Eight Secrets Which Writers Won’t Tell You


Image from Flickr by Lazurite

This is not particularly relevant to the post, but I’m getting an awful lot of comments telling me, often a little snarkily, “it’s ‘THAT’ not ‘WHICH'”.

The “don’t use which for restrictive clauses” rule comes (as far as I can tell) from Strunk and White. Plenty of authors, including Austen, have used “which” exactly as I use it in the title. It’s very commonly used like this here in England, so I’m guessing my comments are coming from US readers.

There was never a period in the history of English when “which” at the beginning of a restrictive relative clause was an error.

(From 50 Years of Stupid Grammar, The Chronicle)

I thought about putting “that” in the title – but I like the sound of “which” between “secrets” and “writers”.

And with that out of the way, enjoy the post! :-)


A few years ago, I’d look at published writers and think that they were somehow different from me. After all, their books were gripping and fluent – unlike my stumbling attempts at first drafts. Their blogs had hundreds or thousands of readers.

They were real writers. And, deep down, I was afraid that I could never really become one of them.

But as I’ve taken more and more steps into the writing world, I’ve realised that my perception just doesn’t match up to the reality. Writers – at all levels – have just the same struggles as you and me.

I’m going to go through eight secrets. Eight things which all writers know – but which you might never hear them admit.

Secret #1: Writing is Hard

Writing is easy:  All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.  (Gene Fowler)

There’s a myth – not just in the writing world – that if you’re good at something, it’ll be easy. And established writers, me included, do have writing sessions where the words flow smoothly.

The truth is, though, that writing is hard. Some types of writing are tougher than others – I’ve written before about Why Fiction is So Hard to Write. But almost any type of writing will cause some sort of resistance – getting started is never easy. And very few writers, however experienced, can turn out a great draft first time.

Use It: Getting started is nearly always tough. There’s nothing wrong with you if you find it hard to sit down and write. But like exercise, once you get going, it gets easier.

Secret #2: We All Struggle With Procrastination

There’s only one person who needs a glass of water oftener than a small child tucked in for the night, and that’s a writer sitting down to write.  (Mignon McLaughlin, The Second Neurotic’s Notebook)

I’ve seen a few writers talk about this, often in a jokey way: we procrastinate. This isn’t just the case for beginners. Writing Magazine columnist Jane Wenham-Jones, for instance, writes quite openly about her struggles to just get on with writing. (And she’s had several novels and non-fiction books published – plus many short stories and articles.)

Procrastination can come in a couple of different forms:

  • You do the dishes, weed the garden, tidy your desk, sharpen your pencils … anything but sit down and put words on a page.
  • You write, regularly – perhaps blog posts or journal entries – but you never get round to starting that novel or memoir or other big, meaningful project.

This form is, I think, fairly harmless; it’s easy to spot yourself doing it, and there are easy tricks for “just getting on with it”. The second type is more insidious – it’s easy to kid yourself that you’re just not ready to tackle something longer or more complex, even when you’ve been putting off that project for years.

Use It: Take a good hard look at your own writing. Are you procrastinating on something? What would it take for you to get moving on it?

Secret #3: We Put Ourselves Into Our Work

Every author in some way portrays himself in his works, even if it be against his will.  (Goethe)

Anything and everything you write says something about you as a person, whether you want it to or not. Even your choice of what to write about – the decision that something is worth putting down in words – is significant.

It doesn’t end there. Writers (particularly good ones) deliberately draw on their own lives. If you know enough about a novelist, you can almost always spot some autobiographical element in their work. If you knew someone closely enough, you’d see that they pour in their childhood memories (the good and the bad), life experiences, hurts and dreams.

Use It: Dig incidences out of your past – they can be tiny things, so long as they have emotional power. Put them into your writing. There’s a truth in these which can bring your work to life.

Secret #4: First Drafts are Always Crap

The only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts. The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp  all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.  (Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird – you can read an extract from this section here)

Short, straightforward pieces may come out just-about-right the first time round. Most authors, though, will have first drafts which look vastly different from the finished product. I remember reading J.K. Rowling’s description of how she cut a whole character (sadly no longer on her website, but it’s mentioned in an interview here) from one of the Harry Potter books.

