I was reading my journals from 2006 – 2008 recently, the period I wrote and published my first book. It was incredible how fast I expected everything to happen.
I had written down positive thoughts about getting on Oprah, quitting my job, selling 100,000 copies on launch.
And all this as an unknown author with no website, no email list, no social media, no platform … not to mention no publisher as I was indie even back then.
But as Tony Robbins says, “It's easy to over-estimate what we can achieve in a year, but underestimate what we can achieve in 10 years.”
When I look back at the Joanna Penn I was back then, I had no idea that I would be where I am today, ten years later, with 27 books written, running a multi-six-figure business, a New York Times and USA Today bestseller.
So take heart from today's article from Phil Hurst today, because we all started with nothing and we all progress one step at a time, one day at a time, one sentence at a time.
It is not easy to have patience, especially in our modern world. As with the rest of life, there is often a compulsion to push forward and get as much done as possible as quickly as possible.
It's easy to feel overwhelmed by the choices available on the web.
It can be easy to feel like you're missing the bus, especially when you see social media posts from friends and peers celebrating their latest success.
The urge to simply finish your word count and churn out hundreds of stories, scripts or novels has never been greater.
So why suggest that writers need more patience? Surely the opposite is true, that you should be writing more and getting as much out to publishers, agents and competitions as quickly as possible?
For writers, however, patience isn't just a virtue: it's also a skill you'll need to develop. If you take your time you'll find that being a patient writer brings a number of advantages over being one who rushes.
Patient writers finish more, write to a better standard, work sensibly and are – in the long run – more productive.
The Patient Writer Finishes The Story
- What are you working on at the moment?
- Is it the same thing you were working on last week?
- Why did you move away from last week's work?
The abundance of opportunities around makes it extremely difficult to concentrate on one thing at a time. Going on Facebook can alert you to a competition. A friend can text you about an anthology they are putting together. A publisher who you think would be a perfect fit tweets that it is finally accepting open submissions.
However, if you are impatient and start working on the next thing before you finish your first, you risk having a pile of nearly finished work.
It should be obvious that you need to actually finish a project before you start on the next one, but it's a sin that writers will always be guilty of. Not that you should be angry with yourself if you have done this in the past – I think everyone has had their head turned like this.
If you are dependent on the income from your books, flip-flopping between projects can end up having a significant impact on your financial situation. Half-finished books can't be sold.
There is a lot of competition out there, and by not finishing your current story you risk losing customers and fans.
Patient writers, on the other hand, stay focused on what they are working on. They ignore other potential projects – or more likely file them away for later consideration – knowing that finishing one project is worth much more than starting twenty.
Then, no matter how long it's taken them, the patient writer has one finished story, while the rushing writer has nothing but good starts and promising ideas.
The Patient Writer Creates Quality Work
Have you ever written a text message at speed? I can always tell when someone has written a text quickly, as it very rarely makes sense. The message is lost in a jumble of incorrect auto-corrects, random pronouns and letters popping up in the middle of sentences for no reason.
I usually have to reply with “what?” which prompts them to write the message again… and taking up more time.
Writing anything while rushing does not lead to high quality. Every time you write something, take the time to go back and look over it again. You'll catch things that you don't like and things that you would like to change.
Too many writers rush through to draft one and then, utilising that well-earned rush of adrenaline, immediately send it out to interested people without fully checking what they have sent.
If you're an independent writer and publisher, rushing a novel through to completion creates additional risks. Taking your time will improve the final product that you put out. You'll catch more of the misspellings, the typos and the formatting errors. How many times have you seen an advertisement or a newspaper with the wrong spelling, or wrong version of “your”?
Although with e-publishing you can always go back and fix those errors, by that time your fans will have already downloaded the first version.
Early reviews are really important if your book is going to build up a following and you don't want three stars instead of five because of grammatical errors.
I get that it's exhausting to keep looking back and forth at your work. That you want to draw a line under something and move on to the next.
But by taking your time and giving yourself a chance to look over everything at least once, you'll end up with a much better story at the end of it. You'll find that a side effect of this patient approach is that when you send that double-checked story away for the wider world to look at, you'll have more confidence in it.
