What Distinguishes a “Real Writer” From “Someone Who Writes”

Folks in publishing send letters gushing about work they’re about to reject.

Posted Jul 22, 2014

What distinguishes a “real writer” from “someone who writes” is the willingness not simply to write something, but to rewrite it.

Revision is the hardest part of the process. I resist editing and revising far more than I resist the blank page.

It makes me nuts to look at a first draft. But I also know that it’s the only way that my work gets better.

If you write, you need to be able to revise; you need to take criticism and work with it — even harsh criticism.

And here's a warning I offer all my students, my colleagues, and my writerly friends when they're first starting out: If you get a letter from a legitimate publishing house that starts off with gushing praise concerning the texture or lyricism of your lovely prose, you're about to be rejected.

If someone in the publishing industry begins a letter with, “You’re a truly gifted writer,” you know you will be dismissed. They're letting you down easy.

The phrase, “You have talent” is always going to be followed with a “but.” That’s just the way it is.

If they like it, however, they'll tear it to pieces — and accept it.

I've learned this the hard way.

If the agent or the editor doesn't like your submission, they'll tell you that it doesn't fit in with the rest of their list. Yet because they're basically nice folks--and because it might turn out that you've written the next blockbuster despite their lack of enthusiasm — they'll reassure you that someone else at another publishing house will be able to give the kind of attention it deserves since you have a remarkable way with words, etc., etc..

Don't save the letter or quote it to other people. It's a form letter. It's publishing's version of "It's me, not you."

When you hand someone a manuscript you love, something you’ve poured your heart into and the first thing they say is, “This might have some promise of a good first draft if you're willling to go back and rework it entirely,” your instinct might be to impale yourself on the nearest sword  (after all you’ve just given somebody the best thing you’ve ever done, and they’ve told you that you might have made a good beginning) but it's actually cause for celebration.

The amateur will recoil and defend; the professional will take a deep breath and say, “What can I do differently?” True, when somebody looks at your favorite line and says, “This is over the top, you’ve got to get rid of it,” it’s difficult to navigate the ensuing emotions: rage, despair, and bitterness. But getting rid of your best line, your favorite character, or what you consider to be your most perfect scene is usually excellent advice because these are the things that make you wince ten years down the line.

Like the outfit you loved when you were thirteen which now appalls you, your favorite line doesn’t necessarily show your best judgment — or illustrate your best writing.

You can't permit yourself to spend all your time revising, however. You also need to Do Other Things. If you spend all your time reworking sentences, you'll never get past those 90 pages everybody has in their top drawer (one novelist friend says that's the cut-off point: if you can't get beyond those 90 pages, you need to start a new book). Like any other endless project, endless revision can force you to lose perspective on your own vision.

So revise, revise, revise--and then send it out.

This is probably the place to say that most writers have some other kind of job. They might write catalogue copy for LL Bean. They might write press releases for a not-for-profit group, or write in-house newsletters for a corporation, or do small pieces for a local newspaper, or they might work at a bookstore and do their PR materials. Unless you have a private income, it’s virtually impossible to live on what you can make selling words even when you're good at it.

Day jobs are an excellent thing. They also stop you from taking yourself too seriously.

The working writers write I know — and I know a lot of them — sit and produce pages because if they don't, they feel terrible. You write not to feel terrible.

For many of us, it's not any fancier than that.