As a reader, you only get to see the finished product. You don’t have access to the fumbling, faltering first draft, which every author has to go through in order to get to the polished finished piece. But those drafts exist – buried or even burnt, their clumsy sentences and over-indulgent passages concealed from the world.

Use It: Don’t ever worry if a first draft doesn’t seem very good – especially if you’re writing fiction. If you can, take a look at a published author’s first draft and compare it with the finished work. Here’s an example, bravely posted by Diane Chamberlain: Finished! (And a First and Fifth Draft Comparison)

Secret #5: Each Piece Exists in a State of Flux – and it’s Never “Finished”

Art is never finished, only abandoned. (Leonardo da Vinci)

When you read a book or article or blog post, it feels fixed. You can’t really imagine it being any other way.

That’s not any writer’s experience of their work, though. Chances are, the piece began as a patchwork of ideas. Whole chunks – chapters, scenes, paragraphs – will have been moved around, cut, added, expanded. There’ll have been plenty of times when the writer had a coin-toss decision between taking one direction and another.

Because of this, the work never feels finished to its own author: there’s always the potential for some more tweaking. At some point, though, every writer has to let their work go.

Use It: Aim for completion, rather than perfection. You’re never going to feel like a piece of writing is quite as finished as it could be. Send it out into the world – it will only truly be complete once it has readers.

Secret #6: We Do it Because We’re Obsessed

An incurable itch for scribbling takes possession of many, and grows inveterate in their insane breasts.  (Juvenal, Satires, around 100 AD)

Normal people aren’t writers. Most people (much to my horror) dislike writing. They might only read one or two books every year. They certainly don’t see any reason to put their thoughts down in writing, whether that’s as a blog, a journal or a story.

If you’re writing, you’ve got a certain obsession. Some writers talk about their need to write – and even believe that they couldn’t live without it. I certainly find it very hard to imagine a life where I didn’t write at all.

Use It: Accept that you’re a bit weird – and revel in it! Make time for your writing – sure, the rest of the world might not understand, but they’re not writers.

Secret #7: Money Does Matter

Nobody but a blockhead ever wrote except for money. (Samuel Johnson)

While many writers carry on because they’re a bit obsessed, there are very few who don’t have some ideas about making money from it. After all, if you can make a living from your writing, you get to spend your work day with words – not just your evenings and weekends.

Writers don’t necessarily love or even agree with everything they write. I’ve written on topics like Australian college football, not because I had any particular interest in it, but because I was being paid.

There’s no shame in making money from creative work – whatever the beret-wearing, garrett-dwelling types would have you believe.

Use It: If you want to make money as a writer, start paying attention to the market. Some sorts of writing (e.g. web copy, specialised non-fiction) are a lot more lucrative than other types (e.g. poetry). Don’t be afraid to try something new: you might enjoy it more than you think, and it might be the first step to turning your writing into an actual career.

Secret #8: We All Struggle With Self-Doubt

This is what I’ve been thinking lately: I’m getting worse. My writing just isn’t as good as it used to be. With every new story I write I believe I’ve lost something—the spark, the raw energy, the ability to see the scene, to tell the truth, to imagine. I look at my stories and feel like they could be so much better. (Jessie Morrison, MFA Confidential blog for Writer’s Digest)

You’ll come across the occasional supremely confident writer. In my experience, those people tend not to be very successful. Good writers are often riddled with self-doubt – and as they get better and better, they’re also more and more able to spot the flaws in their own work.

Self-doubt can be very destructive, and can cripple your ability to write. It’s something to stand firm against – but it’s important to remember that you’re not the only writer who goes through it. There’s nothing wrong with you if you have a little voice in your head saying “Who’d want to read THAT?”

Use It: Next time you doubt yourself, keep going anyway. Put doubts about your work aside when you’re drafting – save them for when you need to edit.

