How to Tell Who WON’T Make It in Writing (and How Not to Be That Writer)

I’ve met thousands of unpublished writers since I started selling my work. I’ve corresponded with at least a couple thousand more. I’ve heard every possible hope and dream about writing, commiserated with sad tales of rejection, cheered over jubilant good news, and listened to more plots than the FBI and more dirt than the parish priest sitting in his confessional.

And I’ve discovered something important. I couldn’t in a million years tell you who among those thousands of hopeful writers will eventually succeed. But I can tell you in about five minutes which writers are guaranteed to fail.

The guaranteed failures among writerdom carry their amateur beliefs and attitudes and methods like a bad perfume – an ever-present cloud of Eau de Doom that rolls off of their bodies and wafts into the noses of publishers and editors who might otherwise be interested in the writer’s work, sending the pros fleeing to green rooms and bathrooms to escape.

If you’re wearing this particular scent, you need to lose it. Fast. Read below for a quick sniff-test, and for the best ways to come clean.

The Writer’s Stench O’ Doom Checklist

  • The Big But

I’m a very good listener, I’m patient, and I’m interested in seeing beginning writers succeed. In consequence, I spend much of my time at conventions and writers’ conferences leaned up against a convenient wall or doorframe, listening to the dreams and aspirations and tales of woe and book descriptions of unpublished or rarely published writers. These writers usually want a listener more than anything, so mostly I just listen. But from time to time, a hopeful writer will ask my advice. I always take my time, give the question my full attention, and try to offer the best answer I can, based on my experience and what I know of the markets and the industry.

About two thirds of the time, my questioner’s immediate response starts off with, “But I can’t do that because . . .”

At which point, I’m out of the conversation. I’m starting to look for a quick exit and just about any exit will do. It isn’t that I think my advice would turn this writer into an overnight success, or even necessarily get his or her manuscript looked at; it isn’t that the writer has hurt my feelings by ignoring me (you don’t get this far in the business without developing a pretty tough hide).

The problem with people who say “But . . .” is that they have already decided that they know everything they need to know about writing. They may be chatting me up in the hopes of networking, or because they want me to tell them that theirs is the most brilliant idea I’ve ever heard. But they aren’t interested in getting published. And they aren’t going to get published.

Of all the possible sins that the hopeful writer can commit, The Big But is the worst. You cannot make excuses for your writing and hope to succeed.

If someone who knows the industry tells you that your manuscript isn’t right for Knopf and you need to submit to other markets, don’t say, “But I only want it to be published by Knopf.”

If a pro tells you that your plot is hackneyed and your characters are thin, “But I intended it to be that way . . .” is decidedly the wrong answer.

If an editor tells you that you’re going to have to give the story a real ending, “But I want to leave the reader in suspense . . .” is going to get you round-filed and lose you a big opportunity.

Here are some of the amazing excuses I’ve heard.

“But the editor can clean up the spelling and the grammar.”

“But I don’t want to write a second book until the first one sells.”

“But the first book is the start of a twelve-book series – the editor has to buy that one first.” (Not necessarily. The editor can buy someone else’s book. If it isn’t selling anywhere, write something different. Something that stands alone, maybe.)

“But if there isn’t sex in every chapter, no one will read the damned thing.”

“But I want it to be hard to read – I want to sell my books to intelligent readers.”

“But it doesn’t need to have a plot – it’s literary.” (This may, in fact, be true – but since the book hadn’t sold, I’m willing to bet that in at least this instance, even the editor of literary books would have welcomed a story that seemed to be going somewhere.)

“But I’m a published writer now; I shouldn’t have to revise.” (I didn’t understand this one either, but I add it for your edification. The writer had sold one book many years earlier and had failed to sell anything else.)

One more time, then. You cannot make excuses for your writing and hope to succeed.

  • Open Mouth – Closed Ears

They sit in the front row of each writing panel at a convention with their arms crossed over their chests, smug smiles on their faces. They know all the answers, and they talk over not just the other attendees, but also the panelists. They corner the pros in the hallways after the panel is over and launch into long spiels about their future publishing career.

Their entire goal in attending is to prove to the writers, editors and publishers there that they know as much about the field as the pros – that they have done their homework – that they are a part of the inner circle.

The problem is that they never shut up long enough to listen to anyone, and as a result they miss the important information they could have gained, and kill the good-will they could have won. Yes, they are smart people; I’ve been talked at by a bunch of ’em. I’ve been amazed by their erudition – but appalled by their ruthless head-on charges and their utter obliviousness to the fact that the very people they hope to impress are gnawing off the arm they’re clutching at the wrist in order to get away from them.

