3 Common Writing Myths and How One Writer Challenged Them

3 Common Writing Myths and How One Writer Challenged Them

I was a child writer. As early as first or second grade, I spent most of my free time filling up notebooks with story ideas and character sketches. Somewhere in my closet are several picture book manuscripts I wrote during grade school. On my hard drive is a 160,000-word epic of adolescent angst from my last year of high school. I’ve got dozens of scripts and short stories left over from college.

Fortunately, none of them were published — but it was a close call. During most of that time, I was actively sending out query letters to agents and publishers. I didn’t want to be a published writer when I grew up. I wanted to be one now.

Looking back, I’m glad it didn’t work out. I’m much more savvy about the publishing industry these days, and I’d rather build up my career slowly than have to distance myself from my embarrassing early work. Besides, a lot of what I believed about writing was just plain wrong.

The advice I read in how-to guides and on my favorite authors’ blogs wasn’t always what I needed to hear. Here are three false assumptions I’ve had to work hard to overcome:

1. Writing requires a lot of time

As a kid, I had the false impression that to be a “real” writer meant writing all the time. One of the reasons I wanted to be published while I was young was so that I wouldn’t be stuck in a day job, trying to finish up a manuscript after a full day’s work.

Many of the writing guides I read suggested that the average book takes a year to write. But was that a year of full-time writing, or part-time? Would I have to get up at 5 a.m. to squeeze in my writing between other commitments? I squandered my college years, thinking that I couldn’t possibly be a full-time writer and a full-time student. I procrastinated on many of my manuscripts because I wanted to set aside a whole year to write them.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Not only was I unlikely to “find the time” all at once, but it flew in the face of how writing actually works for me. Even if I have a full day set aside to write, the most I’m likely to work on a given manuscript is a few hours. Having other commitments and responsibilities — even other writing gigs — can actually increase my productivity, because I can switch between multiple projects.

Lesson 1: Writing isn’t a zero-sum game; you can fit it in between other gigs. Even full-time writers take on other projects to keep themselves busy.

2. Creative writing classes are worthless

As a kid, I remember hearing the same advice from several authors I respected: that you “can’t teach writing”, and the only way to be a better writer is to write. For some reason, that left me with the notion that studying writing wouldn’t get me anywhere — that it wouldn’t be worthwhile to take creative writing classes in college.

I’d heard that writing seminars were particularly rough on fantasy/sci-fi writers, and that MFA programs were best suited to “literary” fiction. So instead of attending college as a creative writing major, I studied film and signed up for a few writing workshops on the side.

What I failed to realize was that even if you can’t teach good writing, you can learn a lot from group critiques and by reading your work in front of others. The years when I had deadlines to meet for my fiction classes were the years I was most productive as a writer.

Not only that, but writing classes and conferences can be key to networking with other writers and keeping tabs on the publishing industry. That’s how you’ll find out which magazines to submit to, which writers’ groups to join and which grants or residencies to apply for.

Lesson 2: Writing workshops aren’t just about teaching people how to write. They’re also about feedback, deadlines, and making connections.

3. Self-publishing is bad

I grew up long before print-on-demand publishing, when “vanity presses” were the latest scam. I’d heard stories about writers who’d paid thousands of dollars to print copies of books that were now sitting unsold in their basements. As far as I was concerned, there was one simple rule: never pay to get published.

That idea was pretty well-ingrained in my head by the time ebooks came along, and for a while I strongly resisted the urge to self-publish. The few success stories I read about seemed like outliers, and I wouldn’t feel like a “real” writer unless I got a traditional book deal.

But soon it became obvious that the industry was changing, and an old-school publishing contract was no guarantee of success. Even if I did get one, I’d be expected to do most of the marketing myself, and I’d probably have to pay for a book tour out-of-pocket!

By choosing the self-publishing route, I can release my books on my own terms, with very little up-front cost. Even if my first books don’t sell, I’ll be learning the process: how to format books for Kindle or print-on-demand; host Goodreads giveaways; run a crowdfunding campaign and more. Why not start learning while I have the chance?

Lesson 3: Don’t let the stigma of self-publishing scare you off. Getting your books out into the world may be better than letting your manuscripts collect dust.

What ideas about writing and publishing did you have growing up that may not be true any more? How did you learn to get past your early assumptions about writing?

Filed Under: Craft


  • Paul Jones says:

    Well written, Saul! I was searching for ‘common writing myths’ when I came across your post. It’s a good read.

    I’m staring down the option of getting a traditional book deal (non-fiction) vs. self-publishing. I like your advice. I’d only add that if you’re going to self-publish, pay EXTREME attention to detail. ‘Average’ formatting and layout puts people off quickly.

    By the way, I’m a corporate writing trainer, and have developed a virtual writing coach. I’d love your feedback on it when you get a moment:

    It’s early days, so we’re looking for ideas on how to make it rock, especially for seasoned writers like you (at this stage, it’s focussed on business writing).

