4 Common Attributes of Successful Writers

Nat RussoOpinion, Writing 31 Comments

If this is the first time you’re putting pen to paper, or finger to keyboard, in an effort to produce a poem, short story, novel, or even some other form of art, know that you’re going to doubt yourself. You’re going to struggle to “get it right”. You’re going to feel like a fish out of water. And you’re going to want to quit.

Each of those things is a signpost on the road to success, because each is one of the four common attributes of successful writers.

Self Doubt

This is unavoidable. Self doubt will stay with you throughout your career. I’ve only published one book so far (Necromancer Awakening, Amazon Top 100 Bestselling Dark Fantasy), but I’ve been a software engineer for nearly 20 years. I’ve won awards for my technical work. I’ve developed software systems that have saved lives in war zones and continue to do so to this day. Yet not a project comes along where I don’t question my ability to deliver.
I’ve been writing for nearly 30 years, but Necromancer Awakening was published just this year. [Note: this article was published in 2014.] Why is that? Because I spent 30 years believing what James Scott Bell calls “The Big Lie”. That’s the lie that says “Writers are born. You cannot learn how to be a writer.” The Big Lie fed my self doubt and kept me from succeeding. In many cases it kept me from trying to succeed.
Embrace your self doubt now. It’s going to be with you for a long time. But why is it a sign that you’re on the right track?
Self doubt that arises from the knowledge you’ve yet to reach a certain standard of excellence is like a star guiding a ship. This is a sign you’re on the right track because you know what you’re aiming toward! You’ve seen the destination and merely need to navigate the waters that take you there! You’re head and shoulders above those who are lying to themselves about their abilities, or those who dismiss critics and only listen to their biggest fans. You know which areas of your craft you’re weakest at, and therefore you know what you need to improve. Revel in this knowledge! If there are gifts from the universe, this is one of them.
But there’s a time when self doubt can undermine your efforts.
Self doubt that paralyzes you is the same sort of fear that keeps an animal staring at an oncoming car. That’s the fear that will kill your career long before any lack of talent will do so. Recognize this fear for what it is. It’s the kind that keeps you from writing. It’s the kind that not only tells you “you’re not good enough”, but goes on to say “and you never will be!” When you hear that last part echoing in your mind, let that be an “AHA!” moment for you. Recognize that it’s your mind playing tricks on you. It’s your psychological history stepping to the forefront and doing its best to get you to sabotage your own success. When you recognize it for what it is, it will lose it’s power over you.
But it will come back, just like that stray dog that’s always shitting on your front lawn. Deal with the shit. Don’t stop tending your lawn just because another dog came along.

The Desire to Get It Right

You’re going to question every word, every comma, every semicolon, every adjective, every metaphor, every section break, every chapter length, every word count, every character name, every point-of-view, every paragraph length, and every adverb.
And this is good. This means you’re on the right track. You’re misguided, but you’re on the right track.
The desire to get it right stems from the recognition that there is an acceptable standard to strive toward. The fact that you want to “get it right” means you recognize the possibility of getting it “wrong”. Once again, this puts you head and shoulders above those who believe there is no standard of excellence. The more you write, and the more your confidence grows, the less this will be a problem for you.
Continue to learn your craft. The more you know about your craft, the less you will question whether what you’re doing is “right” or “wrong”, and the more you’ll simply focus on telling your story. Share your work with others. When they report back, look for common themes in what they’re saying. Focus on those areas that are subject to the most complaints.

Feeling Like a Fish Out Of Water

No one embarks on a writing career and feels comfortable in their own skin immediately. It’s certainly not true in software engineering. When I became a software engineer, even though I had fantastic skills and received a lot of praise for my work, I still felt incompetent for the longest time. Why? Why do we always feel like we don’t know what we’re doing?
Feeling like you don’t fit in with others in your chosen career is a sign that you recognize others are better than you at what you do. Simply put, it’s another form of self doubt (as most of these “signposts” are). You look around, see yourself surrounded by brilliant people, and you feel like a hack.
But here’s the thing. You’re part of a select few individuals who are capable of recognizing and admitting that someone else is better than you are! This sounds extraordinarily obvious, but let me assure you there are countless writers/artists with seriously over-inflated egos and exaggerated estimates of their own abilities. By recognizing that others have something to teach, you are automatically pulling ahead of the pack.

