In the book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell states that being a world-class expert requires 10,000 hours of practice. David Eddings, who wrote more than 20 fantasy novels, believes that a writer’s first million words are just practice.
There’s a reason so many authors write every day; they need the practice.
When I first set out to become a best-selling novelist (still chipping away at it), I chose to emulate Stephen King and write 2,000 words a day. That work ethic led to three attempts at a novel and hundreds of thousands of words written. I’m not sure if I’ve reached the 1 million word mark yet, but I’m getting close.
I used to think that getting a day job as a writer would eat away at my creativity and motivation. After all, how could I write my own projects when I’d just spent eight hours working on someone else’s? So I labored in unskilled day jobs, from working inventory in a retail store to testing video games.
Then recently, a friend mentioned that his company was looking for a marketing copywriter. The decision didn’t take long; I’d just left my previous job after a bad management experience. And the pay was good.
Now that I’ve been working at this job for almost six months, I realized something. My writing’s actually gotten better. It seems counterintuitive, but it’s not. Here’s why.
To get those 1 million words, you have to sit down and write. Often, and a lot. It can be hard to find time to do so when you’re writing around a day job.
And that’s not to mention friends, family, kids, and other obligations that you shouldn’t skip out on. When I was writing my first novel, I had to decline invitations from friends, give up some of my hobbies, and I even wrote for an hour on Christmas day (mom didn’t like that one).
But when you’re the go-to writer for a company, you’re spending nearly all day writing. Here’s an example of what I might be expected to write on a given day:
When you have a day job as a writer, you’re expected to spend most of your time writing. If you’re trying to improve as a writer, there’s no substitute for planting your butt in the chair and putting out words.
Because I work at a tech startup, I have to be a more versatile writer than if I was working in a bigger company. Not only do I have to edit my own work on a daily basis, but I’m often tapped to edit work by freelancers or other people in the company who aren’t writers by trade.
In editing freelance work, I’ve found that many writers use long sentences where shorter ones will do. And when those sentences need to go up on a landing page, brevity is key. Every word has to be purposeful.
When I first started writing fiction, I would go into long descriptions of the most mundane elements of the story. I would repeat something twice, in different ways, thinking that would give my words more impact.
Now, I’m ruthless with my sentences. If a word doesn’t belong, it comes out. If a sentence doesn’t work, it’s usually just too long. I’ll either chop it up into multiple sentences or just straight up delete half of it.
Because my job requires me to do the most I can with fewer words, I’ve learned to choose my words carefully, and to take out most of them.
When you write for yourself, it’s easy to take your time. Many writers wait for inspiration to strike before getting to work. They’ll sit at the keyboard only when a story is burning to get out.
And that might be great for starting a story, but finishing requires more than just inspiration. It needs discipline—especially if it’s not turning out the way you want it to. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve abandoned a story when I shouldn’t have.
Copywriters don’t have that luxury. When I’m working on a blog post, it’s usually due the next week at the latest. Even if I’m banging my head against the keyboard because of how bad it is, I need to get it done.
If my boss needs a blog post for next Wednesday, I’ve got to have something to show him. I might be able to shuffle a post that’s giving me trouble with one that’s easier to write, but I still need to give him something. There are people relying on me to wrangle those words.
Deadlines are magical. They can take what you think is a lackluster piece and turn it into “good enough.” Because, as writers, sometimes it’s hard to know when to stop tinkering with something.
Now, when I write fiction, I give myself deadlines. If it’s a short story, I’ll give myself a week. That’s more than enough time to finish the first draft. Not only does that mean I always have something I can work on and submit to magazines, it keeps me working and finishing things. It’s one thing to write every day, but there’s no rush quite like finishing a draft.
I used to be terrible at dealing with feedback. Instead of listening to what a reader was telling me, I’d spend my time defending what I wrote. It didn’t matter if the characters were flat, or the story just didn’t work. I’d deflect all of it.
When you’re part of a marketing team, there’s always someone looking at your work. Your writing is part of a bigger project, like a website or a marketing campaign. Your words need to reflect the exact message that the team is trying to convey.
That means you might find yourself sitting in a boardroom with six people going through your writing line by line and critiquing it. You might get a blog post sent back with digital red pen all over it. And the best way to make sure no one on your team wants to work with you again is to push back on every bit of feedback you get.
When you’re writing that much every day, you learn to separate your own identity and self-worth from what you write. Because we put a little bit of ourselves into everything we write, we take criticism personally. But feedback isn’t about us as writers, it’s about our work. And if we want our work to get better, we need to learn to take critiques on the chin.
While my day job has made working on my own projects regularly more of a challenge, it’s definitely made me a better writer. Because I’ve had to work in a team, I’ve improved as both a writer and an editor. With deadlines, I’ve been introduced to the magic of “good enough.”
So if you want to make writing your full-time gig, or you want to be a novelist like I do, you can do worse than taking that day job as a writer. The way you work and write will be challenged, but the rewards are enormous.
Nick wrote his first story at the age of nine when living in New York. It had a troll, a cave, and a magical voice, but not much else. There’s more to his stories now, but he can’t quite stay away from the monsters and dark places of the world. He does his best writing on a powder-blue typewriter—which he snagged for $25—despite the protests of those around him. Some of his best writing (and the occasional gushing post about the Marvel Cinematic Universe) can be found at whiskeyandstardust.com.