The Patient Writer Sets Realistic Deadlines
Trying to get something finished just in time for a competition might force you to get words down on paper, but it won't increase your chances of winning.
Although sometimes it's helpful to have your hat in the ring, most competitions nowadays do not want hastily written first drafts or scraped together stories. They want something that is polished and shows your skills as a writer – they want to see both the actual story and refined, well-crafted technical aspects.
The last minute rush won't let you do that. So instead of looking at the next deadline, look to a realistic one. Take your time.
Most competitions are repeated every 12 months. So do you really need to stay up until 4 in the morning finishing the final chapter? What's stopping you waiting until next year and sending the judges something really strong to think about? By not being reactive you will have the time to seek feedback on an entry before you submit it.
This doesn't just apply to competitions on the internet, it also applies to people who might ask you for contributions to anthologies, or to help them co-write a book.
Remember, you are under no obligation to provide something for every opportunity that comes up. Far better to take your time and have a couple of pieces of high quality work than half dozen middling ones. The patient writer has fewer rejection letters and a better chance of winning.
Of course, some writers will have agents or other external people setting deadlines for them. The craft here is slightly different. You need to talk to them, let them understand your constraints and your capacity before they suggest a deadline for you.
Rather than accepting an unrealistic deadline, ask them to be patient so that you can craft a really strong final product for them. After all, that's what they want, surely?
The Patient Writer Is More Productive
Being patient is not the same thing as being lazy. I want to stress that.
I write about increasing productivity, so I wouldn't want to recommend a technique that stops you from writing!
Being patient is all about making sure that you are creating a few strong stories (rather than lots of weak ones) at a timescale that doesn't break you. Break any impulse for laziness by planning out your time before a submission carefully. When do you want to reach this milestone, when do you want to finish this chapter?
Being a patient writer is about taking some of the stress out of the process for new writers. It's about concentrating on one project, rather than dozens.
Take time to really get to know your characters. Learn the plot inside out. Visit the locations you talk about, or spend some time researching them properly.
Once the manuscript is finished, patient writers will also save time in the long run. Patient writers have fewer revisions to make and more time to work on their next project.
It can be demoralizing and time-consuming to search through an entire completed work to change a few typos that you know you would have caught with just one more read earlier.
Financially, it makes sense to be patient and get your book right first time. Reprints and re-releases are additional costs that can (mostly) be avoided, if you take your time in the first place.
Remember, all we need is just a little patience…
It can sometimes feel counter-intuitive to work this way, and I know that some of you won't want to become patient writers. It's against our nature to put all our eggs in one basket. But I would really encourage you to try this, even if it's only for a year.
Remember the four key points from this post:
- Take the time to finish your next story completely.
- Look over the story, take your time, refine it.
- Set yourself deadlines you can actually meet.
- Plan this new abundance of time well, so that you can make the most of it.
How do you balance the drive to be productive with the necessity for publishing quality books? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
Phil Hurst runs a blog dedicated to helping writers be more productive at www.writewithphil.com. His aim is to give new writers the tools that they need to make the most of whatever time they have.
Phil has a master's in Creative Writing from Queens University Belfast. As well the blog, he has writes novel and scripts and has had plays performed in London and Birmingham. His first novel, The Unjudged, is due out in 2018.
I took my time reading this article, practicing patience, and savored each point made. Well done!
Philip Hurst says
Thanks! I’m a naturally impatient person, so learning to slow down was a big step for me. I’m glad you enjoyed the post.
Maria Staal says
Great post, Phil!
It took me three years to produce my first fiction manuscript and not only did my story become much better, I was able to built a solid world, where I can now easily add things to.
Consequenlty, my second book in the series is coming off the ground much easier.
Was it easy to restrain myself and not publish the fist book fast? No it wasn’t. But I’m so glad that I listened to the gut feeling that told me the book and the world weren’t ready yet to be seen.
Now I reap the rewards. 🙂
Phil Hurst says
I love those stories that mature with the writer. I’m a big believer that you can almost feel those tales that have been a labour of love. The world seems to just come alive…
Hannah Ross says
Understanding the points made here can be the difference between an author quitting it and making it.