Wanting to Quit

All of us want to throw in the towel. There will be times in your career where you are faced with a problem you think unsolvable. There will be days when your book sales come to a screeching halt. There will be days you get one-star reviews, and somehow that one star will outweigh all of the five-stars you have.
Wanting to quit is a sign you have passion for what you’re doing. If you weren’t passionate, you’d be too indifferent to give a damn!
People can teach you the craft. Or, more accurately, you can learn the craft.
You can develop your imagination.
You can learn story structure and how to employ it.
But no one can teach you how to be passionate. No one can knight you with the Magic Sword of Giveashit.
If you have this passion already, you will succeed one day…if you continue to recognize where you need to improve and do everything you can to strengthen those areas.
So if you’re suffering from self doubt, desire nothing more than to “get it right”, feel like an alien among humans, and you just want to throw in the towel, then celebrate. You’re a writer now.

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About Nat Russo

Nat Russo is the Amazon #1 Bestselling Fantasy author of Necromancer Awakening and Necromancer Falling. Nat was born in New York, raised in Arizona, and has lived just about everywhere in-between. He’s gone from pizza maker, to radio DJ, to Catholic seminarian (in a Benedictine monastery, of all places), to police officer, to software engineer. His career has taken him from central Texas to central Germany, where he worked as a defense contractor for Northrop Grumman. He's spent most of his adult life developing software, playing video games, running a Cub Scout den, gaining/losing weight, and listening to every kind of music under the sun. Along the way he managed to earn a degree in Philosophy and a black belt in Tang Soo Do. He currently makes his home in central Texas with his wife, teenager, mischievous beagle, and goofy boxador.

Comments 31

  1. Thank you for sharing this Nat. This advice and sharing of self is extremely helpful because we all face this doubt and self-criticism by trying hard to expand our boundaries. For me, this is often getting the feeling that the “well has run dry.” When facing this self imposed barrier, advisers and trusted friends have frequently told me that I have deep inner reserves and am a creative and determined problem solver. This advice and affirmation from honest and caring friends engages my strength and experience and an inner reservoir that sometimes is blocked by fatigue and being worried. For me, a kind of critical hurdle too has been accepting my own growing fairness toward myself. It is very easy to become our own worst critic. I’ve learned finally to more fair toward myself and have become at long last a good, fair, and honest judge of my own work. I’ve also shed a great deal of self-defeating perfectionism. When that inner voice begins to speak and speak in a helpful way as well as ringing true and reasonable, we are a long way along the road to self-acceptance and moving forward in our art.

    1. Thank you for sharing that, Frank.

      It’s true. We can be our own worst critics. Sometimes this can help us improve, but when it causes us to doubt everything we write, that’s when it’s no longer healthy.

      I, too, surround myself with people who are supportive. I don’t think I would have been able to finish Necromancer without my friends cheering me on.

  2. Hehe, “the Magic Sword of Giveashit.” You’re right; your post surprised me!

    I have never wanted to quit writing, but there were many years that I didn’t share my writing with anyone. It was like a secret, closet, compulsion that no one I knew could relate to. Very lonely time. Thank goodness for the Internet!

    ~Tui Snider~
    @TuiSnider on Twitter

    1. I had a lot of worries “coming out” as a writer. I was pleasantly surprised by the warm welcome I received by the Twitter writing community. It’s amazing how many of us there are out there!

  3. The more I read, the less I know and the more confused I get. But damn, this is good!

    I consider myself a nobody wanting to become somebody in a world of many, and honestly the mountain just keeps getting taller, but again, I’ll be damned if I don’t climb it.

    I enjoy reading your articles, funny and informative. Writing is fun!


  4. Just wondered – how did you decide on these four characteristics? It’s just that I don’t entirely agree with them, ha ha! I TOTALLY do number two, but have never wanted to quit. I’m about to publish my 8th book (I’ve written about 19) and for a long time I thought that everyone else knew more about the whole self-publishing business than I did, but I don’t now. Obviously I think tons of writers are BETTER than me, and indeed they are (I could weep in despair every time I read a Douglas Kennedy book!) but I’m no longer think I’m – well, a bit crap really. I DO believe that writers are born; I don’t think you can learn to write. You can learn to improve, but not how to do it if you don’t have the innate talent. So I’d say, very good post, Nat, but I don’t agree with it all! πŸ™‚

  5. I’m not sure I’ve ever wanted to quit, I’ve taken a sabbatical on occasion, but I always come back. I think self doubt is one of the biggest issues for me. I’m working through it now. I think one thing people can do is treat their writing as a job, do it daily, finish what you start, it may be crap, but that’s why you rewrite. Great post, thanks Nat.