So, if you recognize yourself as being the adult version of the kid in class with his hand always up going “Me, me, me,” here are a couple of tips.

Life is not school.

There is no test.

You don’t get an “A” for shouting out the answers.

Nobody cares how smart you are – they care how willing you are to treat them like equals.

The art of conversation does not consist of thinking of the next witty thing you’re going to say while waiting for the other person to breathe so you can jump in and say it. It consists of actually listening and responding.

If you cannot learn to listen, you will not succeed.

  • Sacred Writ-ism

The third leg of the Holy Trinity of Doom Signs is the phrase “I don’t believe in revision.”

Robert Heinlein offered some wonderful advice to writers, and created some brilliant books and some unforgettable characters, but he also offered this one piece of advice that simply leaves me open-mouthed with disbelief. He said, in his list of rules for writers, “Rule Three: You Must Refrain From Rewriting, Except to Editorial Order.”

This is a great rule if you’re already writing publishable prose. But I’ve had this rule quoted back to me with a sanctimonious little sniff by people whose sentences didn’t parse, whose grammar indicated that the story had been written in one language and translated into a second by someone who only spoke a third and unrelated tongue, whose characters were dead on page one and who wouldn’t have known a plot if one reached up out of the open grave of their manuscripts and strangled them to get their attention.

If you are not writing professionally publishable prose, the only thing that will get you an editorial order for revision is a whole lot of un-ordered revision while you learn what you’re doing.

And the best way to find out if you’re writing professionally publishable prose is to ask yourself this one easy question. “Have I ever had a professional editor (or reputable agent) send me a personal response, telling me that if I fixed something specific in my story, he would buy it (or represent me)?”

If the answer to that question is “no,” you have two choices. You can assume that your work does not yet meet professional standards, or else you can hope that it simply has not yet found its market.

While it would be nice to believe the second, repeated submissions will either confirm this for you (someone will buy it or tell you it’s great and with a few changes, she’ll buy it) or deny it in pretty short order. If you never get any feedback that indicates that you’re close, assume that the work is not yet of professional caliber and get busy revising.

And the variant here for self-publishers is, “Are my books selling steadily and do the people who read them leave mostly positive ratings, and buy my next book when it comes out?” If the answer to those three questions (sales, ratings, and repeat readers) is “no,” you have the same two choices.

If you assume that the words that flow from your fingertips were dictated to you by God and are thus sacred and immune from revision, only you and God are ever going to read them.

Now here’s the good news. No perfume – not even Eau de Doom – sticks forever if you wash it off. Even if you’ve been making excuses, failing to listen, and believing that revision was evil, you can leave your doomed past behind. You can sell your work. Go to it.

NOTE: If this article resonates with you, and you want to meet other writers who share your passion and who are working in a friendly, supportive environment, come hang out with us and make progress on your writing in my free writing community.


26 responses to “How to Tell Who WON’T Make It in Writing (and How Not to Be That Writer)”

  1. Brigitte Pace Avatar
    Brigitte Pace

    This is a great article. It is spot on. Constructive criticism is extremely important for becoming a professional in any given field.

  2. […] How to Tell Who WON’T Make It in Writing (and How Not to Be That Writer […]

  3. Selrisitai Avatar

    I worried as I read the preamble that I’d be in this list. Happily, I got to the end without making an appearance—though that’s not to say I’m not in someone else’s list somewhere!

    These are the obvious, easy ones to avoid. The difficult ones are things like, “You can’t have a cover art that might look like a comic book,” or, “If you self-publish, it’s fairly pointless unless you advertise. You’re basically a business at this point.”

    Oh, man. I’m never gonna make it.

    I’m not gonna give up, either, but the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

    1. Holly Avatar

      Always remember that the obvious, easy obstacles to a career are hills most writers die on.

      If you can write a story worth reading, finish it all the way to the end, revise it well, and get it edited competently, then you will have written a good book.

      If the book is good, you can buy good cover art easily — if you’re broke, there are ways to make your own that don’t suck — but professional covers are always better.

      If you have written something that is worth advertising, there are better and worse ways to do it, and some of the best ways are small, simple, inexpensive, and effective.


      If you make money as a writer, you are a business, so just take a deep breath, learn the business, track your expenses, and get a good accountant so that you stay current on your taxes.