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224 thoughts on “Eight Secrets Which Writers Won’t Tell You

  1. Great article — I had to laugh out loud at some of it. I especially like the last one: money DOES matter. I’ve personally never written much of anything except a few blog posts without being paid to do it. Got spoiled when my first story sold before I finished 4th grade, and I got my first paying writing job at 14. I see a lot of writers out there who wish and hope and pray that they’ll somehow monetize a blog or find someone who will buy their work…but they keep churning it out for free anyway. I know this was published awhile back, but I just saw a link to it on Twitter, and greatly enjoyed it, so I had to comment. Thanks for sharing!
    Deb McAlister’s last blog post ..5 Social Media Mistakes to Avoid in 2012

    • Thanks Deb! (And hey, I appreciate comments whenever they come in… :-))

      That’s an impressive writing history — I think the first time I made money from anything I’d written, I was in my 20s. I agree with you that there’s a danger in writing and writing and hoping you’ll eventually become a best-selling author or have a huge blog … making money writing means treating it like a business.

  2. This actually makes me feel a bit better that I’m still on chapter 3 of a book I’ve been writing since 05. It also helps understanding that I’m not the only one obsessed with it hahaha.

  3. Alright, I guess I get to be the one who decides to comment and say that in my opinion, these rules are elementary and pedantic, if not blatantly incorrect assumptions based solely on personal experience that are not clearly labeled as such.

    As I writer, I resent the “writing is hard” secret. If writing is hard, you might be in the wrong line of work. Granted, we all have our moments but if you’re truly engaged in your life’s passion, it shouldn’t be that hard. If it is (or if you have to come up with lists about how hard it is), maybe you are in the wrong line of work.

    First drafts are crap? Who says? You? Using words like “never” and “always” and “all” kind of shows your tendency to lean on the predictable, which is not a trait a true writer would ever use as a crutch when trying to come up with his next big blockbuster post.

    So… everyone else might be busy rubbing you raw over how great this post was but I have to break it to you that it was a generalization based solely on personal experience that you ignorantly applied to ALL writers and left me feeling disappointed (not that my expectations were that high to begin with). As one such writer, I’m sort of irked.

    But hey, keep writing, you’ll get better.

    • Her observations were spot on for the most part. You sound incredibly arrogant and sure of your own greatness, tbh. I’d love to see your work. I’m betting it’s crap.

      • Jr — it’s a shame this post didn’t work for you! The vast majority of comments have been positive (as you’ve noted) and it may be that you’re simply at a different stage along the writing path from my target audience. I’m glad you don’t find writing hard; I’m afraid the vast majority of writers I talk to do find it tough at times, just like almost any worthwhile endeavour.

        Hemingway famously said “The first draft of anything is shit” so I think I’m in good company on that particular observation…!

  4. Agree with everything except seven. I’ve always written purely for personal satisfaction. I’ve never published a thing, and doubt I ever will. I write for the love of writing. Introducing money into the proposition would ruin it entirely. When it becomes business, the passion disappears.

    • Thanks Rhyan. And I certainly didn’t mean to imply that writing just for yourself and your own satisfaction isn’t valid (personally, the money/business side doesn’t kill my passion, though I can absolutely see that it would for some writers).

  5. This was inspirational. A retired doc, I have long nurtured the notion that one day I might write something. I have not yet been able to begin. Now I see that I may be normal! Self doubt and, yes, laziness seem to be my bug bears. This blog, though, seems to be adding lift. Thank you.

  6. this is a great post and it really help a lot…words don’t come easy and i realized that it is
    true not only to me but with others…thanks

  7. Neither english nor us(based, born or otherwise) here but–can try ‘of which’ maybe as a possible compromise? (..or maybe it just doesn’t make sense..nvm then..)

    • Perhaps “…those of which…”
      Eight Secrets, Those of Which Writers Wont Tell You…..About
      Okay never mind, it’s a little wordy.
      More importantly, Great Post! Enjoyed it, very encouraging and refreshing.