Just last night, my husband asked (once again), “Are there any royalties forthcoming? Maybe this whole writing business doesn’t pay off, and you should move on to something else?”
He is not being negative. It’s just that, like many people not in the writing industry, he doesn’t understand how slow and tricky this business can be. Quick successes are actually outliers.
I started querying in 2014. I had gone to indie publish in 2015, got my first publishing contract in 2016, and have released several books independently. My following and sales are just beginning to pick up with my last indie novel… and I think that’s entirely reasonable. No, it’s not a get rich quick scheme. Maybe it’s not a get rich scheme at all. But I’m pretty confident my income from writing will eventually grow and stabilize if I persevere.
If I quit, it most certainly never will.
Joanna Penn says
I hear you, Hannah. It is a long journey and definitely not a get rich quick scheme. Also, money is only one definition of success. Part of the reason we write is because we can’t stop writing 🙂 so even if you only make enough for dinner out now and then, the creative satisfaction of finishing a project is worth it.
Agree with the need to complete a novel and then go through the re-write process. Critiques are really useful and definitely helped with my first two novels. My third novel was science fiction. I determined to complete this novel after numerous re-writes of individual chapters. The plot was straightforward, but writing required enormous in put. Imaginative technological idea had to be ahead of the rapid scientific advances we hear about from week to week. Deadlines are seen as worrisome, but some of us need a bit of pressure. I’ve submitted a sequel sea novel. It was the intention to write this in 2015, following on from my first sea novel. A break for a few years has probably been beneficial. Not sure when exactly it occurs , but probably at about the twentieth chapter the level of commitment increases and I believe you need to complete a first draft, even though you’re not satisfied with “X” number of chapters!
Hannah Ross says
Certainly, I couldn’t stop writing if I tried! But I was pretty content to stay an amateur and just write for fun… until our family hit the bottom of the financial pit and I, a rural homeschooling mom with no car and very limited means, started asking myself, “What am I good at that could bring me a home-based income?”
My goals really aren’t that lofty. Mostly, I want to avoid ever repeating a situation when I have to look at my children and explain why they can’t have rain boots for the winter.
Joanna Penn says
That is a very powerful drive 🙂 Wishing you all the best
J.P. Choquette says
Sending good wishes your way, Hannah. I think that is the loftiest of goals–providing for your family–and hope you have a lot of success, creative and financial, in the months and years to come.
J.P. Choquette says
This post was so timely. For the first time since beginning to self-publish in 2013, I’ve been vacillating between two different books, both in completed first-draft format. While I was doggedly working away at one (the first of the two) I’m trying to research the second. I get so inspired by the research though, that I want to put the first book away so I can focus solely on the second…and back and forth it has been going.
This morning I decided that I MUST finish these books in chronological order, if only for my own peace of mind…and then I read this article and it cemented the decision. Project Two will be there when I’m finished with this manuscript, and I’ll be a more focused and (hopefully) a more patient writer learning through this experience. Thanks for another excellent post!
Bonnie Lacy says
Yup. Me too, J. P.
Staying focused on W. I. P. !
Great post. Encouraging.
LM Milford says
I think this is possibly one of the most useful articles I’ve read in a long time. I self published my first novel last year and am now desperately trying to finish the second one as quickly as I can to get it out there. I’ve also read lots of articles about authors who produce four books a year, or more, and wonder why I can’t work that quickly. However, this article reminds me of The Hare and The Tortoise – slow and steady wins the race. Thanks Phil, for a great reminder to give myself permission to slow down and get it right, rather than just getting it finished!
Phil Hurst says
Wow! Thanks LM, I’m glad the article helped. It’s so important to have that bigger picture mentality sometimes – I do believe that stories that have had time to grow in an authors mind are obvious. Of course, there’s a balance everyone has to strike between getting something written ‘perfectly’ and getting something out to your fans!
lol – I identify with the image of the tortoise! Unfortunately I haven’t won any races yet. Maybe next year. 😀
Amanda Richey says
Thanks for this great article.
Patience is really something that we all have to learn and re-learn. In these days and age where everything is always a race, I tend to rush many things or get distracted by small things.
Thanks for reminding me that I need to take time to look over my work, set a realistic due date and manage my schedule better.