Why some people make money writing and others never will

Why some people make money writing and others never will

There are two types of writers in this world: the people whose writing has a positive net effect on their lives and their businesses, and the hobbyists.

I’ve been in the former category for nearly a decade. Writing has been the life-source of my entire business success. It’s the gas pumping through the machine that fires pistons and gets somewhere. Getting started was hard, but now that machine has a lot of momentum, and it’s going strong, with no intentions of stopping.

That’s the distinction between real writers and hobbyists.

Now, I know quite a bit about my audience. Those who read this blog aspire to do the kind of writing that pays off – that has a net economic benefit to their lives and businesses… but some feel like they’re wading through mud trying to make it happen.

It’s slow. It’s difficult. It’s messy.

And it stinks.

Meanwhile, the pro writers are like rockets on greased rails. They’re not slogging away. They get it done. They slam out content, they make money writing, and their words seem imbued with magic.

Everything just works.

But here’s the thing: it’s not magic. When you really get to know these two types of people – when you see the reality, as I have – it’s obvious that the pros are doing what the hobbyists aren’t.

I want to talk about what these pros are doing. If you want to make money through writing, either by selling your writing or using your content to sell your stuff, this is what you need to know.

The Line in the Sand that Separates the Pros

There’s really just one high-level concept that becomes the ultimate line in the sand between people who make money from their writing and those who don’t. It’s not a revolutionary concept, but it’s far easier to talk about it than it is to attain it.

And as you know, talk is cheap. That’s why you’ll find a lot of articles out there telling you how to achieve the golden bar of success, written by amateurs still slogging through the proverbial mud. They haven’t crossed the ultimate line in the sand yet… and maybe never will.

Stephen Pressfield wrote two books with this concept in mind: Turning Pro and the The War of Art. Writers who get paid for their work have a habit that amateurs don’t. They’re consistent in their content creation. They’re always polishing their craft and practicing their skills.

They’re writing, all the time, and getting better at it every day.

If your writing creates a positive economic force in your life and business, this means it makes you money. Naturally, doing more writing makes you more money. If your business has a content strategy in place, then creating more content helps.

The unsexy reality? Practice works.

Steve Pressfield gets close with his theory of building a writing habit, but stoic, relentless writing doesn’t quite cut it. Do that in a vacuum, alone, and there’s no guarantee for success. There’s no guarantee that you will, in fact, get paid or make money from your efforts.

A few other ingredients have to be thrown into the mixing bowl first. And these secret ingredients are the ones that pro writers deliberately leverage (or accidentally stumble upon, in some rare cases) to make their writing occur effortlessly.

The 4 Secret Keys of a Successful Writing Habit

Key #1: Specific, writing-centric goals 

You always have to be working on something. At Damn Fine Words, I mentor many business owners who aspire to turn their writing into a sales victory tool. They join the course to learn how to create better content… but also to learn how to get their website copy and maybe an ebook DONE.

They don’t want to learn how to start or dink around midway. They want to finish.

There’s just one problem with that mindset: to really make your writing efforts pay off, you can’t just have one, single project. Writing isn’t a finite activity that ends, especially if you’re creating content for your business.

In other words, if your goal is simply to polish your business’s website copy once and for all or write a few articles and then move on, your writing suffers.

Pro writers who make bank always have a writing goal. They treat writing the same way gym junkies set goals for their body. They might already have a six-pack and bench press hundreds of pounds, but that doesn’t stop them from showing up every day to work on the next challenge or maintain their level of fitness.

Writing doesn’t have to be all-consuming or even your number-one priority, but if you want to make money with words, you need to constantly set, work towards and achieve specific writing goals.

Rinse and repeat. Week after week.

Key #2: Community 

Very few pro writers achieved their levels of success by going at it alone. The greatest authors of history exchanged drafts and shared their work with their inner circle. Even the secretive writers could rely on a fraternity of other writers to swap ideas, or even just beers.

This is why great writers, pre-internet, would move to Paris to complete their magnum opus. The effects of being around and talking with other pros has profound consequences on the writing mindset… and ultimately, your financial success.

It’s like the think-and-grow-rich principal: your income will be the average of the five people you spend the most time with. Spending time with other writers will push up your word count. Your work will get more polished, your skills will improve, and the prizes you accumulate will get brighter and shinier.

Key #3: Accountability

The romantic notion that writing involves just you and your screen isn’t accurate. You can even toss in The Muse, if you’d like – it’s still bull. Such an image is painted by those who think writing is all about creativity and inspiration.

The truth is that 90% of writing involves discipline and hard work.

And you don’t have to do that alone.

That’s why having someone hold you accountable to your writing habit is extremely important. You need someone to keep you going. And while accountability can be a side effect of a community, it only works well when done right.

This someone who holds you accountable should be a person with higher expectations for your success than perhaps even your own. Think of this person like a jogging buddy who’s fit, in shape and won’t fail to show up because he’s hungover.

The other two keys of writing success – specific goals and community – come together sweetly when you’re held accountable to the pro-writing standard.

Key #4: a Mentor

Pro writers have mentors. Period.

To achieve your writing goals, you need someone who has already trodden the long road to pro-writing success. This person has to be several steps beyond where you are now, because their primary function is to announce deadly obstacles on the path before they kill your progress.

Having a mentor is distinct and separate from the other ingredients listed above. A mentor doesn’t have to be a part of your community or be your accountability person. In fact, a give-away trait of a great mentor is someone who holds themselves apart from all that. Not because of aloofness, but because it implies that they really are further down the path than you are.

Beware the dangers of B.S., though: make sure your mentor has proven results of their progress to show you.

Community and accountability are about building comradeship as you strive toward your goals. A mentor is there so you can ask the commander for tactical advice. It’s someone who sees the big picture – who has the writing equivalent of a table-top battle map with little figurines all over it.

A few minutes of conversation from such a person creates more direction, clarity and progress for you than weeks of even the best comradeship with the troops.

