Why No Writer is Ever an ‘Overnight Success’

Let’s retire this concept, shall we?

It’s the way of the publishing world that some books get so big so fast that it feels like everyone is talking about them all at once, all of a sudden.

And sometimes, the authors that produce these books are called “overnight successes” because they were pretty much unknown before their book got big.

I personally don’t love this phrase. It creates the wrong idea about what it actually takes to even write the first draft of a decent book.

I think the term “overnight success” surfaced because once someone discovers a book or author or thing they like, all they want to do is talk about it. And the more people that talk about it, the more who start paying attention and realize “Oh, this book/author/thing is really cool! I’ve never heard of them/it before! They just came out of nowhere and blew me away!”

But most of you reading this know that last part is far from true. Ninety-nine percent of the time, a creator doesn’t just make something on the first try and suddenly “get famous” because of it. While it’s not uncommon for something or someone to “go viral” on Twitter or whatever, you can’t — and most of us don’t — spend excess time and energy purposely trying to rise to the top too quickly.

Success that last is slow-going and slow-growing. Most writers work for years before they even start making money doing it. To call someone who has worked hard for years to get to where they are an “overnight success” is almost insulting, if you think about it. This person wrote 10 never-published novels before writing the book that landed on the bestseller list that made it onto some celebrity’s “book club list” and is now being made into a movie.

It actually took, like, effort. And hard work. And a lot of patience. It didn’t happen “overnight.” And success, especially in writing, almost never does.

I sincerely believe too many aspiring writers never make their dreams come true because they go into it thinking they’re going to find success quickly. That’s not how it works. Your first book is always going to be terrible, your first blog post is always going to be worse than your 10,000th. No one ever starts out writing making good things. We all start in the same place. Some of us advance. Others don’t have the patience.

Don’t ever start writing with the belief that your effort is going to pay off quickly. It’s just not a realistic ambition. I’m not saying you can’t “make it” as a writer — quite the opposite, actually. I’m saying you’re setting yourself up for major disappointment if you think you can start writing a book today and get it published six months from now.

Expect to spend a long time refining your skills and getting a little better every day.

Expect to face rejection head-on — over and over again.

Expect to write things that aren’t good. And to write good things that never get seen by the masses.

Expect to fail, and to succeed in ways both big and small throughout your career.

Good writing takes skill and energy and patience and insane dedication. It is not something that can be achieved overnight. It never has been, and never will be.

Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.

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13 thoughts on “Why No Writer is Ever an ‘Overnight Success’

  1. Hi! Meg, I really like your site, and how consistent you are with your newsletter!

    I have a bit of a dumb question, how do you send these newsletters with WordPress? I have a WordPress site, but I use Mailchimp for my email marketing; I wasn’t aware it could be done the way that you do it. If you could let me know what you do I’d greatly appreciate it. Thanks!


    On Sun, Jan 6, 2019 at 8:04 AM Novelty Revisions wrote:

    > Meg Dowell posted: “It’s the way of the publishing world that some books > get so big so fast that it feels like everyone is talking about them all at > once, all of a sudden. And sometimes, the authors that produce these books > are called “overnight successes” because they we” >

    1. Apologies, I’m not quite sure which newsletter you’re referring to? Could you send a screenshot to show me what you’re seeing? Thanks.

  2. I hadn’t read this before. I will tell my son that I found one of the NaNoWriMo winners.

  3. I think part of it is our romantic desire to believe that things can change that quickly. Ironically, many stories themselves tell of that one day or week where so much changed so quickly.
    And I often think back to one professor who told me “when you’re cutting out content that is pure gold, you know you’re on the right track.” It’s unfortunate but true that many have to produce top notch content for a long time, consistently, before people start to notice.

      1. Of course, if we can achieve a certain amount of sustained momentum, we can enjoy a regular series of positive responses. Perhaps not to our most recent work, but we can achieve a certain amount of regularity, in theory.

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