August 5, 2013

10 Things Emerging Writers Need To Learn

Yesterday, the writer Cathy Day linked to an article on Forbes by Jason Nazar titled 20 Things 20 Year Olds Don’t Get, giving grumpy advice to the new generation of workers. With the autumn semester set to start in about two weeks (I know, right? First: two weeks?! Second: nothing labeled “autumn” begins in August, yeah?) I thought that twenty bits of advice, given from someone who isn’t nearly as grumpy, might be a good way to prime emerging writers for their upcoming workshops and lit classes. And if you’re out of academia, and working on the Next Big Thing, perhaps some of this is helpful too.

However, twenty pieces of advice was a tall order. As with most advice, as I get older, I find there are fewer things that I’m certain of in the first place, and so my advice tends to be grandfatherly and broad, so we’re going with ten items, not twenty, and Imma aim to be a bit more specific. That’s okay, right? Right.


You’re Talented, But Talented is Overrated. For better or worse, there is a sense of competition among writers. This happens naturally in the writing workshop environment. But it also happens long after the MFA degree is over. Thanks to social media, we see what other writers are doing all the time. Someone, somewhere, is publishing something new and wonderful. The writers achieving success are hard working. Being the most talented writer doesn’t necessarily translate into publishing success, which really comes from methodical and consistent work rather than raw talent.

Ignore the Clock. I’ve yet to meet the writer who was, in hindsight, happy with her/his first publication. In the rush to get things published, in whatever venue, it’s easy to forget publishing isn’t the ultimate goal. Publishing your best work is the goal. Anyone can publish. No one is waiting for your next great masterpiece. You might as well take the time to make your work the best it possibly can be.

Put Down The Phone. One of the biggest challenges for writers, a group of people (broadly) who are more introverted than most, is being social. Making it to readings, talks, and other community events, is an important step but you also need to be socially engaged. Hey, you already left your home to be out in public anyway, right? Take a moment to speak to the writer, the organizer, the other attendees. Believe me, this is not easy to do: I know I really struggle to say hello and shake hands too. But these small bits of engagement and consideration are not soon forgotten. Save the texting for another time.

Don’t Wait To Be Told What (or When) To Write. There comes a point where no one is going to tell what you should read, what you should write, and moreover, no one is going to point this out for you. Making time to write is not easy, but until we all get crowned with Guggenheims, we all need to carve out a few hours each week to focus on our writing. Protect this time with your life.

Take Responsibility For Your Mistakes. Your writing workshop or writing group can only point out the missteps in your work. The person that wrote them is you. And any advice you get on the second or third or fourth or fourteenth draft, well, you’re the one who has to decide what to do with it. The editor at the publishing house doesn’t write the manuscript, you do. If something doesn’t work in your writing, that’s on you.

Throw The Book Across The Room. This is not a metaphor. There are going to be novels or collections that you read that have been heaped with praise … and they are absolutely terrible. Do not finish that book. Chances are high that you will never read all the books you want to read in your lifetime, so why finish the books that you don’t like? Even worse, what if those books are truly awful? Look, trust me on this one: throw that book across the room. I mean it. Throw the book. You will feel so much better. I’m a big believer in high quality book throwing.

Both the Size and Quality of Your Network Matter. I was fishing around for a word besides “network” but I’m only on my second cup of coffee and, besides, many of us who write do so around our full-time job. So, yeah. In this interconnected world, our reputation matters. Magazine editors know which writers are a pain in the ass. We all know who the alcoholics and jerks are, and what they do to make other people’s lives miserable. Don’t be that person.

Over the weekend, I was at a housewarming party and talking to a new friend about basketball (naturally). I told him about my pickup games, and how I often know very little about those guys, often only a first name. But, in other regular games I played in, there was more to it. My old Saturday morning game in St. Louis would last for two hours, and then our group, anywhere from six to twelve of us, would go for a cup of coffee and talk about our week. And that’s what I valued more than the game itself. And, once we get out of college, we really have to actively work to make new friends.

You keep good people in your life not because they can do something for you, but because they are good people: intelligent, engaging, funny, loyal, reliable. We need those people in all facets of our life, not just our writing world.