With these 4 keys – specific goals, community, accountability and mentorship – even an amateur writer can transition to becoming a well-paid professional. Smart habits get built and become solid pillars, and cash will flow. As a writer-for-hire, you’ll sell more words. As a content creator, you’ll produce more consistently and to better results. As a business owner, you’ll market regularly and propel your sales to higher levels.

It’s practically inevitable.

Here’s the question: Do you have these 4 keys in your life right now?

If not, which are missing? If yes, which were hardest to find? And more importantly, what else do you think would help you become a writing pro or content-creation machine? Let’s continue the conversation in the comments.

Post by James Chartrand

James Chartrand is an expert copywriter and the owner of Men with Pens and Damn Fine Words, the game-changing writing course for business owners. She loves the color blue, her kids, Nike sneakers and ice skating.

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  1. hugh kruzel says:

    Getting on and getting done (on time) with little drama is something editors prize. If you miss a drop dead deadline then guess what the likelihood is of writing for that publication again. Delivery is huge. Build a portfolio and a history of credibility. They say the only way to be an overnight success is to work hard at something for 17 years. Be a SME (subject matter expert) on a topic and shrink that to NOW!

    • Hey Hugh, thanks for sharing your thoughts! I definitely agree that getting work done on time, with no drama, is a big part of success in any industry. I’d be curious to hear which of the 4 key factors listed in the article you feel prevents some writers from achieving those goals – seems you might have some insider perspective!

      As for working hard for 17 years… I like to think that it’s highly possible to shrink that down into far less these days. There are lots of good resources to help people become great at what they do in less time than it used to take a few years back. (Thank goodness!)

      • Amen yes thank goodness for the time shrinkage! I would also like to hear some insight about what prevents some writers from achieving one or all of the 4 key factors to reach their goals.

    • Hue Kruzel this is great advice thank you 🙂

  2. Thankfully, I have managed to have all four keys going in my life right now.

    The hardest one to acquire was the mentor. Not because there weren’t writers out there willing to offer advice. Rather, it was hard to find someone who was actually profiting from their writing and earning a realistic full time income. I was seeking workable advice, not a general opinion of what makes a successful writer, successful.

    • I’m really glad to hear that you have the 4 keys in place, Katherine – and I’d love to hear a bit about what it was like *before* you had those keys, and how life changed afterwards. Would you share that with me? I’m sure other readers would love to hear more of your story!

    • Kelli law says:

      Katherine if you’re looking for a great mentor in writing, James provides it all. I’ve taken here DFW course and the feedback you get is a game changer. I

  3. Melissa Dutmers says:

    Does Men with Pens sell mentoring?

    • The best place to get mentoring from me right now is at my writing course, Damn Fine Words (www.damnfinewords.com).

      I do take on some private clients from time to time, but I’m actually working on something very cool that will be even better 🙂

      • Melissa Dutmers says:

        Thanks James! “Registration for the Damn Fine Words writing course opens to new students in September for the Fall 2014 Semester.”

        I’ve subscribed to the newsletter and will look for the registration in September. Cheers!

  4. I agree that the mentor is the most difficult for me to acquire and accountability partner.
    As well I want someone that is making money at writing, and currently I have a project that is a screenplay, so a bit of dilemma that has also put me in a standstill with my other writing.

    • Very cool about the screenplay, Darleen – if I knew someone who could help with that, I’d let you know, because having a mentor makes such a huge difference.

      You’re dead on with wanting someone who’s actually making money – you definitely need someone who has been there, done that and won the game for accurate and tactical advice. How long have you been looking?

  5. Hi James,
    I feel like during the time I’ve been taking the damn fine words writing course I do have all four of these traits. I wonder what will happen when the course ends. I know I’ll have more knowledge and process for my writing, but the mentor will be gone. That is by far the part I’ve enjoyed most from the damn fine words course. Is your mentorship and feedback. Will I be able to find someone who can help me with my continued development as a writer? I liked the comment about goals. I think there are a variety of writing projects I’d like to take on. But I worry about becoming scattered and attempting to take on too many projects at once. I think that is where the mentor is most handy. To help you find your way through the chaos of your own mind.
    Thanks for asking for my feedback. Hope it helped.

    • To be honest, you’ll be one of the students I miss most. You’ve dug in hard, done your work well, and I’ve personally seen you really think about writing in proactive ways, and you’ve grown from the practice and effort. That, my friend, is what I like to see. (Well, that and your posts and comments always make me smile – you’re a good guy, eh!)

      Don’t worry, though – I’ve got you covered. I can’t say more than that right now, but let’s not break out the Kleenex just yet!

  6. Fantastic points. Here’s something I’d add (your email said you were looking for feedback so here’s my 3 cents….)

    After copywriting on a professional level for almost 2 years, one thing I wish I’d had nailed down earlier on was creating an experience for the client that says, “I have my $hit together. I got your back. Let’s do this.”

    Hiring a pro copywriter isn’t cheap. At all. And if you fumble around with clients and aren’t confident in your interaction with them, no matter HOW good your work is, they’ll be wary… And they’ll question your work… And be a pain in your ass… And not refer friends…

    Like John Carlton says, “Be the adult in the room.” I heard his advice early on in my career, but until I crashed and burned with a couple clients, it didn’t sink in. There’s a lot out there on the craft of writing copy. But not much about streamlining the process of working with clients.

    Hope this helps! You’re awesome!

    • Ha, you’re awesome too! That was a great comment, Jonas, and I love John Carlton for his blunt honesty. He rocks, eh?

      It’s tough to go through those hard lessons to learn what we need to succeed, but it sounds like you’ve done well from the experience and have it nailed down now – which is great. Adversity makes us stronger, better people… and more confident ones to boot.

  7. Barb Johnson says:

    Great and wonderful post James. I thank you. I can see where I am missing out–why I am not a successful writer. It starts with #1. I have some vague goals, and three articles to write each week, which I do. But I’m not going further. I’m staying with the three articles.
    Also, #2 is a tough one for me. I’ve not felt free to engage at forums. Don’t know why. Might be the old “what will they think of me if I post this”. In fact that’s what I’m wondering now.
    As for 3 and 4, I’m not there yet. I’ll work on 1 and 2 for now and thank you so much.

