Writing Advice: 5 Things I Wish I Could Tell My 20-Year-Old Self

Advice for young writers
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I sometimes wish I could offer the 20-year-old version of me — the one just getting started — advice about writing based on what I’ve learned over the last two decades. Considering the mistakes I’ve made, and what I’ve learned from them, I could give myself a good head-start.

While my mistakes were plentiful, five stand out as being particularly useful lessons to a writer just out of the gate. Here’s the writing advice I’d share with the younger, more energetic me. If you’re a new writer, perhaps it will be useful to you as well.

1. Write as often as you can, every day if possible

We all practice things to become better at them, even when we don’t feel like practicing. If you play an instrument, you try to practice as often as you can to become a better musician. Why is writing any different?

For most of my writing career, however, I never wrote very much. I’d produce a story or two each year, maybe 25,000 words total. If I wrote 30 or 40 days in a given year, it was a lot. During the first 21 years I was writing, I sold a story, on average, once every three years.

Two years ago, I set out to see if I could write every day. I wasn’t worried about how much I wrote, just that I would write every day, even if it was only for 10 minutes.

The result? I have a nearly perfect track record. The last day on which I didn’t write was July 21, 2013. I’ve written for 714 out of the last 716 days. In that time, I have produced just over 500,000 words.

Writing every day gives me the practice I need to become a better writer. I think it shows. During the last two years, I’ve sold a story or article once every 45 days on average. Practice helps. I shudder to think how much better I might be today if I had been writing every day for the last 23 years.

2. Find a writing group that will read what you write and give critical feedback

When I started writing, it never occurred to me to show what I wrote to someone else for critical feedback before sending it off to a magazine. For the most part, I was the only one making critical assessments of my work, and — as it turns out — I am not my best critic.

In 2008, I attended an online science fiction writing workshop run by James Gunn at the University of Kansas at Lawrence. This was my first real exposure to workshopping stories, getting vital critical feedback (as well as giving it), and using that feedback to improve my stories. After completing the workshop, I saw a notable improvement in my stories, and began selling more of them.

In 2010, I joined a local writing group in Arlington, Virginia, through Meetup. I’ve been a member of that group ever since, and the critical feedback I’ve received from the group members has been among the best lessons I’ve received as a writer.

Plus, it’s nice to occasionally hang out with people who get what it’s like to be a writer.

3. Don’t bother your favorite writer by asking him to read and comment on your latest masterpiece

Yes, I did this. I didn’t know any better. I know that’s not a good excuse, but it’s the truth. Sometime in 1992 or 1993, I sent one of my stories to my favorite writer at the time — Piers Anthony — asking for feedback. Looking back on it, I am horribly embarrassed that I did this.

I was fortunate. Mr. Anthony not only wrote me a pleasant reply, but he included a critique of my story. I imagine there are other writers who would not have been so genial.

These days, I am occasionally the recipient of such requests. For several years, I did my best to give what feedback I could; I saw it as my penance for the sin I’d committed. But if I could have a do-over, I would grab the younger version of myself by the lapels and scream, “DON’T DO IT!”

4. Don’t be afraid of rejection

When I started out, I was a little afraid of rejection. I got used to it pretty quickly as my pile of rejection slips grew.

I also learned that (at least in my case) they were never personal. No one ever wrote, “This story is terrible. Don’t give up your day job.” For a long time, the rejections were just form letters.

What surprised me — what I didn’t expect — was my fear of acceptance. The first time I sold a story, I was thrilled. As it got closer to the publication date, however, I grew nervous. After all, when a story is rejected, only the editor or slush reader sees it. When a story is published, an entire audience can see it — and judge it. That was nerve-wracking the first couple of times. But I got over that fear, too.

This judgment also comes in the form of reviews and criticism, both formal and informal. An informal criticism, for example, is when a coworker reads a story of yours in a magazine and says, “Even I could have written something better than that!”

Looking back, the real value of rejection was building a thick enough skin to survive the slings and arrows of acceptance.

5. Embrace your editor’s wisdom

I’ll admit it: when I started out writing (and for quite a long time after that) I thought an editor’s role was to reject stories. Or maybe correct a spelling mistake. Or poor grammar.

When I began to sell stories and actually work with editors, I learned the truth: An editor is like a coach standing on the sidelines, helping your writing look and feel as good as it can be.

The first editor I worked with, Edmund Schubert, editor of InterGalactic Medicine Show (and a very good writer in his own right) worked patiently with me on the story he eventually bought. I tried to learn from that experience.

Dr. Stan Schmidt at Analog Science Fiction would send me page-long rejection slips describing what was wrong with the stories I sent him. I tried to learn from those, and not make the same mistake twice. After three such rejection slips, he bought a story from me.