You Need At Least 3 Professional Mentors. You need these three not just for letters of recommendation but also as guides. “How would X tackle this problem?” They are our mentors for a reason, and having them there, both in reality and in our imagination, shows us how to work through problems, both on the page and on the job.

Pick an Idol & Act “As If”. You may not know what to do, but your professional idol does. When I’m working on a short story, and I’m stuck, I often think “What would Andre Dubus do here?” Sometimes, Dubus would have the exact right approach … other times, it’s obvious that he’s no help. Maybe it’s Fitzgerald. Maybe it’s O’Connor. Maybe it’s none of them. But thinking about the writing as if you were (fill in the blank) helps to make me see that are multiple ways to approach a story, multiple ways to make decisions, organize the manuscript.

Read More Books. Why do you write? Because you like to read. Seems obvious, doesn’t it? You were a reader before you were a writer. Nonetheless, I’m sometimes dismayed to hear how little other writers read. Don’t be that person. Reading is a simple reminder of why we do this in the first place. Grab a book and sink into your couch for a few hours. That’s always a good decision.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye

About Michael

Michael Nye is the managing editor of The Missouri Review. His writing has appeared in Boulevard, Epoch, Cincinnati Review, Crab Orchard Review, and Kenyon Review, among others. His first story collection, STRATEGIES AGAINST EXTINCTION, is available on Queen's Ferry Press. Visit him online at

55 Responses to 10 Things Emerging Writers Need To Learn

  1. Jenny Ruth Hawbaker says:

    Kudos! This is great advice. I’m passing it along.

    I especially agree with the sentiment in making friends after college. I don’t think I realized what a rich variety of people were handed to me in school. Now I have to seek people out and it’s no so easy. But worth the effort!

  2. Gerardo Mena says:

    Good stuff! I’ll definitely be passing this along. Keep the good advice coming.

  3. Jesse waters says:

    It really is a great article – lots of good advice, both common and not; now who’s going to take up the “10 things all editors need to know “? That would be a good article… Especially seeing as 90% of them don’t know what the hell they’re doing, or recognize that magazine editing is not a demand market.

  4. Andrea Jackson says:

    Great article, Michael. Thanks!

  5. Michael, I shared this on Facebook on both my personal page and my author page. I wrote: I’m usually skeptical of advice for writers, but this is pretty much on the money.

    I second that kudos.

  6. JSP Jacobs says:

    I just moved from Boise, Idaho to Huntington Beach, California in December, leaving behind the close group of writer friends and workshops I had, as well as the radio program where I interviewed authors and publishers. Everyone is still available via email and social media, but it really isn’t the same as looking into their faces, brushing up against their legs under the table, trudging out of my cave to make it to their readings. So, your section on making friends and mentors stung. I completely understand the importance of hanging on to that community of loyal and trusted friends and the role you allow them in shaping your work. I’m desperately trying to find that here, in my new place, certain when I do, I will finally feel “at home.” Thanks for the great advice, painful or not.

  7. Pingback: Elias Siqueiros

  8. Di says:

    Great advice, especially about socialising. Writing is a solitary activity but we do need to balance it with getting out and meeting people as that is where the ideas come from.

  9. Pingback: 10 Things Emerging Writers Need To Learn | Astigmatic Revelations

  10. I read lots of advice about writing. This is one of the best. I will come back to this and read it again. But, the most important thing is, surely, to internalise it in my own practice as a writer. At the moment, #7 “Both the Size and Quality of Your Network Matter,” seems particularly relevant to me. I live in a community where few people speak English. But I have a couple of friends here whom I really like and trust. Being with them, talking things over, is the most motivating thing in my life. It’s what keeps me writing.

  11. Angie says:

    This should be entitled “11 Things …”, the eleventh being “Employ a professional proofreader”. Do not depend on your family and friends to proofread for you; they have not been trained. Think of it as quality control, an essential part of the publishing process. Many writers say they can’t afford to employ a proofreader. I’d say they can’t afford not to.

