In defense of not working very much on your writing

16-11-g           I just read this blog post by Scott Lynch where he talks about how there’s no shortcut to success other than hard work. And I liked it. But it’s also part of a genre of blog posts: the “you have to work your fingers to the bone to maybe get anywhere at all as a writer!” genre.

And I don’t think that’s true.

If you read between the lines, it doesn’t seem like most writers (aside from those who’ve already succeeded and are now writing full-time) actually work that hard, in terms of hours per day. My output is much higher than most writers, and I only write, like, 100 minutes a day. I made my first professional sale in 2008, after five years of working much, much less hard than I do now (I wrote for maybe three or four hours a week, if that). At the time of my first sale to Clarkesworld (in 2010), I was working a bit harder, but not much harder. Since making that sale, I’ve worked much, much harder and have only sold them one more story. They reject my stuff constantly.

I’m not trotting out this biodata in order to brag, but just because I’m sure I have many blog readers who would really like to sell to Clarkesworld.

The honest answer is that working hard does make you a better writer…but that writing doesn’t reward hard work nearly as much as most other endeavors. There are lots and lots of writers who succeeded with the first stories they ever wrote. There are lots and lots of writers who only write a few stories a year, or who only write for an evening or two, once in awhile.

A certain personality type (mine) sees the lay of the land and thinks, “Oh, what I need to do is work harder!”

But that’s not necessarily the right answer. Writing is a field in which you get better without really trying, just through the process of reading and living and speaking and thinking. I think that all of this talk about the agony and the hours of toil kinda puts people off. And, what’s worse, it makes people (even fairly successful writers) feel bad about themselves if they don’t work super hard.

The truth is, you don’t necessarily need to. I mean, there is a minimum level of work you should put in. You should write new stuff. And when you write it, you should attempt to write work that’s on par with the work that you love. You should finish stories on a regular basis (at least several times a year). You should submit those stories.

But, often, that’s all you need in order to have success.

Not immediately, of course. It usually takes 5-7 years of work before you get anywhere. But that’s true even for people who’re working much harder.

Nor does working at a lower level necessarily mean that you won’t achieve at the highest levels. In writing, it doesn’t matter how good of a writer you are…what matters is the quality of the story. If you write one unforgettable story, then you’ve done as well as any writer ever has.

So yes, I’m not quite as fervent a believer in hard work as Scott Lynch is. All I can say in favor of hard work is that if you’re sitting in your room and despairing about whether it’s going to ever happen for you, then pretty much the only thing you can do is work harder (and, also, read more books).

I mean, networking is actually incredibly important, but it’s not something you can go out and do. Networking is an attitude. It’s a certain receptivity and a certain way of handling relationships. It’s a way of creating and seizing opportunities.  It doesn’t take much actual time. There, in that moment, right in front of your laptop, the only thing you can do is write another story and hope that it’s better than the last one.

6 thoughts on “In defense of not working very much on your writing

  1. debs

    “It usually takes 5-7 years of work before you get anywhere. But that’s true even for people who’re working much harder.”

    No necessarily.

    I liked this post a lot, and I think a lot of it is true. But I think that hard work (more hours) can really accelerate progress. I can think of at least one writer for whom this is true.

    I like what you say about networking. I hope you’re going to blog about that someday.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      It does happen in less time for some people, but not that many. And I think that for a lot of people, working the extra hours doesn’t accelerate the time it takes that much.

  2. debs

    Also working as hard as you (and I’m using that not as an hour thing, but considering all of one’s other life commitment) makes you feel good. Because you can always shrug and say, well at least I know I couldn’t have worked any harder.

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