  8. #6 surprised me. I don’t really know why, except that it seems strange to dislike writing. I completely concur with #1, that writing is difficult, nevertheless I often feel compelled to engage in this intriguing craft. Writing for me is a concrete distillation of thoughts that help bring clarity and voice to an emotion or thought process. Words are like the colors on a painter’s palette, each beautiful and unique and when brought together can create powerful statements, persuasion, emotional response in the reader, whimsey, education or simply the poetry of sound and meaning combined for a lasting impression.

  9. Thank you so much for this! Seeing myself described here gave me a big laugh and was quite validating. Hey, I really am a writer!

  10. Sorry, great article, kinda stuck on the title. Which IS correct, don’t listen to what anybody wants to tell you, in this particular case, and the meaning you are conveying, “which” is correct, “that” would be incorrect, or at least convey a completely different meaning. It may not fit some perfect rule book, but why are we writing if we are sticking to every little rule in the rule book, the grammatical rule book has about 1 million different rules! English is a weird, but often, forgiving language. We are told as writers to be creative and different, to go outside the scope. Read some poetry, that has some weird grammar, but in that instance, it’s ok. Everything has a context, and that is what you should base the language use by. Also, grammar as a whole, is a way of understanding language, a guide to help us convey meaning, not something to beat over somebody else’s head.

    Yes, I am sure I have broken a million rules in this one comment, but that is my writing style, and I am proud to own it.

    Have a great day, keep up the good work 😀

    • Thanks BekJoy … and yeah, I’m not sweating the title too much. This post gets a ton of hits by people new to my site, and I guess some of them just aren’t used to my style (and my Britishness!)

      Welcome to Aliventures. :-)

  11. I greatly enjoy the ‘Normal people arent writers’ comment because its true. Just like artists and singers our creative outlet makes us different from regular people. We are very odd in our own little ways. Some of us are grammar Nazi’s and other are eccentric ramblers. But we are all amazing and I wouldn’t change my desire and love for writing if you paid me…..well it depends on how much, cause I’m broke!

    • I don’t think I could ever stop writing either… it’s part of who I am, and I’d be miserable without it. Good point that as well as the things writers have in common, we have plenty of differences too — and the world of words is all the richer for that. :-)

  12. Hi Ali,

    I think you could short-circuit the discussion of you title by using “Eight Secrets What Writers Won’t Tell You”. Excellent post. I just found your site today via StumbleUpon and I look forward to reading more.


  13. I’ve recently started a blog, and although love reading, and do read a lot, I don’t feel that it necessarily makes me a good writer. I often get the “Who would want to read this” feeling but am trying to get to grips with it. Thanks for your site.

  14. As I’ve started to take my writing more and more seriously, I have discovered a lot of these things to be true. I’m glad I’m not alone in this and it feels great to know that I am not the only one struggling with self doubt and disgust at what he writes.

  15. All of this is true, I am 17 and just now looking into making at least a little money on the side from writing articles.(I always wonder if what I write is good enough) I’m currently writing a short story for a contest and it took me two days to even figure out what the hell I was going to write the story on…. I also completely agree with never being finished, I watch so many shows and when they end I want them to continue forever. Same goes for my writing, I’ll finish say a short story and then immediately go and continue writing it past it’s ending. I wouldn’t say rough drafts are always crap and that is the only thing I don’t agree with.

  16. Why didn’t anyone recommend taking the word out completely and calling it “Eight Secrets Writers Won’t Tell You” ?! It’s a blog headline, after all, it doesn’t need to read like a sentence. Why must we argue so much about the title?

    Anyhow, I enjoyed this post too. I haven’t written much in the last few years, though writing a book has always been a dream of mine. I have decided to try and push fears aside and take it seriously this time, and my friends were getting tired of me asking them if I should bother. I needed a little reassurance and this post has helped.

  17. Rather, shouldn’t it be “8 Secrets Wizard and Which Writers Won’t Tell You?” Such as,
    1. Platform 9 3/4.
    2. There a tavern next to that bookstore.
    3. A tripple decker bus almost hit you.
    4. Use a quick quills pen for your next novel.
    5. That wasn’t a tornado, it was a Common Welsh Green.
    6. We could easily fix all your health problems 1, 2, 3 with no side effects.
    7. Probably the same for most of the other serious problems in the world.
    8. This was the really interesting answer but I just obliviated it out of your mind.