    • Barb, you always make me smile. I’m sending virtual hugs your way. You’re a good writer, and you can do so much more – and I believe in you.

      As for the “what will they think of me” whispers, take comfort in the fact that at LEAST 60% of writers struggle with this (and I’m being pretty easy – the statistic is probably much higher).

      I think they’ll think you’re great, just as I do. Keep up the good work!

  8. Hey James – I’ve got #1, and am recognizing how important #4 is to really stretch you beyond what you think you can do – and of course to help you steer clear of the roadblocks. So that’s next on the list have consistently.

    Is this list in order of priority?

    • That’s a good question, Sonia. I do think there’s a mild priority, and it’s in the order I laid out – but that said, I think that if you’re missing any or all of the keys, there’s no single one you should pursue first. You should try to get all of them in place, as quickly as you can.

      Within reason – if you lack accountability, your best buddy might not be a good choice, because she’s forgiving and you’re FRIENDS. (Which means she’ll let you off the hook so she won’t get in trouble when you REALLY complain you couldn’t get it done!) A best bud is the fastest way to get the key in place… but might not be the best option.

      Maybe a mentor pops into the scene when you least expect it – you were off finding community, and now there’s an opportunity on the table. Grab it! Community can come later. (You can even ask your mentor what community might be best.)

      And so on. I think the biggest thing is that you DO take action and pursue each and everyone one of the 4 keys, because they’ll ALL make a big difference in their own way. Make sense?

  9. Hey James! There is one more you should add–which I’ve started to realize is vitally important for struggling writers: Sacred Space.

    Which can be defined as: a safe container where someone can go create in their own home; a place where you can learn what you need to support your creative projects/assignments; and, a place where you don’t have to JUDGE YOUR ART/Work. (That one is super important and oh, so hard to practice!)

    • That’s a good one to add, Kristy, and I agree (as you know, from the Damn Fine Words course) that your writing zone and space is extremely important to optimal production.

      But is it a KEY to becoming a real writer, or turning your writing pro?

      Unfortunately (and I hate to say this!), no. Real writers find ways to write from anywhere, in the worst of environments. Take Chris Guilleabeau as the perfect example – during his travels, he’s written in some of the worst, noisiest, least productive/creative places possible… but he did it.

      Because *doing* is far more important than thinking you *can’t* do something unless you’re in the right space. (Or is that “write space”?) Writers need to develop flexibility and adaptability to write, even when they can’t be in their space.

      As for self-judgement… Lesson 3! 😉

  10. I’d add two more characteristics of some successful writers that are less appealing.

    1. Some successful writers will do anything for a buck. I once attended at medical writers meeting that had two speakers.

    * One was only surviving because his wife supported him. He loved science and wrote carefully researched articles for science magazines. I’m sure those were great articles.

    * The other looked for famous names with something to say that’d sell a lot of books and ghosted for them. His latest had been a fad diet book. Did he care if the diet actually worked? I doubt it. He was in it for the money and made no bones about that. Gag me with a spoon.

    2. Some successful writers don’t inform, they appeal to the ignorance and prejudices of their readers. Occasionally, I attempt to read a particular sort of highly successful authors, those who write for a group that reads a lot–bored, middle-aged women who seem to know much outside the narrow circle of their experiences. I never get more that a couple of chapters into them because I give up in disgust.

    * One, wrote stories set in a prehistoric America little different from modern-day suburbia. Horses, when ridden need to be cared for. She simply parked hers and left them to get sick. Her tales also assumed that the tribe’s handsome young men were eager to learn about sex from women their mother’s age. Yeah, right.

    * Another, famous for his thrillers, either knew he was writing for scientific idiots or was too cheap to hire a fact checker. Spy satellites buzzed over a country like bees rather than traveling in orbits. A military plane that was obviously a C-130 flew non-stop from the Midwest to Italy. A real C-130 is built for STOL not range. It would have ran out of fuel a few hundred miles off the East Coast. His target readers were obviously so clueless, they thought that a plane that was big, loud and military could go anywhere without stopping.

    * A “Girl with” author described a boat coming up to a dock and dropping anchor, revealing that he knew absolutely nothing about docking or anchoring a boat. Why? Probably because in the minds of him and his life-experience-limited readers a boat anchor was the equivalent of a car’s parking brake. You always used it when you parked. In his case, I don’t think it was poor fact-checking. The books had been published from rough drafts after his death, I think he was just stupid. His writing was also dreadful.

    And yes, authors who carefully craft stories also do well. Tom Clancy might have sold insurance, but he talked with and read enough about the military that his tales have the ring of truth.

    But any simplification that equates success being a professional isn’t true. Sometimes, success depends on being a greedy SOB who sloppily throws together a particular sort of trash that a particular sort of reader likes to read. Or, as I sometimes tell people, if there was a diet book that actually worked, each year wouldn’t see the arrival of yet more such books.

    If you’re insulted by that, tough. You need be more selective in what your read. You can read to be intelligently informed as well as to be entertained.

    –Michael W. Perry, author of My Nights with Leukemia: Caring for Children with Cancer

    • Barb Johnson says:

      Michael Perry, this is exactly what I’ve been wondering about. My husband and I receive daily direct mail and email regarding nutrition and health products. They promise everything will be healed, you will be thin within a month, and have more energy than ever before in your life. They promise to cure cancer and other diseases. How can they write these things? A few years ago we bought into this stuff a little, buying certain vitamins, special water, and other things.
      As a writer I wonder who writes those things. Do they take the stuff themselves? Do they believe in what they’re writing? Thanks for your post.

    • Interesting comment, Michael, and thanks for sharing your thoughts!

      I think we might be defining success differently, though – when I talk about success, I mean businesses that earn 6 figures or writers who make $75k a year and more.

      I have to admit that I don’t know anyone in this group who’d do anything for a buck or who sounds like the folk you mentioned in your comment. In fact, my peers and I regularly make sure they do the complete opposite – choosing their bucks carefully and working hard to build services and products that inform, educate and truly assist readers.

      I think those who’d do anything for a buck or who appeal to the ignorance and prejudices of their readers would actually fall squarely in the hobbyist group for me – that’s not the kind of integrity that truly successful pro writers operate with.