  6. I’ve experienced everything except for the last one – haven’t wanted to throw it all in yet. Interesting post. I was also interested in your comment above – about ‘coming out’ as a writer. I think this is easy online, but can get mixed results with ‘real life’ friends and family.

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      Very true, Aderyn! The people closest to you, at first, will get little smiles on their faces and say “So…think you’re a writer, do you?” I was fortunate in that my wife and immediate family were supportive right out of the gate. But that can be rare.

  7. This article hit every writing nerve I have. This is exactly how I felt and couldn’t be more true. I wrote my first novel and thought it was good. Then I started classes and knew it wasn’t. Every class taught me something else and resulted in another edit. After 13 rejections I decided to self-publish and began a preparatory final edit, then the 14th publisher asked me for the full manuscript before offering me a contract. The whole process took 6 years during which I gave up several times then got a second, third, fourth wind. I still feel like a fraud when I tell people I’m a writer but that’s not just me. It’s good to know other, more successful writers feel the same but keep going. I do think writers are born with a creativity that can be developed into a skill. They also need good language skills and the ability to translate their thoughts into coherent sentences. After that, its talent all the way (and a good idea always helps!). Thanks Nat, now I know it’s not just me who feels this way!

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      You’re definitely not alone, Carol! There’s a multitude of us out here all experiencing the same feelings, frustrations, rejections, and self-doubt.

      But hey…it makes for a great story πŸ˜‰

  8. Wow! This really nailed every feeling I have felt since writing the first word of my first book! I am so nervous about letting someone read it! I am working on the editing right now. And my stomach is in knots thinking about it! Thank you for this article! At least now I know I am not alone in my thoughts! I know my book is a great story. I am working really hard to make sure I am telling it well! And I hope others will read it and enjoy it! Again, thank you so much for your articles! They are helping me so much!

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      You’re very welcome, Amanda!

      Confidence is something that will build over time. As long as you believe in your writing, and you believe in yourself, you’ll keep improving those skills and building confidence!

  9. Seminary, a degree in Philosophy, a black belt and self-doubt?? That what I have! Now I know I can get published!!! πŸ˜‰

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  10. The “Magic Sword of Giveashit” – made me laugh, and very true!

    Exactly my experience. Much self-doubt and agonising over insignificant detail is preventing me from moving forward with my current writing project. Frequently, the question “who is going to want to read this??” comes to mind.

    Very helpful article – thank you.

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      I’m glad to help, Claire! And it’s true, you really have to pick up that sword on your own. πŸ˜‰

      I’ve found the self-doubt almost never goes away completely, but I think having a little bit of it is helpful. It keeps me on my toes and makes sure I don’t get complacent or overconfident. And every time I have a poor sales day I ask myself “who is going to want to read this? This is complete crap!” πŸ™‚

      Another trap I’ve fallen into lately is comparing my previously published work (which is highly polished) to my current first draft. I have to continually remind myself that this is a process, and my current draft will eventually be as polished as my previously published work.

  11. Love the article. There were a great number of points I definitely could relate to. On those days when I feel like throwing everything writing related in the dumpster, all I have to do to is grab up a few of my first efforts at writing and read them and my writing world comes back into perspective. It’s the only way I can gauge the continuum of my progress in learning this slippery craft. Friends tell me how proud they are of me, other writers pat me on the back, my family says best writing they’ve ever laid eyes, but the real truth is in those first stabs at writing. I read them and cringe, question why I even started writing. And of course, it’s when I fast forward and see the progress made over twenty years since those first drafts, that I can hold fast to the title…writer.

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      I can truly empathize. When I look back at work I wrote twenty years ago, the only way I can describe it is unreadable. It really gives you the perspective you need when you’re wondering if your craft is improving.

  12. Thanks so much Nat ! I do ok as a painter and I’ve dreamt up some “tall tales” but developing the writing craft is rather daunting. Oh to be able to dream directly into Amazon. Your insights about self doubt are powerful and I’d wager because of them, the world will see stories that would otherwise, stay hidden.

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  13. Pingback: Are You Still an Aspiring Writer? - A Writer's Journey

  14. Very helpful. You put a positive spin on issues I have struggled for decades. Also, I admire software engineers. My brain doesn’t go there.

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