Four Bits of Writerly Advice

by Josiah Bancroft


Don’t talk about your ideas or intentions.

It’s normal to get excited about a personal goal. It’s also normal for writers to think about their current projects compulsively. So, it’s only natural for us to want to talk about our ideas and current projects. We want to share our passion and excitement, and we want someone to validate those feelings. But by receiving this premature validation, we erode the motivation that we need to do the work. We are less likely to finish something if we talk about too much. Productive writers are often secretive about what they’re working on because they don’t want to lose the drive to finish it. They’ve learned to take validation from doing the work rather than talking about it.

Reading will teach you everything you need to know about writing if you read broadly and carefully.

Workshops, conferences, creative writing programs, and writers’ residencies are primarily social engagements. Writing is a lonely business, and so writers naturally look for access to a community. These interactions have an interpersonal value, but they will never teach you half as much about writing as reading will. Read classics, read your contemporaries, read outside your genre, read books that intimidate you, and read every day. Don’t be discouraged by people who brag about all the important, obscure, or difficult books they’ve read; many of them are exaggerating, anyway. Read at your own pace, but don’t stop reading. 

Develop your own standards and define your own expectations for your work. Don’t look to your peers for validation.

You can always find someone who is worse than you, and if you’ve read enough, it’s also easy to find someone who is better than you. While it’s natural to be aware of other writers’ failings and strengths, you’ll drive yourself crazy if you spend too much time measuring your work against the genius of others. Learn to appreciate your accomplishments; learn to identify your weaknesses. Neither critical acclaim nor popular reception will give you lasting self-confidence or self-knowledge.

Uneasiness, insecurity, and failure are essential to growth.

Learning is often an uncomfortable process. It requires a lot of effort: some of it tedious, much of it discouraging. We can’t grow unless we are dissatisfied with our first efforts and our past accomplishments. We can’t grow unless we risk failure and exposure to scrutiny and criticism. It’s important to remember that failure is unavoidable. Those of us who never take risks don’t avoid failure, we just defer it to the end of our lives when we have nothing to celebrate, nothing to take pride in. That final failure is infinitely worse, not least of all because there is no opportunity for success. If you persist and if you learn from your experiences, you will eventually succeed. There are, of course, many different kind of success, and not all of them end in mansions and mobs of adoring fans. But the success that you earn by dent of diligence and sweat will be incredibly rewarding. I promise.

- Josiah Bancroft