Professional writers are a varied breed. But whether you make your living writing web content, fictional best sellers, or the latest headline articles, nearly all authors who stand above have one thing in common: a persistent and committed dedication to excellence.
As noble and rewarding as a quest for excellence can be, it can also come along with some pretty nasty side effects: stress, anxiety, exhaustion, illness, lack of enthusiasm, and a lack of inspiration or motivation (AKA writer’s block).
When we deal with these side effects for too long, we burn out.
Even worse, the fear of not reaching your goals of excellence can cause you to freeze and prevent you from even trying in the first place. (I’m guilty of this reaction myself; when I first decided to strive for excellence, my first reaction was excitement — immediately followed by anxiety.)
Writers are especially vulnerable to these risks, as we tend to put so much of ourselves into our work. Those words on the page come from deep inside of us, and our workspace is primarily inside our own head (or even your heart or soul, if you connect strongly enough to your work).
Because of this vulnerability, it can be hard to separate our self-worth from our writing’s success (however we define success; more on that in a moment) — which makes the quest for excellence even more high-pressured. The stakes are so much higher than merely whether or not our work is “great” or whether or not we achieve what we want in our career; really, it’s often whether or not we’re good enough as people.
But luckily for us (and for our writing), it is possible to seek excellence — while also holding onto our sanity. Keep these five tips in mind, and excellence and peace of mind will both be yours.
1. Define Specifically What Excellence Means to You
When you first think of what it means to reach excellence as a professional writer, several things may spring to mind: “The best writer in the world.” “Successful.” “The writer of the great American novel.” Or even simply “happy.”
Goals like these are hard to achieve, not because of their loftiness, but because of their vagueness. With something so bland and unspecific, it can be nearly impossible to know how to go about achieving it or even when you have achieved it; what truly defines successful or happy or the best, anyway?
The truth is that all of these mean something unique to different people. What makes you happy may not make someone else happy, and your idea of excellence may look nothing like someone else’s ideal. One author may crave bestseller lists and movie deals, one may crave academic and critical acclaim, and one may simply want to earn enough from their blog to let them pay off their student debts and avoid an office job.
Take some time to define what excellence means to you — and to you alone. Is it the caliber of publisher or journal you write for? The reaction to your work in literary circles? Your ability to reach the masses? Is it hitting a specific financial peak or winning awards? Or only publishing work that you are thoroughly proud of, regardless of reception or reward?
Once you can see clearly what your specific standard is, you’ll be far more motivated to reach it (and less likely to burn out and give up). A research paper from the American Psychological Association found that setting more specific goals led to better performance 90 percent of the time.
Set concrete, achievable, specific goals — ones that are easy to know when you have reached them, and ones that get you going and excite you: “I want to write 10,000 words every week.” “I want to be published in the New Yorker.” “I want to make six figures this year.” “I want my blog to be the top-ranking site on this subject.”
Not only will you be more motivated, but it will also be infinitely easier to lay out your game plan to achieve your own personal definition of excellence. Write out your goals in a Word doc, jot them down in a planner you find inspiring, or discuss them with your agent, editor, or business partner to make them feel more real. When you know exactly what you want your end result to be, it’s much simpler to work out the steps you need to take in order to reach it.
Vague goals and results will only inspire vague courses of action; if you aim to be “successful” — with no more specific definition than that — you’ll never know how to start or even when you’ve finished. You’ll find yourself unfocused, unmotivated, and un-excellent (and quickly burnt-out).
However, if you give yourself a particular standard to live up to, you’ll know when you’re on the right path to your own brand of greatness — and you’ll feel motivated and inspired along the way.
2. Monitor Your Progress
It can be tempting to throw out old, subpar work. Every time you reread your first draft, you may cringe and want to hide under your blankets for a week. When you pull out your first attempt at poetry, you may wonder why you ever thought you were meant to be a writer at all. And when you reread your favorite novel for the 1,000th time, you may be tempted to delete your latest outline and pretend that, you know, you didn’t even want to be a writer anyway.
If you’re embarking on a path toward excellence, you may want to destroy every “failure” along the way or any bit of evidence that you’ve ever been anything but excellent. Old Post-it notes of half-baked ideas that are uninspired and blah? Toss ‘em. Your planner with a bunch of self-imposed deadlines you never met that stares at you like a sad puppy? Shred it. The rejection letters you got from your dream publishers? PRINT THEM OUT AND BURN THEM AND DELETE THE EMAILS AND THEN MAYBE CHANGE YOUR NAME. (What? I take rejection really well.)
When you’ve got your eye on the prize, it can be incredibly hard to see the progress you’re making. You only see “not perfect” instead of how much better your work is.
As hard as it may be, keep track of any proof of your skill level or success along the way. For instance, when I started playing guitar, a seasoned musician encouraged me to record myself playing once every week, and then to listen to the recordings again when I felt discouraged with my progress.
I hated making those recordings.