  12. Pingback: Tom Never Writes

  13. Pingback: 10 Things Emerging Writers need to know (from Missouri Review) | Living Ethnography

  14. Love the article! Good practical advice for beginners and old hands. The book throwing one is a gem. Maybe we should have a “writers competition” and see who can throw the book the farthest. Also the advice on getting out there is important. On the outside I look like an extrovert and I know there is an introvert hiding in the bathroom who can give me more reasons to stay in. I get myself out he door by reminding myself it people I write about…so I need to gather field info on people.
    That works for me !And then surprise, when I get out I have so much fun I forget I am an introvert.

  15. Alex Grover says:

    Getting just one mentor that understands enough of what I do with my writing is hard enough, but three is impossible. I have to settle for people that can proofread and are willing to say, “I don’t get it.”

  16. Pete Randall says:

    Great advice – and well written too! I’m an emerging writer (who doesn’t even have a website yet) and I have to say a big thankyou for your inspiring words. Bless your heart!

  17. I agree with everything except “Ignore the clock”. The only time you have that luxury is before you get on a regular publishing schedule. However, you need to hone good work habits before you sign. Your work habits do not change magically once you sign a contract, and deadlines are important. Learn to set and meet deadlines BEFORE your life on contract starts, because there are a lot of writers who WILL meet deadlines with good work no matter what, and if you don’t, you will quickly be passed over for someone who both turns out good work AND is reliable.

    And yes, I make my living writing. I’m not just talking pie-in-the-sky here.

  18. Pingback: Michael Nye’s Advice for Emerging Writers | Wanna Get Published, Write!

  19. James Taggart says:

    It is discouraging to me to see a professional writer displaying one of my pet writing peeves; using “less” to modify a plural. Less indicates the quantity of some THING – “there is less water in the pitcher now than before I poured a glass”. Less should not modify words that are plural – rather it should be “fewer”. “There are fewer cars on the road at 5:00 AM than at 8:00.” It’s not “less” cars. This misuse is becoming ubiquitous and proliferating across all media and is another noose around the neck of the English language. Please make it stop…

    • Rakhi Shelat Pandya says:

      I love to write starting my first novel but it ‘s hard to finish i am in the middle . I am a new writer so any suggestion will be gladly appreciated soon as possible today perhapse.
      My email adress is
      Rakhi Shelat

    • Linda Jegerlehner says:

      Hey, James, can you connect me to something you’ve published? Thank you.

  20. Nawin Kumar says:

    Reading is the first step before one gets prepared to slip into the shoes of a serious writer. It is imperative.

  21. Pingback: Advice to Emerging Writers | Michael Nye

  22. Cheri Roman says:

    Insightful, entertaining, useful and funny. It doesn’t get better than that.

  23. Ellen Clark says:

    Thanks for these 10 insightful, thoughtful “things”! As I screw my courage back into place and attempt, again, to work in the writing community, this article had some excellent reminders. I especially agree with “talent is over-rated,” think like your mentor, and network – network – network!

  24. Kathern Harless says:

    this may sound a little odd coming from a woman, but i like to channel e e cummings when i’m working on a scene that has no boundaries. i imagine him sitting across from me, leaning back into his chair “show the world what you got honey, make them stand up and take notice.” he helps me to take the lid off my box.

  25. Linda Jegerlehner says:

    Thanks for the list. I will share this with my creative writing students. I have to say, I also enjoyed reading the comments from people. Angie is apparently very concerned with her own need for a proofreader (and I do agree that we should all have someone else proofread our work). I also noticed the “less” vs. “fewer” but would have ignored it on the assumption that you had not asked me to be your proofreader. Now I am going to look up James Taggart to see what he has published lately. Regarding your rule to “ignore the clock,” I am with Devon on that one. I’ve ignored the clock my whole life and have never published anything. Maybe I would be more productive if I set a time limit and stuck with it.

    • James Taggart says:

      Hey, I wasn’t being pointlessly bitchy – it truly is something I notice and that bugs me. Sorry if I offended you personally. As to my publishing highlights, I have to admit they have been limited to numerous letters to the editor of my local paper. I am still working on it, though. And I did write virtually every word you will find on this blog, which has been inactive for a few months while I take classes and work on a novel.…Cheers...

  26. Laura A. Hobson says:

    Great advice for writers, at any level.

