Starting out as a writer, whether aspiring towards a career or just writing as a hobby, can be extremely daunting. There are plenty of things which you could potentially encounter which can have an adverse effect on your progress and your vision for what you want to achieve with your writing. Luckily for you, people like myself are more than happy to share our negative experiences so that hopefully you can avoid making the same mistakes.
Now, obviously I should not be considered an expert by any means. After over five years of writing (starting out as an inexperienced hobby-writer, which I was happy with for a good while), I have a long way to go in regards to building a viable writing career. However, even the limited experience I have had so far has given me a lot of insight into the ‘what-not-to-dos’ and the common pitfalls that many new writers encounter at the start of their journey. While plenty of successful writers are more qualified to tell you all the things that you should be doing to establish yourself as a writer, there are perhaps few more qualified to tell you all the things that you definitely shouldn’t do. Hopefully this will be of some help to anyone who is just starting out as a writer or thinking about becoming one. I’m sure I’ll even continue to make more mistakes as I progress, so I’ll be able to update this piece periodically with additional tips and advice. I may even expand on this by writing specifically about some of these mistakes in more detail if it proves interesting or helpful to anyone.
So what are the biggest mistakes I made as a new writer? There are a few things I look back on and they make me cringe or just shake my head in disbelief at how they obviously held me back. There are others that I can shrug off as pretty obvious mistakes to make and, luckily, nothing I have done so far has eradicated my chances to make a living from writing. That being said, I have certainly learned some of these lessons the hard way, so here are the things you should try to avoid:
Staying Too Long
This could also be interpreted as ‘not knowing when to walk away’, or perhaps even ‘not recognising my own worth early enough’, but really it boils down to staying in a role for too long and ruining my passion. When I first started to pursue a writing career (previous creative hobbies aside), I began by writing sports/entertainment articles and was soon a regular contributor to several websites and a fledgling magazine. Unfortunately, the niche subject was generally unprofitable and very few writers on the subject were being paid unless they were lucky enough to write for the top sites and publications (and apparently, not always then either). Plus you have the problem that people are generally unwilling to pay you for something you have already been doing for free, especially when they can quite easily find someone else to volunteer.
I continued to write on the subject for four years because I enjoyed it, but eventually my passion for the subject died a slow and agonising death. At the requests of the people who ran the platforms I wrote for, I took on several regular features which had been abandoned by their previous writers, many of whom either quit because they got sick of working for free, or moved on to paid jobs elsewhere. The problem was that because the features were not my creations (and were generally things that I would tend to skip past on a website or in a magazine), I had no real interest in them and producing the articles felt like work. Obviously that would have been fine if I was being paid, but I was still working for free and using up the little writing time I had between working a full time job etc, so I was not being rewarded in money or enjoyment. Still, I carried on with them at the expense of creating my own output, until eventually I just couldn’t face writing about it anymore. Everything about it felt like a chore and it had gone from being something interesting and exciting to being boring and something I resented. I have since given up that particular area of journalism, despite still having an unreleased interview from one of the industry’s most respected figures. I may return to it at some point in the future, but even now, after a three year hiatus, I still don’t feel compelled to jump back in. This is completely my own fault because I should have known when to walk away or, at the very least, known when to say no to doing things I did not enjoy.
Lesson: Don’t sacrifice your enthusiasm for writing by taking on projects you hate (unless you’re being paid accordingly). Unpaid work to get your name out there or to write about a subject you enjoy is fine, but at the point where it feels like a job, you should ask for payment or walk away. A hobby is for fun, so when it becomes work, you should start being paid or you should look elsewhere.
Not Diversifying On Enough Platforms
When I started, I was in a position where my enthusiasm for writing as a hobby and my available time meant I could produce a lot of work. I was producing a variety of pieces from the outset, but focused within one subject. I was approached to become a writer for a second website soon after, but the platforms did not support the full range of material I was producing. Specifically, they did not have anyone else conducting interviews, so they did not have a section for them on their sites. I set up my own site specifically as a way to publish any pieces which did not fit in with the content on those platforms. This served as a mini portfolio of my work, which led to me being picked up by a fledgling magazine.
I basically stopped there. For various reasons, I did not seek out any further platforms and remained loyal to the ones who had given me an opportunity to get my work and name out into the world. This would not always be a negative thing – loyalty is always a good quality – except that these were excellent platforms for a hobby writer and, by this time, I had decided that I wanted to pursue writing as a career. Staying loyal to one or two platforms, particularly at the expense of working on your own (if you have one) is simply not feasible if you want to make a career from your writing – unless you are hired as a staff writer and the publication is paying you a living wage, of course. Neither is it advisable for writers who just do it as a hobby.