      So in the end… maybe we agree! 🙂

  11. Indeed, I did have all four going. Twice. Your Damn Fine Words class and then Damn Fine eBook. When DFE ended I had an awesome eBook that’s still awesome and helps me attract clients. During the classes, I checked my email every morning (still horizontal, mind you!) to see if you or others had posted anything in the Forum. I carved out an appointment with myself to write and work on assignments. For the eBook class I carved out time every single day. 400 words a day!

    And I loved it.

    That’s what happens when you create a habit–any habit. The reward is no longer just a reward. It becomes a craving. (Thank you Charles Duhigg and “The Power of Habit.”) I literally craved the great feelings I had when I read what I wrote. Hell, I gave names and wardrobes to the three creative selves: Vivian the Visionary, Dillon the Draft Worker and The Divine Ms. E my Editor.

    And then it was over.

    Class finished, eBook done and being downloaded left and right. I did not set a new goal. Well, I sorta did. I swore I’d write my newsletter monthly and at least a bonus something on my blog. Twice a month. Sounds like a goal. But I didn’t do, seek or have the other three necessary ingredients.

    Thank you, Doctor. You nailed it. Like always.

    • Ah, you… You were a fun one to work with in the course, because you did EVERYTHING I asked, like clockwork, and I could see you advancing in leaps and bounds because of it. You dug in, you built your habit, you found your space, you worked hard, you achieved victory!!

      Was awesome.

      You’re definitely not alone in falling prey to the “I’m finished!” mindset – a lot of people do exactly that. The sense of completion creates a bit of a psychological effect in which our brains say, “All done!” and unless you have the NEXT goal already in place, it’ll get complacent.

      So tell me: if you could set 3 specific, writing-centric goals that follow SMART principles (specific, measurable, action-oriented, etc etc) that you KNOW would help your business… what would they be?

      • How nice was it to awake to an email/comment from James? Very.

        Goal 1: Find out what the R, and the T stand for. *

        Goal 1a: Finish the book I’m ghost writing for my business coach by May 26. I have already emblazoned sacred writing appointments on my calendar. (Time blocks that will become consistent writing time for ME and MINE once his is done.) (Yes, I’m being paid. Handsomely.)

        Goal 2: Write 6 minis for newsletters by April 30 so that I don’t have to think about, nor beat myself up over, “what will I write about this month?”

        Goal 3: Publish one newsletter each month beginning April, because whenever I publish one, good things happen…I book a speaking engagement, sell a pinpoint session, hear that my advice really made a difference or, even better, made someone laugh.

        BONUS: Say, “Yes!” to whatever the heck James has up her sleeve, whenever that is.

        *Realistic and Timely. Check No. 1 off the list.

        Your fan and follower,

        • There you go, see? You’re already well set, and those are clear, realistic goals I KNOW you can achieve. (Plus I like the handsome payment part – that’s the ticket!)

  12. Love this, James! I actually JUST read The War of Art after a zillion people recommended it to me, and every writer really should. If you’re having trouble developing a writing habit, it explains brilliantly why that’s happening.

    Lots of people ask me how they can get my writing chops, and I say, “All you have to do is write 3-4 stories a week on deadline for 12 years, and you’re set.” That’s what I did.

    All the earning writers I know churn out the prose as a daily habit. It’s amazing how good you can get if you just keep doing that.

    Also totally agree on the mentors part — I had two amazing editors who really held my hand and taught me everything when I was young and just starting. I had the chance to run into one of them at a conference years later and was thrilled to be able to tell him all those hours explaining how to craft better articles weren’t a waste, and I grew up to a real, full-time, paid writer after all. 😉

    • I’m sad. I had to pack all my books in boxes for office renovations last summer… and my War of Art is buried DEEP in the stack where I can’t get at it easily.

      Clearly, unpacking boxes isn’t high on my list of priorities these days… putting that back up a touch higher on my to-do list…

  13. I very much agree with Katherine. I’ve found the community and accountability, but finding a mentor, especially one that suits the kind of writing I do, has been difficult. Still searching though.

    • Where have you been looking, Megan? It may be that you’re searching in places where there’s none to be found, and you have to shift your search to another area. Could be worth shifting directions!

  14. Thanks for this, James. I do actually have all of those things in my life, and have for a while. I have been trying to find a way to explain, to someone who “wants” to be a writer, how to just “be a writer already.”

    I’ve spent a couple of days wrestling with the idea, and you just clarified it perfectly. Thanks.

    • Excellent! I know full well that sometimes what we live and breathe and know isn’t quite that easy to put into words. (Ever ask someone, “How do you come up with ideas like that?” They just DO! And can’t explain it.)

      Pass on this article, and you can point and say: “That. Like that. That’s what you need to be a writer.”

      (Well, that, and good grammar, of course!)

  15. Yes, everyone wants to grab the fruit but no one wants to do work for it. I think getting started is damn important thing than anything else. And after your first step, its all about your approach and attitude toward your journey.

  16. James, your stuff is consistently good—thanks for putting the questions forth. I have credible variants of the first 3 keys, but my mentor must be sunning himself or herself in the Bahamas and hasn’t offered anything but cocktail recipes. I’d love to get Pressfield for a mentor, but he’s busy.

    I am trying to imagine the face of that mentor, because I write in so many different genres (and could probably use a nudge in all). For the moment, I’m going to settle on Mark Twain. Guy’s got it going on.

    • That’s a good idea, you know. Lacking a mentor, people can always think of someone they’d LOVE to have as a mentor and then follow them avidly, learning through observation. If it’s a TV star, watch their shows. See how they speak and talk. Pay attention to how they interact with others. Read their books. Etc, etc. It’s definitely better than nothing!

      • Barb Johnson says:

        Marvelous idea James. I love it. I will follow my chosen mentor avidly. Also want to say that this is the best post and comments I’ve ever read. Everyone is so helpful.

  17. Damn Fine Post, James!
    Do I have all four of these elements in my life right now?

    No. Never have all four at one time.

