The Secret to Writing That Nobody Tells You

When I coach people, there is an ugly truth about writing that I often hold back from them. It’s something you can only learn through gut-wrenching, razor’s edge, shard of broken glass experience.

There is no magic to writing, none at all. It’s nothing but grueling work.

No magic, no easy formula, no genius algorithm. There is no “secret” that is going to make everybody love your work, buy all your books, tell their friends about you, and get stars in their eyes when they hear your name.

It is simply monotonous, repetitive work.

I recently finished the manuscript for my first novel. For eight years I struggled to finish it. And do you know what finally helped me finish it?

Monotonous, repetitive work.

I did it by sitting down (almost) every day and writing a minimum of 500 words.

Some of those days were pretty good days. I would say that the ideas were flowing and the story was coming out. But there were days when it wasn’t so easy, when I had to get up earlier than I wanted to, when I struggled to move on to the next paragraph, when I realized my ideas were wandering, days when I was busy and writing seemed like a frivolous pursuit.

There were days when I was inspired and felt like I was walking on clouds, I was so amazed at what I had written. But there were also days when I didn’t know what the hell was coming next, and the only way I was going to get past it was grinding, grueling work.

If you want easy, you have no business being a writer. Seriously, get out of here and go do something else. If you love writing even when it gets hard and you want to know how to deal with that, then keep reading.

When I attended WDS last summer, Scott Berkun, author of six books and all around prolific writer, had some things to say about work and creativity. He showed a clip from a documentary, Le Mystere Picasso, that followed Picasso while he worked, and Scott had this to say:

“If you watch the film, it is actually an astonishingly boring film. But if you want to learn about how to create stuff, it is incredibly valuable, because you realize again even if you’re Picasso and you’re a genius, everyone wanted to see him, like epihany! and cubism! And everything happening like a Michael Bay film, exciting, popping drama. It’s really just a guy sitting and working. And what do you think it’s like to watch me or any famous writer write a book? It’s someone sitting and working, typing, thinking, typing, maybe shot of vodka, typing, thinking. It’s not that exciting. The idea part is certainly interesting and there are moments that are fun and enjoyable, but the process looks like work, and it looks like uncertainty.”

This is exactly what it’s like to write a book. It’s work. Thinking, typing, thinking, typing, staring into space, typing. Someone watching you won’t sparks or light bulbs or fantastic “Aha!” moments. I could be doing data entry, and you wouldn’t know it.

I hesitate to tell other people about the monotonous, repetitive work, because I don’t want them to get discouraged. Whether your goal is to write a book, find your authentic voice, or post consistently on your blog, it can feel overwhelming. You think about the long road ahead of you and you wonder how in the hell you’re going to get there. It feels damn near impossible.

But rather than let this get you down, let it be something that empowers you.

If you’ve been feeling the monotonous, repetitive work as you write, then this is exciting news. Yes, this is something to be very proud of. If you’ve managed to make it this far and you’re not turned off by the work, then you are just like every ass-kicking writer, published and unpublished, known and unknown. It means you are doing exactly what you’re supposed to do.

There’s freedom in that. The tool of writing every day is simple when you think about it. Anyone, anyone can use that tool no matter what their experience, their intelligence, or their ability. You don’t have to spend a lot of money on that tool. You don’t have to be in the Secret Mason Society of Writers (oops, I’m not supposed to talk about that) to have that tool. You don’t have to pay me a lot of money, now that I’ve given you this tool. I’ve just given it to you. There, you have it.

“But Jane, what about willpower?” Here’s some willpower for you. Do you want to live a life of regret? Do you want to be on your death bed, look back on your life, and think, “Wow, sure did miss the luxury liner boat on that writing thing”?

When I need willpower, I think about all the opportunities I’ve let pass me by (and there have been many), opportunities to experiment and fail, to talk to people in the industry, and to make the most of precious, precious writing time.

I spent a year of my life not too long ago so depressed that there was not one single time that I picked up a pen to jot down a note or write a journal entry or anything. My laptop was for watching soothing, mind-numbing television and reading articles on running.

That year and all those missed opportunities, I’ll never get those back.

If you feel at times that you are performing monotonous, repetitive work, it doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with you. It doesn’t mean that you’re not talented or that you don’t know what you’re doing. And it definitely does not mean you should quit. It means you are right where you need to be.

To view Scott Berkun’s WDS speech, click here.


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22 thoughts on “The Secret to Writing That Nobody Tells You

  1. Great post and I couldn’t agree more. The secret to writing a novel is to put your bum in a seat and write one word at a time until it’s done.
    I also don’t have time for people who say they don’t have the time to write. I used to believe my day was full until I took on night school. It taught me, amongst other things, that I previously had a lot of spare time on my hands. Then I had a child and I realised that night school was a doddle. Then the second came and I realised just one child was a breeze. Then I wrote books with children and I realised I still had time to do everything. The only question was, what was I prepared to sacrifice (TV, socialising, sleep) in order to do what I’d previously only dreamt of.
    This might sound like grandstanding but it really isn’t. Writing 500 words should take an hour at most, with a bit of practise. Do that each day and within 5 months you have your first draft. Spend that one hour per day editing and within a year you’ll have a completed manuscript. It’s that simple and that difficult.

    1. I absolutely agree with you, Dylan.
      I also don’t have a lot of patience with writers complainging that ‘other writers who write worse than me get a lot more success. Maybe is it isn’t worth it.” Well, if it isn’t worth it, just stop writing, stop complaining and do something more enjoyable for you.
      I think we are our biggest motivation. If we lose it, nobody can give it back to us. The only thing we can do is look inside ourselves and ask, do I really want to do it?

  2. Really enjoyed this post. I’m exactly the same – sometimes the ideas are flowing so freely that I can hardly get them down, other days I seem to be grinding out each word, but there’s no escaping the fact that you have to show up at the page every day. And like Dylan says, what’s an hour a day in pursuit of your dream?

  3. I love those moments of inspiration, where I can write a whole chapter in one sitting. Then there are days like yesterday…6 hours to grind out a half page, the muse on extended leave. And this is the first draft where everything is new and exciting. Just wait for the editing rounds…talk about a need for discipline!

  4. I’ve been telling new writers this very thing for decades. Writing is work. You put your ass in the seat and write. Only when you can do this day in and day out can you call yourself a writer. You write when you feel like it and you write when you don’t feel like it – just like everyone else’s job. There are good days and bad day but you still go to work, right?

  5. This post was the kick in the pants I have been waiting for! I got up this morning pondering a post (a very, very tardy post) about procrastination. Thank you 🙂

  6. Reblogged this on The Non-Fiction Novelist and commented:
    I am reblogging Jane’s post because it’s something I’ve been harping on for years. Writing is work. You put your ass in the seat and write. Only when you can do this day in and day out can you call yourself a writer. You write when you feel like it and you write when you don’t feel like it – just like everyone else and their job. There are good days and bad day but you still go to work, right?

  7. There are certainly days where it is fun and the process feels great, but it would be false to say that is every day. Eventually you do start to get sick of working on the same book over and over again and just want it to be done.

  8. I have a tube of Butt Paste on my writing desk. Yes indeedy. When folks ask me how to become a writer I tell them there are two secrets, ya gotta love words, and ya gotta keep on putting one word in front of the other until you are done. I always think they feel a little let down. But it’s the truth. Oh yeah, and that Secret Mason Society of Writing does help. Of course, it doesn’t exist. Or does it?

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