In the vast majority of cases, for both career and hobby writers, diversifying your output and the platforms you write for is going to be hugely beneficial for you. Whether you are looking for stability in your income, or just growing your audience, having your name attached to more websites and publications is the best way to demonstrate your value and bring your name into more people’s sphere of consciousness. That way, if platforms fail or disappear, you still have multiple other outlets who still publish your work. You also have more leverage if it ever comes down to negotiating with moderators and editors etc, whether that be for pay, time, flexibility or other issues such as positioning, space allocation, formatting, expenses etc. I personally found that by neglecting my own platforms, they stagnated and lost some of their original followings because of the lack of output. This then meant that I had to do even more work to rebuild them when I left the other platforms, because the inconsistency of my output on there had severely damaged any following I had amassed earlier. I also missed out on several opportunities to diversify my output in terms of style and genre by concentrating all of my time and effort on contributing to a couple of platforms covering a single subject.
Lesson: Getting your name and work out into the world is the goal of any writer, whether you are doing this for financial reasons or for personal satisfaction. The best way to get your name out there and build an audience for you and your work is to diversify in terms of both your output and your outlets. Sticking to just one or two platforms will only limit the scope of your readerbase and potentially end up holding you back from other opportunities.
Not Being Professional Enough
As someone who suffers from Depression and Social Anxiety, I already have some issues working against me as far as how I present myself, mainly because of low self esteem, high emotions and general awkwardness. None of those things are particularly desirable or help cultivate an air of professionalism. It meant that I was often far too humble when approaching people and undersold myself and the work that I was doing, which undermined many attempts to obtain interviews as a budding journalist. I would often do the same when speaking to editors and administrators on the platforms I represented – by being overly critical of my own work and contributions or by accepting conditions which I should not have agreed to.
I should also note that my unprofessionalism has not been exclusively limited to issues caused by mental health. There are also massive fundamental flaws in my personality which have had similarly damaging results, which, although I constantly try to improve upon, still persist. Hopefully these will become less and less evident as my self-improvement journey continues to take shape and I continue to learn from the challenges and setbacks I encounter.
Lesson: If you want to call yourself a writer in any way, shape or form, you should adopt a professional mindset. This means that in addition to writing as much as you can, to the highest standard that you can, you should also treat all of your interactions relating to your writing as though this is your job. Even a hobby writer should be careful to present themselves in a professional way, because any time you fail to do this, you could be harming or alienating someone from your potential audience.
Sharing First Drafts
In an effort to share examples of my creative writing more frequently, I decided at one point to upload some of my first drafts of the stories and chapters on which I was working. I had thought that, in addition to increasing my online presence and having more regular content, it would be helpful to receive ongoing feedback from readers and would be interesting for people to see the process of drafting, revising and polishing a story in real time. As good as these intentions were, the idea itself was a really bad one. Sharing unfinished work is counterproductive, particularly when you don’t yet have a large catalogue of completed, well-crafted works to show the real extent of your ability and competence. This will potentially turn off a lot of readers, particularly if it is the first piece of yours that they have read. First drafts are almost always terrible, or – if not completely awful – certainly not up to the standard of your best work. You invariably want all of the work that you share to be good enough to attract readers and make them feel like the time the invest in reading your work was worthwhile. First drafts will simply never be as good as something you have taken the time to improve and refine.
Lesson: You should only share work which meets the standards you would expect from your own reading material. If something is not ready or has not been edited and revised to make sure that it is the best that it can be, then it should not be shared as an example of your work. You can always go back and improve things on your website as you learn and improve as a writer, but before you upload anything or submit anything to a third party, you should ensure that it is the absolute best that you can make it right now.
Not Starting Sooner
Probably my biggest mistake in my writing career is not starting sooner. I had written purely for myself for as long as I can remember, but most of it was lost or discarded over the years Although I had always had a vague ambition to write, I had never even looked into the practicalities of it or researched how to start a career. I didn’t even find the contact information for the first site I applied to write for (it was forwarded to me by a friend). It was the encouragement to start that made me want to expand into other areas and to start pursuing all of the writing goals that I had stored away or suppressed for all those years.
Lesson: If you have any interest in becoming a writer for pleasure or as a career, then the best thing to do is to get started. You will only become more competent and comfortable as a writer by actually writing and you can only move towards your goals if you actually take those first intimidating steps.
Not Finishing Things
All too often, I get distracted by the next exciting idea and abandon perfectly good projects in favour of something new. In terms of writing fiction, I tend to start something I expect to be a short story, but in the process of expounding on the ideas and characters involved, find that it spirals into an idea better suited for a novella, or even a full-length novel. In those cases, I tend to start the project enthusiastically, but abandon it before the end because I become intimidated by the scope of the project. Much of this has to do with self-doubt and imposter syndrome, whereby I convince myself that I am not capable of seeing the project through or doing the idea justice. This is extremely common and even some of the world’s most successful writers have spoken about experiencing the same problems.
Even if you hate the story by the end of writing it, or feel like you have done a bad job of writing it, at least you will have gained the experience of crafting a full story and will have learned how to do it better next time. You can always put the story to one side while you work on something else and come back to it later and try to edit it and fix the problems you had the first time around. The best thing about finishing one major piece is that you will have proved to yourself that you are capable of doing it, which eliminates any subconscious doubt that may be stunting your progress before that point.
Lesson: Persevere and get the work done. It will improve your writing and will make you more confident for the next piece you work on. You cannot progress in your career with a portfolio of unfinished stories.