    My small mind is doing flips right now trying to figure out what you have already figured out.

    I wonder if consciously putting all four of these elements into play might create an awesome environment or system that would . . .

    There is sports analogy in here for sure; goals, community, accountability, mentor. But, I won’t bore you with that right now.

    Tell us more, James


    • I can’t – I’m sworn to secrecy right now.

      But I CAN say that wonder no more: you’re absolutely right that consciously putting these 4 keys into play can create phenomenal, positive change. It’s a system that, once you settle into it, builds momentum and growth, and in turn… success.

      I know. Been doing it for several years. And I wouldn’t give it up for the world.

  18. I got started by latching myself onto the best mentor in the business. So I get to blame all my mistakes on her, right? 😛

    Community is vital. But I found that early on, I had plenty of “community.” I hung around folks that made peanuts and could only see an existence where they earned peanuts. Along came people like James, shouting that there was a whole other world I couldn’t yet see.

    The “right” community is essential. Who do you hang around with? Are they doing better than you? A lot better than you? Those are the folks you need to seek out. Find people who have already accomplished what you want. Seek them out. Most of them, like James, are more than willing to teach you how they did it.

    You might have to pay for it. It’s worth it.

    You might have to change the way you think about things you thought you knew for sure. It’s worth it.

    You may have to get new friends. You may have to let go of old ones. It’s worth it.

    Find successful people, learn from them, ask a million questions, and be flexible. If I can do it, so can you.

    It also helps if you go through a Damn Fine course like Damn Fine Words. Just sayin.’

    • Trust you to leave a powerful comment like that, eh! And you hit on something worth stressing:

      “Most of them, like James, are more than willing to teach you how they did it.”

      I’ll add to that: The great ones are also willing to tell you about their screw-ups with full disclosure as well.

      It’s a danger zone to watch for, especially in today’s online trend of hiding the dark sides: Any mentor who comes off glowing gold and stunningly amazing in all respects, with no hint of EVER struggling or making mistakes on the path to success… is someone who’ll never be a great mentor.

  19. Another thing is to be consistent. To be a better writer you need to be persistent and better your craft. Many of the best writers faced rejection before finding success.
    Another thing is to put yourself out there. Some folks may be reluctant to try becoming pro due to believing they have shortcomings. Get out there and get into the game.

  20. I have writing goals and that’s it. I’m the poster boy for going it alone and it has been exceedingly difficult the past 7 years. One bright, shiny attribule is I have not given up. I’ve been to hell and back more than a few times and I’m still writing.

    There have been periods when I made a reasonable full-time income from writing. At present, I make enough to barely get by.

    I have never considered community, networking, or accountability. A mentor would be great but cannot see how that’s possible, at this time. I’d love to take your course at Damn Fine Words but the cost is prohibitive.

    • That sort of perseverance is fantastic, Ken – keep that going, and nurture it well.

      I’d suggest starting small and finding ways to incorporate these 4 keys into your life. They don’t have to cost a lot – or anything, really! Ask around. Find places to hang out and work your way into a community. Send emails. The keys are there, and you just have to look for them.

  21. I think another defining line between the pros and the hobbyists is the mindset. Pros know you’ve got to work hard and continually hustle to make it happen (that doesn’t just mean writing consistently and improving your skills, it also means committing to making your business work and finding clients – the hustle). Perhaps the hobbyists think that their work stands alone and that once people find it, success will follow. Pros know you’ve got to make a conscientious effort to get your words out there – if you don’t put it in front of people, it won’t be found and ergo, you won’t make any money. I write because I love it, and because it’s my job – it’s something I have to do to make money. It’s not a hobby, never has been.
    I’m currently on the hunt for a mentor, not just for my writing but for my business – someone to help me find my way when I get turned around (or lose my flashlight), as well as someone who’ll give me a kick up the pants when I need it. I think it’s invaluable for the success of anyone’s solo venture.

    • Shauna – You nailed it with the hustling bit. Pros treat their writing as a business – hobbyists think it’s just this thing they do. I’m such a huge believer in mindset, I’m about to launch a new blog on the topic!

    • That’s definitely true: true pros DO hustle, and they hustle hard. They’re strategizing and planning and thinking and working and doing all sorts of things that help their business grow.

      Maybe “Hustle” could be the 5th secret key of success, hm? 😉

  22. Everyone’s already said some pretty insightful stuff. So I’ll just add a bit about mentor-ship – which is where people seem to be struggling.

    Mentoring isn’t a formal relationship. Coming up to someone and asking “Will you mentor me?” is never going to work. It tends to weird people out.

    You have to find someone you admire – someone’s who’s way ahead of you in experience, skills, and success – and then stalk them. In a non-creepy, respectable, “I want to be as good a writer as you” way.

    The only thing that defines a mentoring relationship is taking the advice your mentor gives. In the start, it’s not going to be advice they give you personally – because hello, who are you and what have you done to deserve their time? Instead find the advice they give on their blog and in interviews etc and ACT on it.

    Then when you run into a roadblock, you’ll have a reason to contact them and say, “Hey, I was following your advice but got can’t figure out how to do xyz. Could you please tell me how to move forward from there?”

    And that’s your official start to a mentoring relationship.

    The more your mentor will you see you taking his (or her) advice, the more he’ll want to help / teach you.

    • I think you win the prize for this comment, Samar. If there’s one thing that’s incredibly disheartening for a mentor, it’s giving smart advice and watching the person nod their head… and do nothing.

      Mentors WANT to see you win. More than YOU do, in fact. And they’ll sometimes bust themselves to help you get where you want to be.

      So you’re right: don’t waste their time. Show them that you’re worth their mentorship. Commit to the relationship, do the work, apply the advice… and watch the results roll in.

  23. Thanks a ton, James.

    I needed to read this today.

    I’m struggling with Key #1: Creating specific, writing-centric goals.

    Key #1 is the planning and the other three keys are part of the review process.

    I need to take action in five ways:
    1. Make daily, short-term and long-term specific writing-centric goals.
    2. WRITE every day.
    3. Actively participate in my community (2 closed FB groups), but after getting the writing done.
    4. Find a more suitable accountability buddy – presently it’s my best friend, but as you say, it’s not working out so well.
    5. Find a mentor – I have a few like Carol Tice and Mridu Khullar. And I’m planning to join the DFW course in September.