  27. great article! Thanks for the insights.

  28. Pingback: Missouri Review: 10 Things Emerging Writers Need to Learn | On the Writing Front

  29. Pingback: From The Missouri Review: 10 Things Emerging Writers Need To Learn | La Virino Kiu Skribas

  30. Great advice! I have a particularly hard time finding time to write and, am lately, very angry at myself for that. But with 2 children, a job and a husband all fighting for my attention it is extremely hard to make myself sit and write when at the end of the day all I want is a nap! It makes me feel better knowing that my idea of a “writer” always sitting in a beautiful oak lined office with bright windows, and who NEVER has writer block and ALWAYS has time to write is not the norm. Thank GOD! I was beginning to fell really left out! :) Thank you again!

  31. Danica says:

    Great advice here. I particularly appreciated #3 and #4 as points of personal improvement and I engage in #6 on a regular basis so it made me smile to read it posted here.

    I happened to follow the link to the Forbes article at the beginning of your article. I read it, and then came back to read your post.

    I was disappointed to find that you took 3 headings directly from that other article, especially after you called the other author ‘grumpy.’ The advice you gave was good, and it was nice that you put a spin on it for writers, but it would have been better etiquette to state in your opening paragraph that you borrowed content from the other guy.

    I don’t normally post critical comments, but since you’re a writer, writing an article about writing, for an audience of would-be writers, you should set a better example.


    • I’m so glad that you also noticed that.
      I feel a little, hmm, shall we say discouraged? That the writer of this article decided to use parts of another article (one that they -as you said- called grumpy) and actually put no truly different spin on it. Even the paragraphs explaining them are almost identical, although with a writing slant to it.
      I also think that some of these seem a little presumptuous. After all, I don’t know about other aspiring writers but I feel it necessary to have publication in mind when writing. I also feel that I can’t call myself a true writer until I am published, so I don’t understand why taking extra time Before getting published would help in that quest? Or maybe I’m just reading too much into that section.

  32. Pingback: Fasten Your Seatbelts | Kurt R.A. Giambastiani

  33. Korsgaard says:

    Great list – I’m rather happy to see I’m following a number of them already!

  34. Pingback: Wednesday It List | The Readist

  35. Any article that has a picture of The Count from “Sesame Street” in a 1970’s retro-print cape has to be good! 10! 10 good pieces of advice! (thunder claps) Ah-ha-ha!

    The best I think is to wait until you have your best writing for publication or least that thing you know really connects.

  36. Lev Raphael says:

    Good advice, but it leaves out important aspects of a career like luck, timing, and connections. I’m speaking as the author of 24 books, not as someone disgruntled about publishing or my career, which has brought me far more than I ever expected. But I’ve seen those three over and over be factors in people’s careers, like a book reaching the right editor at the right time in *her* career. Nothing substitutes for those unpredictable elements, and it’s hard to acknowledge that despite all the advice, a lot of what happens to us as writers is totally out of our control.

  37. Pingback: Top Picks Thursday 08-08-2013 | The Author Chronicles

  38. Pingback: 10 Things Emerging Writers Need To Learn | TMR Blog | El Blog de Tamara González

  39. Pingback: Writing while Hearing Voices | CDFisher

  40. Pingback: This Week in Words – Aug 10 | Treehouse

  41. Really desired to stress I аm happy that i stumbled οn your webpage!

    Alѕо visit mу ρage :: Visit Website

  42. Pingback: Helpful Articles: 10 Things Emerging Writers Need To Learn | TMR Blog | Musings of an ÜberNerd

  43. Pingback: The Glass List | It's All Good

  44. Pingback: weekly reads: good music and feminist pop culture « Delete the Adjectives

  45. Pingback: Mash-Up Monday #6 | The Ambage

  46. Pingback: 10 Things New Writers Need to Know - BookBaby Blog

  47. Jason Chapman says:

    Some very good advice here.

  48. Garrett says:

    Love the article bro. Looks like some douches on another site jacked it, though.

  49. Meira Eliot says:

    This is such a helpful piece. It gets right to the nuts and bolts of the writer`s life. I will certainly be returning to this, and am passing it on!