The first time I recorded myself, I instantly wanted to delete it: The sounds (it definitely wasn’t music) alternated between muted and shockingly loud, my rhythm was off, and I could even hear myself muttering and cursing while I played. I refused to listen all week, and then during my next round of recording, I hated the new sounds just as much. Eventually, the other musician made me promise I would sit down and listen to all the recordings I had made so far.
Only, when I actually listened, it was immediately clear how much progress I had made. I had been stuck on the fact that I still couldn’t sing while playing, I still couldn’t nail barre chords, and I would sometimes get sloppy when I was too into a song. I had failed to notice that my strings were no longer buzzing or muted, my rhythm was vastly improved, and what was coming out of my speaker sounded more and more like music rather than noise.
It may feel painful, but keep your writing saved somewhere where you can access it when you need a boost (perhaps in a folder on your computer named “Old Drafts”). Hang on to rejection letters, or those endless notes and rewrites your editor demanded.
For less tangible things, find a way to keep a progress record. If you want to become more prolific, or if you want to start submitting your pieces well ahead of the deadline instead of the night before (or the day after), keep a journal to track how you’re doing. Leave in the good and the bad — be honest with where you are and watch yourself grow.
When you are constantly critiquing how far you are from your idea of excellence, you may not be giving yourself the chance to see how far you’ve already come — and how much closer you are to where you want to be.
Keep track of your progress, and when you start to feel like you aren’t moving ahead at all, let yourself be more motivated by how much you’ve accomplished when you weren’t looking. This process of reflection, and positive assessment of your growth, can make all your hard work seem worthwhile — and help prevent feelings of burnout.
3. Be Mindful of the Company You Keep
It’s no secret that writing can be a lonely business. And there’s no question that it can become even lonelier when you decide to strive for success. Friends and family may be uncomfortable with your dedication and ambition, especially when you’re a writer (most of us have likely come across too many loved ones kindly asking us when we’re getting a “real, secure job,” even if we’ve been steadily supporting ourselves through writing for years).
They may think your goals are unrealistic or try to accuse you of being pretentious, selfish, or indulgent. They may subtly (or not so subtly) encourage you to stay in your lane or lower your standards, even if they think they’re only helping you by doing it.
This criticism can be even worse when it comes from peers. Other writers can get defensive or insecure when they see you striving for excellence (especially as you come closer and closer to reaching it). They may give you the cold shoulder or find ways to criticize you when you start writing double their average word count, when you land a writing gig that pays three times what they make, or when you get signed with a publisher they’ve been lusting after for years.
Even if your friends or peers simply have a negative attitude toward themselves, that can be nearly as damaging to your motivation. It’s easy to be influenced by the attitudes around us. If everyone in your circle is constantly saying that there’s no point in trying or that they’re doomed to be a failure and will never reach their ideal success, you may start to feel the same way yourself.
And once you start believing that the pursuit of excellence is a fruitless one, it becomes just that.
It’s important to surround yourself with the kind of positive, supportive, ambitious attitudes that you yourself need to have to achieve your goals. Make it a priority to find a peer group made up of individuals who are also striving for excellence, who are committed to defining what their own idea of success looks like and not stopping until they reach it.
There are lots of places where like-minded writers can be found: Join a writing group in your area, take a writing course (or even consider going back to school for an advanced degree), network at writing conferences, or find online forums or support groups for writers.
If you have a hard time finding like-minded individuals (or if you want another addition to your motivational squad), soak up all the inspiring, confidence-boosting, life-affirming media you can get your hands on. Watch YouTube videos on how to set goals or stay inspired, listen to Ted Talks by your heroes, reread You are a Badass over and over until the cover falls off.
Whether or not you’re a fictional writer, don’t be afraid to let the fictional world motivate you, either. If there’s a character in a book, a movie, or a TV show — or even a song — that makes you feel fired up and like you can take on the world, bask in it. (The number of times I’ve reached a deadline only because I’ve had Rory Gilmore in the background, cheering me on, is way higher than I should feel comfortable admitting.)
Surround yourself with people and influences that will spur you on and keep you going when the path to excellence gets difficult or lonely.
When you find yourself around the right people, your progress will not only be easier but far more enjoyable (and that’s really the point of all of this work, after all; success means nothing unless you get to enjoy it). And when you’re enjoying yourself, you’re far less likely to feel burnt-out.
4. Allow Yourself to Occasionally Fail
When you’re striving for excellence, when you’re setting challenging goals, you’re going to have some pitfalls along the way. It’s inevitable.
If you’ve been successful as a blogging entrepreneur and now want to get a book published, rejection letters are just going to be a fact of life. Even if you own the blogging world. Even if your manuscript is outstanding.
If you’re currently making just enough to scrape by and your goal is to earn six figures this year, the money isn’t going to easily appear just because you want it to. You may not hear back from that amazing, high-paying gig you applied to. Your new advertising attempt may actually end up losing you money. Your new copywriting service may not land a client for six months (been there — it’s not fun).
