write it

So You Want to Write?

Photo-Illustration: by Preeti Kinha; Photos: Getty Images

When it comes to making it as a writer, there’s no magical shortcut to success: You just have to show up and keep doing the work. But there are some things that might be helpful to know and bits of wisdom to encourage you to keep going. Below, nine writers share what they wish they’d known and the advice they would give fledgling writers.

Alexander Chee

“I have always asked my students to focus on the stories only they can tell. By which I mean, to watch for the vision that opens to them. To write what they never see in books. And I think that is still the advice, it still works now.”

Brit Bennet

“It feels basic, but you’d be surprised at all the people that will tell you they are not readers but want to write a novel. I think that reading is so crucial. It’s how you learn what happens in novels and how to put them together and how you start thinking about it. Even when the books that you’re reading are bad, I think they will teach you about the books that you don’t want to write.

I would say that the first is to read wisely, and the second is to learn how to forgive yourself — because the writing will be bad for so much longer than it’s ever good. If you’re lucky to get to a point where you really enjoy your writing, and I’m rarely at that point myself, you have to muddle through years and years of bad drafts, and you have to sit down every day with that writing knowing that your standards are way higher than whatever it is that you’re accomplishing, and still go back to it anyway.”

Ingrid Rojas Contreras

“Realize the value of your own work. There is no industry without what you’re writing and what you’re producing. It’s important to learn to be an advocate for that work, learning to protect it. Be patient with finding the right people who can lift it up or get it to the place where you ultimately want it to get. And this comes back to agents, just realizing that this is someone who works for you, and this is someone who you want to really represent the work in the best way that they can. Be less grateful. Less I can’t believe you reached out and more what can you do for me and my work?

R.O. Kwon

“I was teaching a writing class, and, of course, the class moved online midway. And my students often seemed to find that when they were having real trouble putting together a story or essay or working with an overarching narrative structure, that if they were just able to let that go and write whatever came to mind in the spirit of playing rather than in the spirit of producing something — and at a time when so much is unknown and there is so much that our minds are grappling with — that that sort of playfulness can be helpful.”

Emma Straub

“My No. 1 tip is to finish whatever it is you’re working on. I think there are a lot of aspiring writers in the world who have a great idea, or who have a great idea and 16 pages that are so beautiful, or that could be so beautiful. But it doesn’t matter. Like it just doesn’t matter unless you finish it, if your goal is to sell it. If your goal is to become a person who makes a living as a writer, or who even makes a portion of their living as a writer, as most writers do, including me now.

Also, if you just want to make something great, it first has to be fine. When I am writing, I never worry about the first draft, whether it’s terrible or good or somewhere in the middle, because it just doesn’t matter until you’re done. Maybe not all writers think this way, but I usually don’t even know what a book is about in the first draft. I don’t know what I’m writing about. I’m just feeling around in the dark, trying to find my way. And it’s only once I have a whole thing to look at that I can take a step or two back and say, Oh, okay, that’s weird. I didn’t know that that’s what this book was about. And then you can go back and actually make it better.”

Sigrid Nunez

“You’ll hear other writers say that you shouldn’t do a lot of reading, that if you’re a writer, it’s important to write and reading isn’t so important, and that I think is really bad advice.

I really think that a writer learns more from reading other writers than from any workshop, so I would say the opposite, that you should read as much as possible. And you know, some other bad advice that I’ve heard is, when you workshop something, you should take everything that you hear from people in the workshop to heart and then go about trying to revise what you’ve written, according to the response. But of course the responses tend to be very varied, you have a class of ten to 15 people and they’re not all going to agree, they’re going to have very different responses to your work, so if you try to write something that will please all of them, you know, that would really not work well.”

Samantha Irby

“My advice is to, first, just take it easy on yourself. Nothing is helped when you beat up on yourself or are cruel to yourself. Don’t push yourself to write things that you don’t want to, because you might not be happy with it. That’s a big waste of time. And don’t be afraid to do some writing for free. Have a blog or a newsletter, or if you have a website where you’ve compiled lots of things you’ve written for yourself that make you happy, that’s where people can go to to see your work. That’s how I built up a relationship with this audience.

The majority of people who buy my books are people I’ve had a relationship with on the internet for a long time. And it’s great for new people who have just heard of me to buy my book — I love and appreciate them. But there are people who are like, I’ve been reading you since 2008, when you were writing about pooping your pants in your tiny apartment. I didn’t even have ads on my blog. It just was like a thing I liked to do that made people happy. So don’t think you’re wasting your time by putting your writing somewhere people can read it and have access to it. But let me be clear — if you’re writing for a publication, they should pay you. Writing for other people for exposure is bullshit.”

Akwaeke Emezi

“I would tell myself to keep building a body of work. That’s the important part. I think if I had only focused on Freshwater and just wrapped everything up into that one book, I would have a very different career now. I’m glad that when I was starting out I had the foresight to be like, actually, no, you need to plan long-term. You need to plan what’s the book after this is, and what the book after that is, and what are you planning to do down the line? If I hadn’t done that, I don’t think I would have the career stability that I do now. It sounds so cliché, but I genuinely do think that the work is the answer. And I know that there are a lot of sacrifices to make, to be able to make work, especially when there are all these structural barriers in the way. Like, I can’t imagine trying to start off writing in the world we’re living in right now. Survive first, by all means, be okay first. And then do what you can. I feel like whatever advice I gave before the pandemic honestly would be different than what I’m giving you now.”

Daisy Johnson

“I didn’t really know how to write a novel, and I was panicking, I think, a lot at this point about whether I could write it and trying a lot of different things and failing a lot. What I wish I’d known then was that the deleting of words was part of the process. And actually every time I deleted something, the idea of what the novel was, was becoming clearer, and clarifying, and I think that’s the same with short stories. I talk about this in schools sometimes, and when you tell school-aged students that they might have to do more than one draft, they look so horrified, but I think there is this freedom in knowing that whatever you put on the page, it can change. Typing something on a screen or writing it in a book doesn’t make it solid. It can change right up to the last minute. I think to trust that process of writing and changing and keep pushing towards the final draft, however many drafts that might be — I wish I’d known that.”

Interviews by Claire Lampen, Sangeeta Singh-Kurtz, Kelly Conaboy, Gretty Garcia, and Amanda Arnold.

These interviews have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

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So You Want to Write?