How to Build a Career as a Writer: Advice from 14 Years of Writing Workshops

In a good writing workshop, you learn more than just the subject you signed up for. You also get time in a small group with one of those mythical creatures that many of us dream of becoming one day: someone who writes for a living. Workshops are one of the few chances you get to ask well-known authors questions about writing life—including how to build one of your own. Here, from fourteen years of notes from writing workshops, are the nuggets shared by author-instructors on making it as a writer.

Quotes about building a career and life as a writer—from 14 authors who have done it

On Finding the Time to Write (Or Stealing the Time to Write)

“Most artists need to buy materials. Our material is time. You have to figure out what your habits are that will allow you to steal time. You will never have more of it. You’ve got to figure out how to steal it and section it off.”—Mat Johnson: Building the Novel, 2013
“If you have a day job, stick to one project at a time.”—Ann Hood: Beginnings, 2012
“Most writers have day jobs, and the more relaxed or different from writing your day job is, the better for you as a writer.”—Ana Menendez: Oulipo Writing Tricks, 2011
“If you want to move toward money, you are selling things. If you’re just expressing yourself, you are moving away from the signs of success. Time is money. How will you get paid for your time?”—Steve Almond, Short Stories that Sing, 2009

On Getting Better

“Reading great literature isn’t how you learn to write. It’s how you get inspired to write. You learn the most by reading writers who are equal to or not as good as you and explaining what works and what doesn’t work.”—Steve Almond, Short Stories that Sing, 2009
“Revision is a muscle you build up as if you were doing sit-ups.”—Rick Moody, Revision, 2008
“Draw a circle. . . . Okay, now look at your circle. Your circle sucks. You know what a circle is, but you’re no Michaelangelo. (According to legend, he drew a perfect circle as part of his resume for the Sistine Chapel). When you get locked in on the idea of only looking at what you actually wrote, it’s like trying to fix the circle you drew. You make it worse. Instead, accept your “circle” and work with what it’s becoming. Be willing to change based on what you see. What you end up getting led to if you follow what you have on the page will be better than your original idea. And it will be alive.”—Mat Johnson: Building the Novel, 2013
“There is no such thing as a fabulous, publishable first draft.”—Ann Hood: Beginnings, 2012
“Revision is a do-over. How many of those do you get in real life? Enjoy it. You can go back and make it beautiful.”—Nick Garnett: Once More from the Top, 2011

On Plugging Away and Doing the Work

“In marathon running, you can’t think about the finish line. You have to incrementally think about the next goal in sight. Eventually you get to the finish line. Novels are like that. The finish line is an abstraction, for both you and readers. One of the keys to creating momentum in a narrative is to have lower-order goals. Characters should want something in every scene… there needs to be a micro-finish line. There’s got to be a goal within the scene.”—Benjamin Percy: Suspense, 2015
“You never get too old to write, but there are lots of other excuses that keep you from the keyboard. They all amount to, “I haven’t found the right balance.” . . . . Figure out what circumstances produce your best writing. Then create those circumstances.”—Steve Almond: Short Stories that Sing, 2009
“You want to get to the point where the book takes over.”—Connie May Fowler: Writing the Novel, 2010
“Sometimes you just have to work because you need to keep your head in the novel. A lot of your writing happens mentally, off the page.”—Mat Johnson: Building the Novel, 2013
“‘I’m writing,’ doesn’t always mean, ‘I’m typing.’”—Benjamin Percy: Suspense, 2015
“Most P.R. departments are understaffed. . . These days authors rarely go on big tours, but there’s also a big advantage because you can use email. You can be in your fuzzy slippers and still get a lot done.”—Paula Fernandez Rana and Jessica Jonap: P.R. for Authors, 2010
“Don’t go down with your book. The next one will be better. Being a writer is about creating a life of writing.”—Mat Johnson: Building the Novel, 2013

More about Mat Johnson | More about Ann Hood | More about Ana Menendez | More about Steve Almond | More about Nick Garnett | More about Rick Moody | More about Connie May Fowler | More about Benjamin Percy

14 Years of Building a Writing Career in 14 Days of Emails

14 Years of Building a Writing Career in 14 Days of Emails

Two weeks of daily emails. Part creative writing crash course, part mobile-friendly memoir about building a career as an author.