5 Huge Mistakes Writers Make

Vector illustration of gold ticketWe live in an era of free and low-cost publishing tools that would turn Gutenberg into Willie Wonka overnight.

Once there was this thing called the printing press and only the wealthy and elect could control it. Writers who didn’t come from money and didn’t live to please established powers had to be extraordinarily good as well as persistent and daring to even catch a break. Someone else always controlled the means to reaching an audience.

Now, every 14-year-old can have a blog and every grandmother can share photos of her dog with thousands of people. The printing press is electrified, computerized, and cheap. And distribution is pretty much free and instantaneous. It’s never been easier to publish. This is the age of the golden ticket. Yet it seems on the surface that much harder to get recognized and compensated as a professional writer. For people just starting out, the odds and the sheer information available can seem overwhelming.

That’s why I’m launching this site with a few observations drawn from several years’ experience as a hardworking writer and new media professional. Maybe I can save you a little time and a lot of grief.

At the top of the list, avoid these five huge mistakes:

  1. Trying to achieve a big audience before building basic skills.
  2. Never acting or feeling ready no matter how much you prepare.
  3. Taking advice from anybody and everybody.
  4. Not taking advice from anybody, even established pros.
  5. Believing you have to learn everything before you can do anything.

What Most Writers Buy Online Is Average Crap For Average People Cobbled Together By Shillmeisters, But the Good Advice is Out There

Vintage-Frustrated-WriterThe internet is loaded with marketing experts, both real and pretend and everything in between. The worst of them sell some variation on how to be an overnight success with little or no work.

Discover a few key secrets in a special report or buy the latest black hat software and voila! you too will be raking in the dough on autopilot while you nap on the beach.

You probably know that if product copy appeals to the basic human desire to get something for nothing, then you need to run (not walk) in the other direction.

On a finer ethical level, some marketers and a few of the best freelance writers will teach you real things that take a little work and accomplish desirable results. For example, you might need to learn the basics of search engine optimization or the importance of building an email list.

Maybe you need someone to shake you because you spend 60 hours per week writing $15 blog posts for shady content mills that won’t even give you a byline.

Good Advice From Credible Professionals Is Worth Paying For

There are books and online classes and membership sites I don’t hesitate to recommend. Spending a little money in the right places not only helps you avoid stupid mistakes and take everything you’re doing to a higher level much faster, it also enfranchises hardworking trailblazers and mentors to go on sifting huge amounts of information and testing and learning from painful mistakes and boiling things down for you. Nothing at all wrong with that practice.

Unfortunately, what most writers buy online is average crap. Being smart people, writers avoid the worst scams most of the time, but have a hard time distinguishing average from good and good from great, especially in the realm of advice and coaching products.

The advice and information most commonly peddled and bought online isn’t worthless, but it’s hastily assembled, rehashed, generic, possibly a little out of date or insufficiently tested, and sometimes sold as a ‘class’ because that has greater perceived value than a book or report, but it isn’t really a class if feedback and interaction are lacking.

A Lot Of Marketing Advice Isn’t Tailored For Creative And Freelance Writers

Most internet information products are marketers teaching other people how to be marketers, because the big desire is to make money online. That’s what gets sold the most because that’s what sells. Specialized information for aspiring authors and freelance writers is out there, but doesn’t get the same exposure and isn’t sold at nearly the same volume or price points as generic ‘get rich’ stuff.

It’s vital for writers to know how to promote themselves and thrive through the channels enabled by the latest technology, but sometimes the advice is too general or you catch yourself ‘putting the cart before the horse’ because you can’t figure out what you need first and what you need next.

Maybe you still get snagged by the right uses of theirthere, and they’re… or maybe grammatical basics and homonyms are a cinch, but an editor recently told you that your story needs a stronger opening hook and you’re not sure what that means or how to achieve one. In either case, you have some fundamental concerns for selling yourself to the world as a writer. Developmental concerns for writing technique are more essential than high-end computer geekery. What you publish should look good, should feel professional, and should not be expedited into the greater world without proofreading, fact checking, etc.

What the marketers want to teach you about SEO or the importance of building an email list or social media secrets for managing your brand–that’s all highfalutin stuff that can wait. Before you become a machine on your blog and on Twitter, you’ll want at least a refresher on the basics of English prose style and the concepts of storytelling. With that in mind, we’ll talk a little about online writing classes, an area where some might say I have significant credibility and expertise.

Always Ask ‘Who Is This Class Or Product For And What Is It Designed To Do’?

A writing class for Baby Boomers who didn’t go to college but now want to brush up on basic skills to turn a wealth of life experience into a readable memoir–that probably will not be the most satisfying class for a 23-year-old with a BA in English who is contemplating MFA programs versus a panoply of  à la carte workshop experiences. And the copy on a website usually won’t come right out and tell you who the class is for. Not in specific terms regarding age, education, and experience or which of the people described above would be at home in the target demographic and which one wouldn’t. It’s not that the target audience information is a trade secret, it’s that excluding everyone else seems rude.

Also, in free market and non-academic settings, especially, students in a writing class are self-selected, not picked and chosen. Most often, the customer must read between the lines to know if they’re in the right venue. Entire domains and brands (not just individual classes) usually cater to a well-defined demographic group, and don’t forbid other folks but might not please or encourage them.

It’s About Selection, Not Exclusion. Make An Informed Choice Based On Your Interests, Comfort Level, And Real Needs

iStock-Choice-Blocks-SmallI’ve taught, organized, and participated in online classes where one or two of the oldest students could have been parents to most of the rest and I’ve seen the whole thing come of fabulous to the good, positive for everyone, with mutual support and respect and cross-fertilization of ideas and no artificial barriers created by an arbitrary age bias.