Every editor I have worked with, whether fiction or nonfiction, has been a great help, and made my story or article better than what it was when I submitted it. These days, I try to learn something from every interaction I have with editors.

What I’ve learned most of all is that editors are not there to reject stories. They are there to find the best stories, and work with the writer make them even better.

Writers, what do you wish you could tell your younger selves? What advice would you share with a writer who’s just getting started?

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Jamie Todd Rubin writes fiction & nonfiction. He is Evernote’s Paperless Ambassador. He writes about tech & life on his blog. Twitter: @jamietr... .

Jamie Todd Rubin | @jamietr

Jamie Todd Rubin
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  1. Great article, Jamie! I’d love to travel back in time and give myself all the advice you mentioned above along with learning the craft of writing. Such an important thing I didn’t grasp until a few years ago.

    For newbie writers I’d say read a lot and connect with other writers you can learn and grow from.

    • Elke, the craft, yes! Bud Sparhawk (a great writer) and I sometimes give a talk on online writing tools where we break a writer’s job into 3 parts: (1) the craft; (2) the business; (3) the art. We can speak to the first two, but I don’t anyone who can speak well to the third. And, of course, that’s where the magic happens.

      But just understanding that part of writing is craft with certain foundational elements is also something I wish I’d gleaned much sooner than I did.

  2. Wow, that must have been nice to receive rejection slips with feedback! I’d be thrilled to receive something like that from Analog! These days they are very short form letters saying that they no longer give reasons for rejection and/or feedback. Shucks.

    Anyway, great article, and all good points! I think for me, I would most try to convince my younger self that you don’t have to be inspired or “feeling it” to write. The more you write, the easier it gets. I’d try to really pound that into my skull so I’d be more apt to just power through the resistance and write even when I felt like there was no way I could write. If I’d have figured that out sooner, I could have been so much more productive!

    • J.R., for many, many years I also received just the standard Analog form letter. It wasn’t until after I’d done a workshop in 2008 that I started to get feedback from Stan on my rejection slips. A good friend of mine, another writer, told me that meant that Stan really wanted to publish you, but expected you to work to improve. I tried, and eventually sold to him. But the rejection slips with feedback came after many, many form letters.

  3. SCOTT Bacon says:

    Thank you, for the words of wisdom. They are enlightening, good too. My problem, is that I have to look so far back. A little more than, sixty years, that’s when I should have started, but I am in now, I have missed so, very much fun, but working hard, to gain my place. Thank you, please keep it coming.

  4. DEFINITELY, definitely definitely write as much as you can, as often as you can. I actually wrote to a favorite author and ended up with a mentor for my first novel, so while that is probably not a good idea, it can work out. All of these are great tips, but the main thing is, as you said, write. Write a lot. It took me years and lots of writing, but I’ve become a quite skilled writer. Talent is not enough.

  5. Good advice, re: listening to editors.

    When I was 21-year-old moron blundering my way through my first job as a reporter, I was lucky enough to have an editor who was genuinely interested in making stories better. He was critical, but never cruel, and always balanced criticism with praise when it was deserved. Most of all, he made it clear he was on *my* team, and that we were working together. I learned a lot from him, and tried to emulate his style later in my career, when I was the one editing young writers.

  6. I once heard that Warren Buffett said his only regret about investing is that he didn’t start sooner. (I think he started at eleven.)

    I feel the same way about writing. I didn’t start–really start–until a few years ago, and I’ll be 39 this month! Far too many of us, I think you’ll agree, spent way too many years dreaming about our dreams instead of taking the time to start doing anything about them.

    This article is great advice for the next generation of writers. Start now. Write every day. Learn from you mistakes and don’t give up.

  7. I always enjoyed writing, but never thought I could earn a living at it. So I went on to 2 degrees, a different career spanning 15 years, and then was faced with the prospect of career change. I still didn’t think writing was it. It wasn’t until an opportunity basically fell in my lap, that I started writing — as my career. I’d found myself reinvented as a writer, and often wondering why I had pursued this path in the first place. If I could tell my 20 year-old self anything, it would be” “Follow your heart. Go where you feel you are called, and don’t follow anyone else’s roadmap of the kind of career to pursue. You can follow your dreams — you can make it happen. Have the confidence in yourself, always keep the faith, and continue honing your craft. Be the best writer you can be. There are many stories inside you–set them free.”

  8. This is great. As a 21-year-old writer, I spend a lot of time wishing I could fast forward to the part where I already know what I’m doing. Thanks for the advice. I’ll try to spend less time waiting and more time writing.


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