    Thanks again for your post.

  • Ian Martyn says:

    The biggest learning for me has been that self-publishing is the easy part. It is the marketing that is the unknown swamp that threatens to suck you down. Those that have read my books have enjoyed them, but getting wider sales is proving difficult. There are lots of people / sites out there offering marketing for a price, but I suspect they are the ones making the money. The best advice – keep writing, keep publishing and keep trying.

    • Saul says:

      Great point. I’ve found the same thing to be true. I think it’s really a question of output. With traditional publishing, one book with great marketing *could* be a success out of the box. With self-publishing, you’ll probably have to release several books before you see any kind of readership. I wouldn’t spend money on marketing services unless you already have a platform that could benefit from it.

  • Fantastic post. You’ve debunked three myths that I’ve heard over and over again from various writers (or people who would never claim themselves as writers but truly are). I can’t wait to share this with them! Thanks for sharing your insight + experience.

  • Emeka Otoba says:

    I still struggle with the thought that I can be a successful self-published author; I’m afraid I still see acceptance by a traditional publisher as a litmus test for my skill and I think this thought limits me sometimes. I haven’t had my share of rejections yet as I am still reviewing the first draft of my first novel so maybe I might really get lucky with a traditional publisher as i have always hoped. Thanks for sharing.

    • Saul says:

      Thanks, Emeka! I definitely think it’s up to each writer to decide what works for them, depending on what they’re looking for and how they define success.

  • I’m so guilty of #1! Oddly enough, though, I wasn’t before college. I was that kid in middle and high school who was writing down scenes and character bits whenever I had the chance. (Most of might notes from class also contain chunks of fiction in the margins… oops.) I finished two (very bad) novels by the time I was 16 because I just wrote whenever I had the time.

    Fast forward to my adult life, and I had to convince myself that no, I don’t need a whole day to work on a novel, it’s still worth writing even if I only have half an hour of time. I’m getting better about it, but it can be difficult to get yourself out of that mindset!

    • Saul says:

      Yeah, I still struggle with it all the time, but it’s getting easier. It seems like a lot of us found it easier to write when we were kids for some reason.

  • Perse says:

    Writing is not necessarily “teachable,” but I do think there are writing techniques a class can teach a writer.

    One of my problems is modesty. I was my own worst critic. Back when I was in second grade, I was already writing novels. I never tried to publish them because, I quote, “I knew they weren’t good enough.” Before I got my computer (second grade), my dad gave me countless journals to fill with my stories. These were special-issue journals that he only had a small collection of. He used them to take notes on his science magazines. I hated asking him for another one when I had another novel in mind because I knew what he was sacrificing. So one day I finished a novel, decided it wasn’t good enough for publishing, and killed two birds with one stone: I erased every page so I could write something better in the same journal and not deplete my dad’s supply.

    I got worse. I soon discovered that it took ages to erase stories, ages that I’d rather spend writing. So I started ripping pages clean out of the journals, just to speed things up. I’ve lost at least ten stories that way, never to be recovered. And later, when I got my computer, there was one day I decided to perform a major file cleanup and I deleted most of the story files I considered “not good enough.”

    I’m certain those novels weren’t written with the level of experience preferable for publishing. (Even if I’d gone the self-publishing route, no one would read them or understand them.) And I’m sure I would never have rewritten the ones I filed on my computer. But that doesn’t mean I had to cause my family such grief every time I ripped a story to pieces, never to be recovered. That time of my life is one of my greatest regrets now, especially because I’m thinking of introducing a new submenu to my blog: manuscripts recopied from the journals to the computers. It’s a shame the journals are the only novels left to do that with. My computer files were clean deletes; fortunately, my parents were able to save most of the journals.

    The lesson: Be your own worst critic, but not to the point of self-destruction!

    • Saul says:

      Thanks for sharing that, Perse! It’s always tricky to figure out what to do with old material — horde it, or let it go and move on? I’ve definitely done a bit of both over the years.

  • Elke Feuer says:

    I’ve been guilty of believing them all! The worst was #1. I thought I needed hours each day of writing time to finish my book. Ironically I finished my first book writing 1.5 each day. Half an hour in the morning and an hour at lunch time.

    Some authors believe their first self-published book will make them millionaires. What they don’t realize is the time, work, and years of effort the successful authors put in to get to that point. It wasn’t really an overnight success. They get discouraged by books sales instead of focusing on their writing and publishing their next book.

    • Saul says:

      Thanks for the feedback, Elke! I’m definitely still struggling with that last one. It’s hard not to obsess over sales data (or lack thereof) when I know I should be writing.

  • Very insightful. Thank you for taking the time to write your thoughts on this subject. I think the one “snag” for me was applying the word “writer” to myself. Could I call myself a writer if I had nothing published? Finally, after reading other’s experiences on the subject, I decided that I could…and then I did…and I do.

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