The Blank Page is a new weekly series on Novelty Revisions dedicated to any writer who is just beginning their journey or starting again after a long pause. Check back every Monday for more tips and inspiration.
I learned very quickly after signing my first contract agreeing to my first paid writing job that in amateur publishing, being a writer did not mean you were “just” a writer.
Someone who desperately wanted to impress her editors — why wouldn’t you, at 19, working in a ridiculously competitive field since literally every young adult wants to be a writer for some reason I guess? — couldn’t get by just turning in 500 words plain without flavor. It wasn’t enough to submit nearly flawless copy. It needed a photo. A graphic of some kind. A custom-made chart? It didn’t NEED it. Well, no one said it did. That was implied.
You weren’t paid to be a photographer or a graphic designer. You weren’t paid to spend your free time learning how to shoot and edit video, use Google Analytics or interpret basic SEO recommendations. These were just all things you did. That’s how you stood out: By trying to be everything.
If only someone had told that exhausted, burned-out aspiring writer that just because it made you more marketable didn’t mean it was worth the misery.
These days when someone tells me they want to be a writer, the first question I ask them is: What kind of writing are you interested in doing?
I ask this question specifically because not everyone who wants to write actually wants to be a writer. Some people want to label themselves as writers because they know writing can make you money and it seems like an easy way to earn a paycheck (ha). Some people have always dreamed of “being a writer” but aren’t actually interested in doing the work. They’ve just always had that dream and don’t want to let go of it.
Of course, there are those who DO want to write and ARE making an effort to advance through the beginning stages of their craft as efficiently as possible. But another problem often arises: There are so many different options when it comes to writing, and so many “special skills” that come along with each of them. Which one do you choose?
Another trap sits waiting, too: If you can’t choose, why not just do it all?
I’ve been there. I couldn’t choose just one thing, so I tried to write books and interview campus administrators and learn layout design and bought an expensive camera (because I thought it would magically teach me how to use it?). I bragged about writing a TV pilot (it was very bad, but hey, it existed). I felt this need to prove I could pivot to any form of “writer” because I figured it would increase my chances of getting a top-tier high-paying job straight out of university.
It did no such thing.
Don’t get me wrong — learning a variety of skills both specific to writing and loosely related to it has paid off in other ways in the years since. But not a day goes by that a small part of me doesn’t wish I would have focused my energy on getting really good at one kind of writing instead of splitting my effort so many different directions.
There will be pressure to split your soul into many parts. Don’t do that.
You don’t have to be a journalist AND a novelist AND a poet AND a screenwriter, you don’t have to be good at every genre and style, you most certainly don’t have to like everything or stick with everything. Trying a variety of things to find what interests you most, yes. But you don’t have to keep writing poems if it bores you. You don’t have to turn your books into screenplays if it’s something you dread.
You don’t have to be everything. You can focus on one thing and sprinkle in other things every now and then. You can dedicate most of your energy to writing novels but pen the occasional essay when something inspires you to do so. You can chip away at your someday-to-be self-published collection of poems during your writing hours but write random seems of a potential play if they come to you.
You don’t have to do it all. There may be some who seem good at everything, seem to like everything and be able to succeed at everything they try. But it’s mostly an illusion. Always remember that when you look at someone else’s accomplishments, you mostly only see the successes. You don’t always see the failed attempts, the unfinished projects, the ideas that almost were but will never come to be.
Instead of trying to be everything, strive to be something. Pick a dream, a goal, a desire. Make plans. Get organized. Focus first on that one thing, and do it, practice it, live it, until you’re so good at it that people who are watching will think you’ve always been good at it.
But remind them, as so many successful writers don’t. Remind them you used to be bad at it. Remind them that you used to try to please everyone by doing everything, but that didn’t work. Remind them that you chose something, your heart locked onto that thing, and that’s why you’ve come so far.
There is time to try all the things you want to try. But don’t overwhelm yourself trying to do it all at once at the beginning of it all. Take your time. Focus. Get good.
This is all that should be expected of you. You don’t have to be great yet. You just have to make progress, one page at a time.
Just starting out as a writer or returning from an extended hiatus? Let me know how I can help. Just drop a comment below with your questions/concerns — I am here to serve.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is an editor and writer, and a 12-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food, and Star Wars.