    Okay, now, I’m waiting to hear about your cool surprise in the DFW newsletter.

    Ten, nine, eight, seven…

    • … six, five… four… 🙂

      If you could pick three long-term goals (6 months tops) right now, what three would they be, Rohi?

      And if you could break those long-term goals down into bite-sized, 15-minute actionable tasks… what would you choose to work on right now, today?

      • Thanks for the challenge, James.

        Three long-term goals for the next six months:
        1. Publish six e-books on Kindle, Smashwords, etc. – one every month
        2. Send 60 queries to blogs / publications – 10 every month
        3. Develop my blog and email list – try to reach the magic figure of 1000 subscribers in six months.
        (4. Join DFW.)

        I’ve written these goals on my whiteboard as a constant reminder.
        Next is to develop a road map for each goal, and finally, to act and achieve them in 15-minute actionable steps.

        Thanks again, James.
        I see now how you work your magic. 🙂

        • I’ll even work some more for you 🙂

          Looking at that list of goals and thinking about a six-month period to accomplish all that within… well, if someone handed me that list and said, “Go, James!” I’d either cry or have to clear the decks of everything in my life to work 80-hour weeks. (And then I’d cry.)

          I’m VERY big on SMART goals: specific, manageable, action-oriented, realistic and time-based – and I think the realistic one is falling a bit short.

          But I know that if you were to break these tasks down into 15-minute action steps, you’d quickly see that for yourself – the list of ALL that you have to do to achieve this would show you right away that it’s not very feasible.

          So were this ME, I’d try for this:

          1) 1 ebook – drafted and edited, ready to publish by the six-month mark
          2) Send 1 query a week for 6 months
          3) Strategize a plan to add new subscribers to the blog

          But that’s just me 🙂

          • Thanks for your magic, James.
            Now that you mention it, my goals do seem unrealistic.
            Setting overly ambitious goals is an old failing of mine.

            I’ll follow your advice:
            1) One e-book – drafted and edited, ready to publish by the six-month mark
            2) Send one query a week for 6 months
            3) Strategize a plan to add new subscribers to the blog

            Thanks again.
            This is a great example of the 4th key in action.

  24. Thank you for the wonderful article. I have found in my writing experience that getting the project or article done on time, within spec, and with little to no editing is the key to gain repeated work from editors. I had a great relationship built over the past year with an editor for a big news organization who just quit over the handling of a news story by the organization. So I have to start over with a new editor who does not know my style or work patterns. That is a challenge but part of life.
    I agree it is 90% discipline and hard work to write successfully. I have the first two parts down: I always have a plan and if I do not have 6-8 projects in the hopper at various stages, I get nervous. I plan each week what goals I am going to achieve and check them off. I have a supportive community of writers on different websites I write for (other staff writers etc..) and I have a supportive community on Twitter of other writers who have been so awesome and gracious with me!
    I do not have the mentor or the accountability partner yet. I have nobody here that checks up on my progress or that I have met yet that I trust well enough that I can call upon as a mentor. I need to work on those aspects in the months to come. Thanks again.

    • Good stuff, Frank, and I’m glad to see that you do have some goals and community in place. For the mentorship part, why not put that in your to-do list and give it a deadline? “Find names of 5 people who might be good mentors.”

      You don’t have to approach anyone right away, but by beginning to see who you could work with, you’ll start to narrow down the right person for you.

  25. Great piece James, thanks for providing the insight I’m sure it’s helpful to many people, me included. Being part way through the Damn Fine Words writing course I can honestly say I’ve never learnt so much in such a short, condensed time since, well, probably forever!

    1/ Writing-centric goals
    2/ Community
    3/ Accountability
    4/ Mentor

    I’m working on all 4 items in the next few weeks. The first goal is to find a set of answers to those four topics in the next three weeks, and then after another short trip to the US to really knuckle down and form habits around doing them.

    • Good for you, Rob. I definitely know that with some wind behind your sails, you’re going to achieve your goals in no time. And that wind is right there in your comment – you’re taking action on setting up what you need!

  26. Jonathan says:

    I completely disagree with your last point, about how pro writers have mentors.

    Even though I might not be in the “pro” ranks, I do earn a full-time income writing online. If I’m not at pro yet, I should be there soon. And I’ve never even considered hiring a mentor.

    Frankly, I’ve heard this lie getting peddled across a lot of freelance writing blogs, and it simply isn’t true. There’s absolutely no basis for it. Futhermore, as you could probably guess, the most enthusiastic advocates of this untruth are the ones who offer mentoring services themselves (surprise surprise). Marketing and creating demand is great, but not to the point where you’re lying to your audience. I am, at least, glad to see that you don’t offer mentoring.


    (The rest of the post is gold, by the way — thank you for it! 🙂 )

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Jonathan, and while I know that mentorship works extremely well, it may not be for everyone.

      I can say with full confidence that almost all pro writers – John Carlton, Brian Clark, Jon Morrow, myself – have had mentors that helped them achieve their goals and reach success. And these people have gone on to become great mentors themselves.

      Having key mentors over the years, especially when starting out, makes all the difference.

      It does sound a little like you might have been burned in the past. There are quite a few scumbags out there who are better at sneaky sales tactics than they are at truly helping people, but there ARE people selling great mentoring services (like the ones I’ve listed in this comment) who can and do help people achieve fantastic goals.

      • Jonathan says:

        Hi James,

        Thanks for the prompt reply, James. I haven’t been burned in the past (thankfully!). I don’t doubt that having a mentor would speed up the beginner-to-pro process, I just wanted to throw my comment in on the “Pro writers have mentors. Period.” absolute statement. Because, you know, exaggeration is NEVER, EVER, EVER allowed in a blog post. Ever. 😉

        Once again, I thank you for your prompt input and your helpful post. All the best!