You may not reach some goals as quickly as you’d like or you may feel like you won’t reach them at all. It may seem as though you’re taking one step forward and two steps back — and then falling down on your face, unsure if you can even get up again.
If you’re going to chase after excellence — and not burn out in the process — you need to accept that hardships, struggles, and failures will happen. And not just to you; nearly everyone who has reached excellence has done it after facing multiple missteps and disappointments.
Remind yourself that your favorite author got soul-crushing, devastating rejection letters (tack a Post-it on your wall with how many times your favorite author was rejected, or save particularly moving stories in an “Inspiration” folder). That even billionaires have faced uncertainty and failure before they succeeded. That almost no one has ever set a truly worthwhile goal and then reached it without a single obstacle in their way.
And that if any of those people had given up in the face of failure, they never would have reached their own ideal of excellence. They wouldn’t be here as a story to inspire you today.
When you stumble on the path to excellence, be easy on yourself — being hard on yourself is only more likely to make you feel more burnt-out and negative. Be proud of the fact that you’re on the path at all, that you’re still stumbling toward an end goal that makes you feel inspired, motivated, and passionate.
Let yourself mourn your failures: Cry to your friends, devour dark chocolate, lay into a punching bag. But when it’s out of your system, refocus and start again.
As long as you’re trying, you’re never really failing. As long as you get back on the path to excellence, you’re still heading toward your desired goal.
5. Never Lose Sight of Your Why
Even when you follow all of these steps, even when you do everything “right,” even when things are going well and success seems to be in your grasp, you may end up having times when you start to get overwhelmed. When it all seems to feel like too much: too much work, too much risk, too much commitment/energy/struggle.
No matter how clear your vision of what you want to achieve is, at times, it may not be enough to motivate you through the challenges you’ll face as you try to succeed — you have to know why you want to be excellent in the first place.
Remember what made you first put pen to page in the very beginning. What is it about writing that lights your soul on fire, that gets your heart racing, that makes it worth all the challenges along the way?
What is it that makes you rewrite a sentence, over and over again, until each word lands perfectly? What is it that makes you willing to put your own thoughts, words, and soul on the page and offer it up for criticism and rejection?
Of course you want to be an excellent writer; but you also remember that you have a reason for writing — that you have something you need to say.
For instance, I write a lot of pieces on coping with anxiety, depression, and self-doubt (this article included). When I was starting out, I didn’t have a strong support system for dealing with these issues — I found it through literature, lyrics, memoirs, and articles. Now, I want to give back. I want to help others feel less isolated than I felt, to be able to find their own excellence more easily than I did (though I’m still working toward mine).
That goal has kept me going when things have gotten hard and when I’ve been on the edge of burning out. When I’ve wondered if writing is worth it, when I’ve considered taking writing jobs that go against my own concept of excellence (i.e., writing pieces that would be dishonest, lacking integrity, or shallow), when I’ve wondered if it’s okay to be just … okay, instead of what I truly want to be.
It may not be the messages in the words themselves that motivate you. Instead, it may be the freedom that comes with being an excellent writer (the ability to control your own schedule, to work from anywhere in the world, to create a lifestyle that makes you the happiest you can be). It may be the ability to be creative in your work, or to explore new ideas each time you write, or it may be because writing is fun for you (and why wouldn’t you want to build your life around something fun?).
Whatever your reason is, whatever the why is behind wanting to achieve excellence, hold to it. Find your purpose, your passion, your reason for dedicating yourself to this.
Once you have it, don’t let go: Put your purpose into words and hang it on your office wall or keep it on your computer’s desktop, turn your why into a pithy mantra (“I want to be an excellent writer because I want a life of total creative freedom”) and recite it to yourself regularly, or get it tattooed on your arm if you want a permanent reminder.
Hold fast to your why, and no matter how hard it gets, everything else will feel worthwhile.
The Path to Excellence Can Be Exhausting — Or Inspiring
Being a professional writer is hard enough. When you first chose this career path, you already decided you were up for a challenge. Choosing to seek out excellence on top of that — adding that extra burden on yourself — can feel downright overwhelming.
It may seem impossible to achieve excellence without burning yourself out, experiencing continuous anxiety, losing your motivation, or eventually giving up. You may even have fallen for the myth that you have to be a stressed-out, isolated, lonely, sleep-deprived workaholic to succeed.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
If you are specific in your idea of excellence, notice your progress along the way, surround yourself with like-minded people, don’t give up when you face failure, and hold your reason for all this work close to your heart, the path to excellence can be one that is inspiring, enjoyable, and rewarding.
It’s full of challenges, risk, uncertainties, and hard work. But when you approach your goals with a positive, committed, and focused mindset — and when you give yourself the proper tools to succeed — excellence is within your reach.
As writers, we’re lucky enough to tell our own story, to make our life the one that we most want to create.
Don’t be afraid to make your story an inspiring excellent one. The world is eager to hear it.