Are Your Writing Dreams Unrealistic?

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(Image from Flickr by Lennixx.)

Sometimes, I get emails like this:

I enjoyed your blog post on making money from your writing. I’d love to make a living writing but I don’t know if that’s unrealistic.

I can tell you now … it’s not.

I make a living writing, and I know lots of other (pretty normal!) people who do too.

But sometimes, I get emails more like this:

I’ve written to dozens of writers, telling them all about my background and my writing ambitions. I want someone to mentor and help me get my book, How to Avoid Papercuts, published and sell a million copies.

(They usually go on a fair bit longer than that.)

The truth? It’s an unrealistic ambition. First-time books by unknown authors (especially on topics that interest the author and pretty much no-one else) just aren’t going to become bestsellers.

And, nice as it might be to imagine a top writer spotting how talented you are and helping you out … every writer I know is busy enough with their own projects and their own life.

It’s Nice to Daydream, But…

This dream of being “spotted” by someone in the industry – whether it’s a well-known writer, an agent, or a publisher – is understandably popular.

Maybe you hope that if you send your manuscript to the right person, they’ll love it and do everything in their power to help you.

Maybe you hope that someone super-influential will stumble across your blog, share it with their 100,000 Twitter followers, and give you the big break you’ve been waiting for.

But … there are an awful lot of other aspiring novelists and bloggers out there who’d love the same thing.

And while you are talented, they are too.

This is good news. (Really!)

Your success is in your hands. You don’t need to wait for months – years, decades – in the hope that someone will stumble across you and love your work.

You can get out there and start on the path to your dreams right now. You’ll get a huge head-start on all those other hopeful, would-be writers … because you’re actually doing something, rather than sitting and waiting for success to appear.

But first…

Getting a Clear Idea of Your Talents

Now, obviously, to achieve pretty much any writing goal (whether it’s “sell 2,000 copies of my book” or “become a full-time freelance writer”), you need to be good at writing.

You don’t need to be amazing. You just need to be good.

Now, you may not be quite there yet – and that’s fine. Whatever stage you’re at, there’s always room for improvement.

And every writer you know started out in exactly the same place. They weren’t born able to write. Gradually, over many years, they got to where they are today. (One excellent illustration of this is Charlie Gilkey’s post Becoming Yourself and Growing Your Blog, where he looks at how several popular bloggers’ styles changed as they found their voice.)

Many writers worry, quite unnecessarily, that they aren’t good enough.

I’m confident (because it’s held true for so many of the writers I’ve worked with) that you are a better writer than you think.

Here are some simple ways to know if your writing is good enough for your dreams to be realistic:

  • Have you ever had a post published on a reasonably large blog (say, 2,000+ subscribers)?
  • Have you ever had an article published in a local newspaper or a special interest magazine, however small its circulation?
  • Have you ever been paid for your writing?
  • Has anyone ever complimented you on your writing?

If you can say yes to any of those, you’re good enough!

And even if none of those are true right now, there’s every chance you could make one or more of them happen in the next six months.

Here’s What “Realistic” and “Unrealistic” Look Like

Run your own writing dreams past these and see whether they look more like the “realistic” or “unrealistic” options.

(Often, the only real difference is giving yourself more time for a goal, or being willing to take on some extra activities like marketing.)

Keep in mind that “realistic” doesn’t mean easy. All of these would require plenty of hard work, and willingness to learn.

Realistic: Making a Living Writing

I believe this is a realistic option for almost every writer – and if you want some help in knowing what to do first, check out Seven Crucial First Steps For Your Writing Career here.

Plenty of other people just like you are already writing full-time. They’re no smarter than you. But they took the first steps toward becoming a professional writer … and carried on from there.

Unrealistic: Making a Living Writing About That Obscure ’70s TV Show You Love

This one’s not impossible. If you can build a popular blog (hey, there are bound to be other fans out there in the world), you may well be able to monetize it through ads or affiliate product sales.

But you’ll have a much easier time making a living writing if you focus on topics that plenty of people want to read about, or that companies want to pay you to write about.

Realistic: Becoming a Full-Time Novelist in the Next Five Years

With the ease of self-publishing today, novelists have an unprecedented amount of control over their careers.

Getting good at writing fiction takes time (and you may want to take a course, join a workshop group, and hire an editor), but if you give yourself five years and write for half an hour a day, you could easily produce three full-length novels.

Unrealistic: Becoming a Full-Time Novelist in the Next Five Months, When You’ve Not Yet Started Your Novel

Even if you write at NaNoWriMo speeds, you’re going to need time for editing, publishing and promotion … and authors are almost never able to make enough money from their first novel to actually live on.

It may well take you three novels, five novels, or more to get to the point where your sales can support you full time.

Realistic: Building a Popular Blog with 30,000 Subscribers

Building a blog isn’t rocket science. If you write great, interesting posts, and promote them through guest posting on similar blogs regularly, you will grow your blog. (Easier said than done, I know!)

With 30,000 email subscribers, your blog could easily support you. Let’s say you have an ebook plus video sequence that costs $10 to buy. If you sold to just 1% of your subscribers each month (300 copies), you’d make $3,000 per month, or $36,000 per year.

Unrealistic: Building a Popular Blog with 30,000 Subscribers with an “If I Write It, They Will Come” Approach

Ever since I started blogging in 2008, there’s been a myth in the blogging world that all that matters is writing great content. The theory is that if your posts are good enough, readers will share them, link to them, and you’ll get tons of traffic and subscribers.