  27. I really needed to read this today. My book was re-launched March 1, and Amazon still shows zero sales. I’ve done all the things in this article, but getting nowhere. However, that isn’t stopping me from soldiering on. Got my fingers in the editing pie, which is much more lucrative, plus two moderately successful blogs. I just have to get my blog audience to buy my book.

    • Jonathan says:

      Might I suggest that you start off with a self-hosted domain name? It just looks WAY more professional — I had trouble getting anyone to hire me back when I was hosted on a free subdomain @ WordPress.com.

      • The situation’s a bit different for authors who want attention on Kindle/Amazon versus on their website. Starting out with ANY type of site is better than no site at all!

    • There are definitely some good techniques out there on how to increase attention for an Amazon book – have you checked out Johnny’s guide here? https://menwithpens.ca/how-to-write-and-self-publish-a-fiction-novel/ There are also some courses out there on working with Kindle/Amazon to increase rankings and sales, so that could be worth checking out.

      Either way, keep at it – it’s one of those cases where you just need to figure out the right strategy… and once you do, it’ll be wash, rinse, repeat for all future books!

  28. Harry Davis says:

    For me a very convincing article. I now have a better idea, from doing DFW, of how important these keys are and how they mesh with one another. I’d have to put myself on the Hobbyist side of the line in the sand, because, while I’ve been an habitual writer for many years, I haven’t been doing it specifically to earn money. I have been writing for myself and as part of my consultancy work. I write every day, mainly journal stuff. So I’m not a Pro – yet.
    And now I’d like to change direction after twenty six years of event management and be an earning-well writer.
    I have discovered in DFW the importance of your four keys and especially the importance of community and mentoring. These two are a novelty to me because I have pretty much written in isolation, and now I’m learning to appreciate the discussion, the feedback and the encouragement.
    I’ve also been trying to think how marketing/hustling as a writer fits into these four keys. Maybe it’s implied in Key #1 or in all four. For me it’s another area of learning to be a Pro.

  29. I am missing the mentor. Not for lack of trying, either. I’ve searched and searched. Some want to be paid for their time, others are simply unreachable.
    I have the determination of a stampeding bull. I write everyday, all day. I crank out one novel after another– good, solid work I’m proud of. My MSs are in several agents hands right now, hopefully one will offer representation. I have the get-up-and-go and am hungry to achieve success.
    But that mentor… That is the one ingredient I’m missing. Any suggestions?

    • Hey Sue

      Just my two cents I hope you dont mind..

      If you are struggling to find a writing mentor I’d recommend “buying ” into a great writing program such as Damn Fine Words or Jon Morrow’s Guest Blogging course.

      You get access to some of the best writers online, you can network and get powerful feedback on your work – yes its not free but its a great investment.

      Hope that helps.


      • I wholeheartedly second this. If you roll up your sleeves and do everything James says in Damn Fine Words, you will be changed on the other side of it. I promise you that.

        I make a full-time living from the education and relationships I gained from DFW.

  30. Hey James

    I’m a marketer – but to be an effective marketer online you have to be a good writer and I appreciate your honest post.

    It a harsh truth but practice and constant revisions and feedback from mentors are the only way forward. Each time I put in a draft to my mentors it gets picked apart, but then I come with a stronger piece.

    I also totally agree with you that having a strong community is key – for promotion, support and honest feedback. I hope you dont mind if I share your post on twitter, I think a lot of people can learn from it, not just budding writers.

    Paul Back

  31. Hi James,

    As a “near-graduate” of the Damn Fine Words writing course, I have made more headway than I ever imagined in such a short time frame.

    I do have some work to do to get where I want to be on the four.

    Key #1: Specific, writing-centric goals

    RIght now, I’m not writing outside of work and class assignments.

    I’ve been asking myself and sharing with the class, questions about my brand, my focus – what I want/like to do, identifying my target market.

    I am transitioning from social media consulting to writing. Oddly enough, I got a client before I did the foundation work (branding, content strategy)… So I am playing catch up.

    The biggest hurdle for me has been writing for me. When you say, “Writers who get paid for their work have a habit that amateurs don’t. They’re consistent in their content creation. They’re always polishing their craft and practicing their skills.”

    The difference for me today is that I am more conscious that I am doing this. I am giving myself permission to invest in a course, books, time, etc. For me. As a “pro” writer.

    Key #2: Community
    This I definitely have in DFW. Never had it before to this degree. I think the course and forum format promote a high level of exchange.

    Key #3: Accountability
    Need a writing buddy. Have one from our class in mind … Does this work just as well “virtually”?

    Key #4: a Mentor
    Definitely have benefited from mentorship via DFW, perhaps to continue via the Chartrand surprise to come!

  32. Lynn C says:

    I am hereby giving myself permission to be average. Everyone says I write well, and I’ve certainly had moments in creative and business writing that felt like I was following my bliss. But the truth is I’ve never had the discipline to get published–hell, I’ve never submitted a single manuscript. My main sin is not seeming to be able to finish anything longer than a poem. I’m also not strong on plot development or twists, although I’ve had a few decent ideas in the horror vein. Being bipolar is a little like having ADD, especially in the manic phase. I can come up with lots of ideas but have pitiful follow-through. When I’m depressed, I’m obviously not productive, although I do spend an inordinate time on Facebook arguing about politics. I’ve also been hampered by social awkwardness and lack of confidence from reaching out to other authors or joining a writing group. At 43, I guess it’s time to quit kidding myself that I’ll ever have a successful short story, let alone a novel. I’m still going to dabble in poetry because it can be therapeutic , if not lucrative. Maybe some of my horror ideas could be crafted into verse. Maybe your excellent article has sent me on the path I should have taken years ago. Thank you for telling it like it is. I’d wish you luck with your future endeavors, but it seems you make your own. 🙂

    • Barb Johnson says:

      Lynn, you are only 43. You need to get going right now. I have had the same lack of confidence around other writers too. Been to so many conferences, etc. I have pitiful follow through also.
      What I want to tell you is to get going! I am 80 and know that if I had followed through when I was 43, I’d be the successful writer today. I remember visiting a college around that age, as I wanted to go to law school. I took some test and the counselor told me I did just great. By the results of my test, I could be and do anything I wanted. But–he carefully added–I was too old! I then went to another school and was told he never should have said that. But I guess he evil words stuck with me. I’ve written reams and reams of stuff over the years and never submitted. I write two articles a week, free, for two churches. that’s it. I love writing them but want to make a business. So you at the young age of 43 should get going and take those ideas and work on them.
      I’m not giving up and neither should you.

