book published by a major publisher (only self-published). Does that make me a failure despite the fact that I've worked as a full-time writer for about 15 years and earned a very good living from it? What are your criteria for being successful? Only you can answer that question. To be able to live well and support your family is a realistic definition of being a successful writer, in my humble opinion. I suggest there are a lot of writers out there who would be more than happy to achieve that degree of success with their writing. Many other writers will have different criteria in measuring success.

People often ask "How do I become a writer?" or say "I've always wanted to be a writer (or write a book)" – but they've never become one. The answer is absurdly simple: "Just write".  If you don't make a start, how can you become a writer? It doesn't matter whether you use a cheap ball pen on a scrap of paper or the latest version of a word-processor on your computer, the words will still be the same. And it's the words that are important.

So, "Where do I start", is often the next question.

The answer to this question largely depends on your circumstances, profession or interests. It also depends on the genre of writing you wish to write about – and where you want your work to be published. There are two main classes of genre: fiction and non-fiction. Only you can choose what you want to write, however, if you are already engaged in work other than writing, which you will be if you're reading this, then I suggest you might consider writing about your profession or job. If you're determined to be a novelist then you're going to have to get your ideas and thoughts down on paper as they come into your head – and work out the structure later. Just write, and build on the initial idea as you go along. Forming your thoughts and ideas into words on paper is the important part; the rest can be worked on later.

Non-fiction writing is a different ball game. In simple terms, there are two distinct styles of writing non-fiction. These are structured and unstructured.

Structured writing is where you are usually engaged as a technical writer (author) to write documents such as reports, procedures and instructions, all of which follow a structure. For example, there is a set procedure for changing the wheel on your car for which you can write a series of instructions in a very specific order. The same sort of document may be used for writing the procedure for changing the fuel in a nuclear reactor; that is, a step-by-step series of instructions – as in the workshop manual for your (non-nuclear!) car.

This type of writing covers just about every profession in the world as it is vital when including such topics as health and safety or where a failure to follow a procedure might bring about a catastrophe, such as Chernobyl. Having these procedures and instructions can also assist companies and organisation avoid expensive litigation.

Unstructured non-fiction writing contains your research in an unstructured way. This, for example, may be a blog about your life – or about your latest travels on your bicycle. In this situation, unlike in structured writing, you have a great deal of freedom to write what and how you like. Once you have an idea, get it down on paper and build on it. In most cases, you will need to carry out research to include in your writing.

If you're writing about historical events you will need to undertake immense amounts of research to cover 'the story' in detail and ensure what you write is accurate. Any highly regarded history book will contain many pages of listed references and a bibliography. Take a look at some of the books written by Max Hastings to see what I mean. This type of writing is often a mixture of structured and unstructured writing as there may be a requirement to keep your writing about events in a chronological sequence, although the text itself may be unstructured.

Of course, not all non-fiction writing will require such detailed research. For example, you can often write about your own personal experiences without any research being necessary.

The key to all forms of unstructured writing, fiction or non-fiction, is to get your ideas and thoughts onto paper. If you don't make a start, you'll never, ever, become a writer.

Once you've got started let the words flow out of your mind onto the paper. Don't worry if you make mistakes or typos or choose incorrect words. Once your ideas are flowing, just get them onto the paper.

Editing comes later. This applies to all genres of writing.

One writer whose document (a technical report) I was editing wrote the word 'exasperated' instead of 'exacerbated'. No doubt he was feeling exasperated - but the incorrect word was noticed during the editing stage and the correct word inserted in place of the original.

Writing also involves a certain amount of discipline. I know of writers who focus on writing about 1000 words per day. That may not seem like a lot. The text in this article contains almost that number of words, so far, and has taken less than a couple of hours of my time to write. However, if I was writing something highly technical, or even something that was highly creative, 1000 words would take much longer to get down on paper. However, 1000 words per day amounts to a lot of words in one year – more than enough to fill most books – even more than one. On the other hand, some writers write in fits and starts; say writing 5000 words in one day and then nothing for the next few days – they may be carrying out research instead of writing.

Of course, you don't have to write books. You can write short articles or stories, poems, plays or film-scripts for broadcasting or film companies, theatre companies, magazines, blogs, websites or other organisations or publications that will pay you. You could even write lyrics for music composers. Very few of these are highly paid (unless you become a successful script writer) but if you can write enough of them you may well survive as a writer. It's usually much more secure, and often pays better, to obtain a staff job as a writer rather than going freelance. As I said in the beginning, most, particularly freelance writers don't give up their day job as that pays the bills.

Companies or organisations that employ writers will usually require you to have at least a degree in the subject you'll be writing about. For example, a medical writer will normally be required to have at least a Bachelors degree in a life-science subject (some companies require a PhD). Much the same goes for engineers who become technical authors, often late in their careers, after becoming highly experienced and knowledgeable engineers.

All the above suggests that being a successful writer depends on whether or not you can make enough money to live on from your writing. However, success isn't always measured in financial terms. If you enjoy writing and get satisfaction from it, that too is a success. For many people this is a greater success than being rewarded financially. Even if no one reads your written work, if you are pleased / satisfied with what you've written this may be all you need to be successful. If you write for fun - because you enjoy it, that in itself is a success.

However you measure success, remember that to be successful as a writer, you first need to write.

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