I love blogging, I really do. But as I recently told my Facebook friends, sometimes I get blogger’s block. In response, Facebook friend Caitlin Muir suggested a great topic: “Write about advice you wish someone would have given you.”

So, let’s take a stroll down memory lane and I’ll offer up five examples of what I wish I knew during the early years of my writing career.

1. We’ll start with college. Though this won’t apply to most of you who are in your post-college years, still it’s worth noting. I majored in English and minored in journalism. The English major was almost by default. The truth was, I didn’t have specific plans for a career, although, of course, I hoped to incorporate writing into whatever I eventually did for a living. The advice I wish I had been given is: Major in journalism. Since that’s not an option for most of you, can I suggest instead that you find some good books on the art of journalism and study them. Incorporate good journalistic techniques into your writing. Those techniques include: tight writing, word choice, asking probing questions, and writing for the market you intend to reach. This advice applies to both fiction and non-fiction writers.

2. The second bit of advice will be useful to most aspiring writers. Be patient. I know very few writers who were successful during the first year or two. I recently asked one new writer if she would keep on writing if she knew it would be five years before she was published. Would you keep writing?

3. Twenty years ago I wrote two novels. I remember when I finished the first one, I made a mental note: I did it! I wrote a novel. I must never allow myself to think I can’t do this. If I did it once, I can do it again! I must keep writing!

Well, I did keep writing, but I didn’t attempt a third novel. Oh, I did a couple of proposals with sample chapters, but when they were rejected, I returned to non-fiction. I certainly don’t regret the non-fiction I’ve written, but I do regret dropping the ball with my fiction writing. The advice I wish I’d had? Don’t let up on fiction writing. Keep at it. (Let me hasten to add that on my list of 50+ projects I’d like to write, there are still several novels. I haven’t totally abandoned fiction, I’ve just put it on the back burner…and I wish I hadn’t).

4. The fourth piece of advice has to do with the spiritual life of the writer. The advice would be: trust more, pray more, and listen more carefully to what God is saying. If God is in our writing, He will prosper what He puts on our heart, not necessarily our own ideas of what we should write.

5. The final piece of advice is perhaps the most painful for me personally. I learned the hard way. In both fiction and non-fiction pay attention to voice. Several years ago I wrote a devotional based on the messages a popular singer had given during his concerts. When I was finished, his widow told me I had captured his voice perfectly. And I had. I was able to instinctively pick up the rhythms of the man’s voice. But then fast forward to about three years ago when I had a chance to help a famous actress write her autobiography. After several in-depth interviews and much research, I wrote my sample chapters. But somehow in all my enthusiasm for the project, I forget to pay attention to the voice of the author—in this case, the actress whose first person story I was telling. The book went unpublished. It was my biggest failure as a writer. (But also my greatest adventure…so far!).

How does that apply to you? Just this: no matter whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, your work-in-progress should have a voice. A distinct and true voice. Voiceless writing puts the reader to sleep. Some of the book proposals I review (and reject) are tedious because there’s no voice for any of the characters (fiction) nor for the narrator (non-fiction). They read like term papers.

So there you have the top five pieces of advice I wish someone had given me early on. How about you? What do you wish someone had told you as you began your writing career?

12 replies
  1. Lynn Hare says:

    I wish I’d had a prayer team in place as I began to write. The team emerged gradually with time. I always feel a tangible shift in confidence and creativity when I contact them to pray. Perhaps I could keep them in the loop more often.

    I love what you learned about voice as you wrote the autobiography for the actress. Keep it true. Though the book didn’t get published, way to go acknowledging it was an adventure. If nothing goes wrong, it’s not an adventure, eh?

  2. Nick says:

    Lynn, that’s an excellent observation. I’m just now convinced of the importance of having a prayer team in place and will be asking for a few volunteers shortly. I want to thank you for your prayers for my writing.

  3. Michele Huey says:

    Great piece, Nick — and I identified with everything you wrote.
    1. I, too, majored in English by default — I wanted to be a writer. But I fell in love with teaching on my first day in front of a class as a student teacher. So writing went on the back burner for 30 years.
    2. Patience — but I’m also learning persistence , perseverance.
    3. I, too, wrote two novels, then backed off in disappointment and discouragement when both went to committee, but didn’t sell. I’m taking the Christian Writers Guild’s Craftsman fiction writing course and am working on another novel. Have ideas for a few more, too. I can’t give up. The muse won’t let me.
    4. My daily prayer is for God to place His desires in my heart and pluck out my own desires so that I will be in alignment with His will. Prayer is a vital part of the writing process.
    5. Voice — as long I I don’t think too hard, as long as I let my heart guide my writing, the voice develops.
    Thanks for this excellent blog.
    Keep writing!

  4. B J Bassett says:

    Great blog, Nick.

    Read every writing book and writing magazine you can get your hands on. The library is a great source. These publications are full of instructions and advice.

  5. Lynn Hare says:

    Paul, glad to be praying for you. Your writing is top-shelf and so are you. Thanks for providing specifics to pray for. Happy to be part of your team.

  6. Lydia Harris says:

    I appreciate each of these points, especially number four to listen more and pray more. I value my prayer team and send them weekly updates. Their prayers are a tremendous gift and keep me going.

    Some of the best advice I received when I began writing was to attend conferences. I try to attend one or two each year. It’s a privilege to meet authors, editors, and agents and learn from their experiences and teaching (including your workshop on voice at OCW). God has used conferences to encourage me and direct my writing goals. It’s an exciting journey. Thanks for your guidance along the way.

  7. Kathleen D. Bailey says:

    Nick, much food for thought. I have so many regrets — made every mistake a green writer could make, including losing my temper with an acquisitions editor who was moving “too slow.” (If only I’d known then how long things take!) Majored in English Lit with no journalism but am a journalist now because I learned it on the job, and on the street. The journalism has really helped with my fiction writing, keeping it tight and clean of most copy errors — and boy, can I make a deadline! Still haven’t published any fiction, but getting better buzz from contests and such.
    If I had to choose my biggest mistake in the earlier years, it would be trying to do things on my own instead of waiting for God’s timing. You can’t look at this like you do a secular career. You just can’t. It’s about the journey. I still get frustrated, but it’s easier to rein myself in.
    Michele, I also have a problem with voice. That’s the downside of my journalism background — it’s hard to put myself back in after taking myself OUT.
    Lydia, I so enjoy your “tea” columns in Country Register! So nice to connect with you here!
    Kathy Bailey
    New to Nick’s blog

  8. Kathleen D. Bailey says:

    Michele, sorry, I thought you were the one who had the problem with voice, it was Nick.
    BJ is right about reading craft books etc. If one is on a budget, most libraries have them.
    I REALLY want a prayer team! I have scattered people praying here and there, but no formal organization. Hmm.
    Kathy Bailey

  9. Lydia Harris says:

    I wrote an article on how to form a prayer team for your writing. If you would like to read it, contact me on Facebook with your e-mail address and I’ll send it to you.

    Kathleen, I’m glad you enjoy my column, “A Cup of Tea with Lydia.” I have fun writing it–and sipping tea.

  10. Kathleen D. Bailey says:

    Earl Grey in a china cup. It’s transcendental!
    I also like the fact that you’re a Christian, which comes through in the tea column even though Country Register is a secular publication.
    Talk soon,

  11. Kathy Bailey says:

    My shorthand for things I wish I’d done (which is most of the things I DIDN’T do) is HIBK (Had I But Known). Sigh. “Regrets, I’ve got a few.” But with God there’s always another year and another chance.
    Kathy Bailey

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