The truth is that – particularly in the early stages – you need to promote your blog yourself. That means networking with other bloggers and supporting one another, guest posting on other blogs, being interviewed on podcasts, and so on.

 

Now, “unrealistic” doesn’t mean that any of these are impossible. I’m sure there are people who write about obscure ’70s TV shows and do well. I’m sure there are first-time novelists who make enough to quit their job. And I’m sure there are popular blogs that somehow got there by accident.

But do you really want to hold out the hope of being one in a million … or would you rather take things step by step until you reach your goals?

Personally, I’d rather be realistic. I’d rather work hard, take ownership of my dreams, and stand or fall by my efforts.

I don’t want to be that writer who, twenty years down the line, is still waiting for success to just happen.

 

How about you? What’s your writing dream? Does it feel realistic, unrealistic, or somewhere in between? Share it with us in the comments below.

Thanks for commenting! I read all comments, and reply to as many as I can. Please keep the discussion constructive and friendly. Thank you!

17 thoughts on “Are Your Writing Dreams Unrealistic?

    • Thanks Elizabeth! “Realistic” can encompass a huge range of writing goals… I think many writers worry they’re being overly optimistic when they actually have perfectly reasonable, achievable ambitions.

  1. Hi Ali,
    What a great post! I really enjoyed it.
    I think you set the right balance between realistic yet hopeful and encouraging!
    Great observations and great advice!
    Cheers!

  2. Dear Ali, wonderful post. As a published author and former publisher I second everything you’ve said above, and good on you for holding out realistic hope to new writers. Writers who contact me after receiving critiques on my Blog, Free Literary Mentor, often say that they’re glad they obtained a professional critique of their novel before sending to to agents/publishers and I think that’s something all budding novelists can bear in mind: yes you’re alone in your efforts and there’s lots of work on the table but in that crucial stage between having completed your novel, and thinking about submitting, you can find advice on the work itself: FLM for instance offers free, CONSTRUCTIVE critiques and display of an extract from the writer’s novel. Readers and writers of new fiction, you’re welcome at http://www.cherylhingley.com/ Sincerely, Cheryl Hingley

  3. Great post! I especially enjoyed this part right here: It’s Nice to Daydream, But…
    Encouraging and yet realistic at the same time.
    Thank you!

  4. Hi Ali,

    Thank you so much for the great post. My writing dream is to slowly build a freelance writing business. The “reality” is that I have not been published yet. Therefore, as some successful freelance writers have advised, I will work on a pro-bono basis for non-profits to build up my credentials. I think this is more realistic than assuming that anyone will take me on without experience.

    • Sorry for the slow reply, Connie! I think you’re doing exactly the right thing: some initial pro-bono work is a great way to build up your credentials (and personally I found it reassuring to get some experience before starting to charge for my writing). You may well also find that, as well as providing testimonials, the people you work for initially are very happy to refer you on to potential paying clients.

  5. I hope that one day soon I can achieve becoming a novelist, for some reason that word just made me think of Krist Novoselic, the basist of Nirvana. I’ve been told by some people that I’m the most creative person that they have ever met. I generally have low self-esteem, primarily because I am bipolar type 1. I have a difficult time working in a standard environment, i.e. thoughts race too fast and I have too much energy, or I get so depressed that I might walk out of the building and commit suicide. While I do have some problems I have very high aspirations and ambitions. Writing currently is the only thing keeping me going. I enjoyed your article. Very encouraging.

    Ciao,
    Alex

    • Best of luck with your novelling, Alex! I think a lot of writers don’t really suit a 9 – 5 office job sort of environment (I know I didn’t). Good on you for setting ambitious goals for yourself, and I’m glad this was an encouraging piece to read. 🙂

  6. Thank you! I’ve been wanting to be a writer, however I just started high school a month ago, so I have my whole life ahead of me and I love writing and have been told by many that I’m amazing at it. But since I still have so much time, I didn’t want to go for it if it was so unrealistic because I could spend all my time in high school aiming for something more realistic like becoming a Zoologist (which is what I was planning if I found being an author too unrealistic) but, I honestly don’t care if I’m the next Edgar Allen Poe or not (I enjoy writing horror), I just want to be paid enough to live comfortably while I have a great time writing. Now I feel confident enough to go for my dreams so thank your for giving me the courage!

    • Absolutely go for it! You’re at a fantastic point in life to get stuck into writing (I was your age when I got started). It sounds like you’ve already had some great feedback. 🙂 Very best of luck, keep me posted on how it goes for you!

  7. I just read this article – I’m only two years late! But I found it very interesting and encouraging. My paid job and some “health problems” forced me to take a long break from writing and I am only starting to think about going back to it now. So my short-term goal would be to go back to writing at least once a week. I think that’s pretty realistic.
    My long-term goal would be to write a novel and get it published by an editor as a “real” book. You know, something you can hold in your hand. I don’t have a deadline for this and I don’t need it to become a bestseller, only to exist one day. I know it’s difficult, maybe even more nowadays, but I hope it’s still somewhat realistic.

    Well and then there’s that a bit unrealistic dream of living in the countryside with some horses and writing books (or articles) that comes back when I’m exhausted from my current job (that I love btw)… But that’s just dreaming and that’s okay.

    • I’m so glad it’s still being read! 🙂 And also really glad it was encouraging.

      Getting back into writing after a break can be surprisingly hard. I think your short term goal sounds like a sensible and realistic one: good luck with it. 🙂

      I think getting a novel published is still a perfectly realistic goal — and there are a lot of small presses out there as well as big name publishers, so there are lots of options.

      Nothing wrong with daydreaming, either!

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