      • Amazing post Barb – I’m so glad you wrote this because I was thinking the same thing. I dislike it when someone thinks they are too old to do something they love. Age is just a number and it should never limit you from doing what you want to do. You’re my hero – keep writing….

        • My big pet peeve is when someone uses bipolar disorder as an excuse. Sorry. I have bipolar and ADD. I’m REALLY bipolar and have been hospitalized twice for two weeks each time. I have severe health issues on top of that. If you want to write you write. I’ve written 30 books..

          You can always find an excuse. But it’s harder to find the gumption to get up and do the work.

          • Lynn C says:

            Angie Dixon, thanks for your concern, but I don’t need an excuse and didn’t mean to peeve anyone. This is my life to live however I please, and I’m satisfied with my own performance. Your (helpful?) reproach is duly noted, but ease up on the judgment, please. Bipolar disorder affects everyone differently, and I’m not blaming the disease for my shortcomings so much as recognizing what works best for me. I find your assertion that you’re REALLY bipolar off-putting because hospitalization is often the privilege of those who can afford it. Need I show you scars on my wrists to prove that I’ve known pain? I don’t have any, thankfully, but how gauche to compete regarding mental illness. In any case, I didn’t say I was giving up writing entirely, merely shifting my focus to poetry. A noble pursuit, no? Congratulations on your prolific writing career. I don’t know how you do it, but I’m happy you can. I saw that you started your first book in kindergarten and haven’t stopped writing since. That’s fantastic! As for me, I began a dreary Victorian novel at age 7, stopped working on it after about 6 pages and such has been my pattern ever since. You may call it lack of gumption, but maybe it’s a sign I’m meant for shorter but powerfully pithy expression.

      • Lynn C says:

        Barb, you are just spectacular! I spent today visiting my two favorite octogenarians. My father had to move into a nursing home this year, and my mother is adjusting to living alone for the first time in half a century. I’m awed by their resilience in the face of painful challenges and by the way separation has actually strengthened their love. I didn’t say I was completely giving up on writing, just switching from prose to poetry after careful reflection. My situation is a bit unique because I could lose my pittance of disability income if I got paid much of anything for publication. Because of my mental illness, I probably don’t have the focus or energy to turn out a novel or heaps of short stories and become a self-supporting author. Poetry requires less sustained attention and helps release the excesses of the soul in shorter bursts better suited to the way my brain functions. I don’t think my verse sings as smoothly or strikingly as it did before I was put on antidepressants and mood stabilizers, but I’d be a wreck without chemical help. Just to see my byline in a non-paid but respectable poetry publication would be thrilling and something to contribute to our family tree. That’s the goal I’m going to work toward now, but if I had your vim and vigor and yearned to be a commercial success, I know prose is more likely to pay off. Thank you for your kind motivation, Barb, and much to success to you in what I hope will be a long, joyful and lucrative career!

        • Barb Johnson says:

          Lynn, you dear person, you just made me cry! How sweet of you to say such wonderful words. You write so clearly I think you should just keep it up. Poetry is fine though, and then you can progress.
          I’m always nervous about replying in forums and comment places, but you have shown me what a good forum can do. You are great!

    • JoAnne Braley says:

      Lynn C, I know how you feel, and say to you “do what you want.” The girl who said she has bi-polar and has written 30 books…well, what publisher? How much did she make? I have ADD also, but not bi-polar however some of the symptoms are the same. I had the best doctor who specializes in all, and he’s the one who figured out my problems with organization, and my ups and downs. I made money in real estate and the stock market, but love to write, when I want, about what I want, and have been in writing groups, that are fun. I know I have a gift, but really don’t want to work that hard and submit. A writer who is serious and wants to make money has to write everyday, and submit, submit, submit. And, get ready for rejection. The most money is made writing porn. I checked out all of the places who accept writing! To tell the truth, I do not want to publish, then have a ” hit ,” as I would HATE going on a tour talking about it. In the meantime, I do free editing for writer friends.

  33. Great post.

    A community of like minded readers and writers is a valuable thing as this way you can improve your craft.

    If you have been writing for a while, it can be difficult to find a writing mentor who can take time and an interest in your work. For me, this is the hardest thing to find.

    • JoAnne Braley says:

      To find help, even free help, check the libraries, writing clubs, etc. There were loads of writers in the Dallas area who gave us help once a month. Take a Community College Course. I’ve even been online at Stanford University, and I would help those writers, just by reading and telling them the good and the bad. Seek, and ye will find. Good luck.

  34. It amazes me how every post on MWP is SO on point and timely. As of late, when I come up with a topic to write about, I don’t always feel confident that my writing is good enough. Somedays I’m all over the place and I waffle between writing or I somehow get distracted and my focus is interrupted. In essence, It all comes back to being dedicated and working hard on writing well.

  35. I love the way you present complex ideas in such a witty way. It is so true about community though, it is one of the most difficult things, to carry on without mutual. Unfortunately until now i have not come across writers to network with in my local area, but am hoping to change that by creating some sort of meet up group. it is possibly the single most factor that results in intermittent writing from me as it gets harder to focus and i seem to burnout!
    Thanks for all the useful information here, always love reading your posts.

  36. Great article!! I find that having a blog helps to keep me fresh. I am constantly practicing by writing posts and I get feedback from the readers which is a wonderful bonus!

  37. Barbara Clements says:

    I read this back in April, but was reminded of it by another blog. What hit me this time is how this applies to the novel, “New Grub Street,” by George Gissing. Two of the characters are writers. One has immediate success with his first novel but struggles to write other novels support his family because he is “a writer” and should be able to just write. The other writer knows he is not very good at the beginning and works hard to improve his writing by setting writing goals and associating with the right people who can mentor and help him.


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