  18. Hi Ali, I’m following your blog for quite some time now. For some strange reason I’ve never read this post, well, not until now!
    So, I just wanted to say I loved it. Somehow, things starded to make perfect sense. I think (honestly), that writers can benefit so much from each others advice. It’s great that you share your adventures with all of us. Because, like you said, most people hate writing, and writers come across as weird characters that waste their time with a weird passion. It’s easy to stop listening to yourself when people around you keep saying that you’re wasting your time.
    For the longest time I was happy just writing for my blog. I didn’t think I had enough knowlegde to write a book. Somehow, this very logical form of procrastination, lead me to hate my writing. So I stopped writing, and felt miserable because of it. When I finally started writing again my drafts were so terrible it almost made me give up again. It’s nice to know that terrible first drafts aren’t a valid reason to give up!

    Ana Reis’s last blog post ..Heróis de cuecas (e porque o mundo está melhor sem eles)

    • Thanks, Ana! I’m so pleased you’re enjoying my blog — thanks for sticking around. :-) It’s often tough to get back into writing after stopping for a while, but do keep it up — the drafting process will get easier as you get more and more into the habit of writing again, and you’ll be able to see the writing improve dramatically with each successive draft. :-)

  19. I’d have just left “that” or “which” out altogether. Eight Secrets Writers Won’t Tell You About. (And let’s not get into putting a preposition at the end of a sentence!)

    This is a very inspirational post!

  20. It distresses me there are those who focus on grammar to such an extent that they allow it to make them become rude.
    I myself, cannot say: I have bragging rights to accolades of extensive education.
    I can say: that I have an innate need to write and to produce art through words.
    I am a life long student due to the fact that I have chosen to pursue that need.
    Thank you for sharing. There are those of us whom desire to learn; in order to be the best that we can be.
    If not for blogs such as this, it would be difficult to research…

  21. Well, how about “8 Secrets Writers Won’t Tell You”. ? Maybe the which/that debate feels clunky because it’s actually not needed at all?
    The title aside, this was a refreshing post to read through! Makes me not feel so bad to be hacking my way through the undergrowth of the writerly jungle making my own path. It is as I have suspected all along… Nobody really “knows what they’re doing”, either. We’re all just exploring and experimenting, sometimes dangerously, but always uncertainly.
    Thanks for the reminder to breath deep!

  22. Nice article with title that distracts from the content and made me wonder if the article would be written at a readable level or full of similar mistakes.(My vote, no that or which, I would strike that out with my red pen immediately as not only incorrect but superfluous).

    1. Writing is easy. It is laughably easy. Getting published is difficult!
    2. I do not struggle with procrastination. When I am walking the dog, washing the dishes, I usually am in a contemplative state and get great ideas or solve knots in my stories. Now, procrastinating from my actual work as an editor, YES. Like right now.
    3. Yes, writers put themselves into their work.
    4. First drafts are first drafts. They can only be thought of as “crap” if the underlying expectation is that they be other than what they are. A first draft is not publishable, that can be said, but it can be an excellent start.
    5. A manuscript is never finished. True. At some point you get so bored with it that you feel you will die if you spend any more time on it– thatmeans your subconscious knows it has been edited enough that there is no fear factor left.
    6. This is a conceit that young writers like to perpetuate, that they are somehow unusual or especially gifted.Successful adults generally are obsessed with whatever they do. This is normal. They like their work, they think about it when they are not actively at work. Tap into my architect husband’s head at any moment day or night and yuo will find design processes going on. An architect or a writer who wasn’t like this would be a failure.
    7. Money is great. It is always good. I don’t write for the money, because statistically it is difficult to earn enough to quit the day job, but I do write for a specific audience with them buying my books in mind.
    8. Self-doubt keeps you on your toes. Keeps you humble.

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