But the people who were demographic outliers for age in those situations were self-selected and had reasons for feeling at home in the particular venue. They may well have been dissatisfied somewhere else that caters more to age peers. Peerage is defined in many ways that don’t always render well for statisticians.

The point here isn’t ageism. I’m getting too old for that. And the point isn’t any generalization about people based on how much formal education they got before starting families and leading independent lives. Most real education happens in the school of hard knocks, anyway. And the best writers are always committed lifelong learners.

So the objective here isn’t to draw a line in the sand based on formal education, either.

The point is to look closely at the tone and style of a publication, series of classes, membership site, or educational venue or organization of any kind, and then make your decision to participate or not from a well-rounded perspective that goes beyond the copy promoting a specific class or workshop. Hang out for a little while and see if the place is congenial to you. Make some friends. Find out if they’re your kind of people. Not along demographic lines but along deeper, finer, and more personal lines of significance.

If you’re workshopping fiction, it’s important to have early readers who share your tastes, those who would read the same books you read for pleasure. The aesthetic overlap doesn’t have to be perfect, by any means, but “likes to read, likes to write” fails as a set of qualifiers. I’ll say more about this in a future post.

Beyond that, if the copy promoting a class or program leaves you with questions, someone who can answer those questions should be as easy to reach as dropping an email through a contact form or finding their name and contact info on the masthead. Send a note and be prepared to wait 24 to 72 hours for a response.

If you don’t get a ‘high-touch’ response for something as human-centered and luxurious as a creative writing class, you should probably try somewhere else.

What has been your experience or your trepidation in seeking the right knowledge to advance yourself as an author or freelance writer? Let me know and I’ll see you in the comments below. Thanks for reading.

14 thoughts on “5 Huge Mistakes Writers Make

  1. I would also add that it is important to commit yourself to the courses you take and not allow them to slide because it is an online class or a class you don’t “need” for your day job. You can find the best course in the world and you won’t get anything out of it if you’re not prepared to work hard, participate, and treat it as a priority.

    • Hi, Renee. Thanks for your insightful reply. I agree one-hundred percent. The best educational opportunity in the world is a waste if you buy it but you’re always sticking it on the back burner. I can’t argue with the need to put work and family first, but it’s a potent spell and might demand a sacrifice of TV or other leisure activities while the course is going on.

      Maybe more than that. Extra help from a partner or getting up an hour early or staying up an hour late. You need the same kind of dedication and help to write a novel that you need to apply yourself to an online course. The one can be good training for the other just in terms of personal work habits, besides the craft knowledge.

  2. Very well put. Also, reading a LOT of books. Reading books more than writing will help shape the writer. People might be put off by prices of writing classes but compared to an MFA program, (time and money) workshops and classes are basic training for writers. Reading and writing a lot can lead to getting your work published, but classes will get you there faster by teaching you some of the technical skills of the craft (knowing sophomore grammar helps before getting to the meta stuff.)

    Workshop. Read. Write. Classes.

    Side note: After taking Marking Vanderpool’s online class, I started to get published. Writers are students, always learning, so when I started getting published, I got the itch. I got the itch and had to take more classes.

    • Thanks, Dakota. Well said. There’s definitely no substitute for a voracious reading life. People who don’t love to read shouldn’t try to be writers, not at a pro level. That would be like someone who doesn’t listen avidly and closely to several forms of music trying for some reason to be a musician. Half of the education is missing.

      Also, why bother? Fiction is a great deal of work with an uncertain outcome and it’s not a practical career choice for most people. Especially for anyone who doesn’t live for it.. So, I couldn’t agree with you more. Produce the kind of art you love to consume, and add the part that’s missing from the world.

  3. Excellent article. It’s great to have advice on where to look for advice, though I should add that even seeking advice in the first place is a great start. But yeah, once you’ve decided to improve (the attitude that instantly increases your potential exponentially) you still need to navigate the slums and the detritus to find the good stuff that applies to you most.

    • Yes, intent and readiness. You’re right. The desire to seek advice and expertise in the first place is a fair sign that someone is determined to make progress from hobbyist to pro or from whatever level they’re working at to the next one up. Well observed. Thanks for commenting.

  4. There is so much trite advice available on the Internet about how to write, so I think the third mistake you note above, “Taking advice from anybody and everybody”, is particularly pertinent. What works for one writer is not necessarily going to work for another, and you shouldn’t feel bad just because the way Neil Gaiman or Margaret Atwood write, doesn’t work for you.

    The hard part is filtering the good advice from the bad. The best advice I get these days comes from teachers in courses I do – people who don’t just write, and make a lot of money from writing, but have experience teaching people the craft of writing.

    • Yes, it does help to learn as much as possible from authors who have lots of teaching experience. There is a limit to what you can learn from English teachers who’ve never been widely published or dealt directly with the rejections and financial uncertainty of making it as an author.

      But equally, as you point out, there is also a limit to what you can learn from seasoned pros when they don’t have the time or the gift for teaching. It’s amazing how rewarding it is to find a mentor who has both sets of skills and experiences, as well as time and patience.

  5. I read this post with great interest and salute you for providing some common sense observations. I would add that especially for the novice, a beginner class is a great way to establish some structure and to gain some exposure. It is a little like having a personal trainer for a month or two to guide you in your workouts. The personal trainer experience should continue to influence long after those sessions have ended.
    Well done and keep on keeping on!

    • Thanks for reading and for link-sharing, Lucy. And thanks for stopping by. Please keep an eye on this blog, too, for new articles at the same standard in the near future and on a regular basis.

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