      But first… first… first…

      You have to write, finish, revise, and edit that story that’s worth reading.

  4. Dee Taylor Avatar

    Hello Holly,
    Good to read your advice. I have a manuscript which I believe in. It’s an adventure novel that has pace, and I believe saleable. I do not want to self publish. I am not interested in seeing my work in print for the sake of it. I want to get published by a ‘proper’ publisher, and I don’t mind how long that takes.
    However I’m unsure whether, as an unsolicited author, I have no choice but to self publish. There are so many self publishers advertising their wares, I mistrust that route. Shall I stick it out with ‘proper’ publishers or self publish.
    Yes or no?
    Regards, Dee Taylor(Mr)

    1. Holly Avatar

      Bluntly, you couldn’t pay me to go back to commercial publishing. I had four books I love that were commercially published by a big publisher, then sold in a bundle with a bunch of works by other authors to the odious Hatchette, and are now dying down in the basement on Amazon.

      If I could publish them myself, I could promote them, add them to my personal backlist, write new books in the same world, side-promote them in bundles with other books of mine in the same high fantasy genre, and make money on them every month. Even if it wasn’t a lot, it would be more than I’m making on those four books now.

      I spoke with my agent about getting those books’ rights reverted to me, and his answer was… informative.

      He said, and I quote:

      Looking into this a bit further, I see that you are right, the books are in print in Kindle editions. It may not be possible to get reversions, but I will try. The Big Five publishers have all taken a firm position that an ebook edition is the same as being in print. They are reluctant to allow any exceptions, even for titles that are selling only a few copies, because as soon as they permit it one instant, tens of thousands of other backlist authors will clamor for the same thing. The Big Five love the idea of having hundreds of thousands of backlist ebooks available, which cost nothing in shipping, paper, or warehousing, at a low royalty of 25% of net. It’s free money for them even if it’s only pennies.

      He tried. He failed.

      If you publish commercially now, when you can own ALL your rights forever, you’re crazy. Seriously.

  5. Raghav Avatar

    Hi holly,
    very useful content, I have stumbled on to this blog at the right time, and you are so energetic and humorous, I liked your “The adult version of the kid”.
    Thank you

  6. Terry Tyler Avatar

    Someone sent me this and I can’t tell you how much I love it. Oh, those ‘buts’!!

    I’m a writer, and also read for a reviewing team (not an author-author one; writers on the team can’t submit own work), and every so often we get that writer who can’t accept that 3 of us have given him a 3* (barely scraped) with lots of constructive criticism – because he’s brilliant, right? I’ve virtually ‘met’ so many of the ‘buts’ you describe over the years! And YES – the fantasy (oh no, sorry, ‘created worlds’ writer) who said his books didn’t sell because you needed a certain amount of intelligence to read them, and most people didn’t have that.

    I’ve been self-pubbing for 7 years now and hope I am always improving, because I am always reading stuff and comparing my own work with others’ and learning about structure (from TV shows, too!) – I get mostly very good reviews and readers come back for more. Not always, but you will never appeal to everyone; and you should never stop being critical of your work and looking at ways to improve it. I have talent, yes, otherwise people would only read one of my books, but you have to keep honing it, and never believe that your book is so brilliant that everyone will love it and it must not be criticised. My first ones, looking back, are pretty crap. My later ones, I’m getting proud of.

    1. Holly Avatar

      Just found this. I’m delighted you enjoyed the article. And had to laugh at the “buts” you’ve heard. I’ve had some of those, too. Declaring that the work is too smart to be read by regular people… Have heard that one so many times it hurts. It is infamously the excuse of breathtakingly bad writers with degrees.

    2. Sariah Avatar

      Started this article with a little trepidation and ended with relief. I don’t think I’m guilty of any of those three. Phew!

  7. Javon Avatar

    I just want to compliment you on the site alone. As a particularly young author at just 16, I admittedly lack a great deal of self-confidence, experience, and knowledge of this work at a professional level. Yet I have a dream, and I like to think a talent. This site in the short time since I found it has taught me a lot about the professional writing world and made the thought of pursuing my dream a lot less daunting. So to put it simply, thank you for the advice and I hope to put it into action.

    1. Holly Avatar

      You’re welcome, Javon. Let me know how it goes.

  8. Derek Murphy Avatar

    These are so great – my favorite self-publishing sin is Hubris (“my book is better than Twilight so it’ll will sell”) but these are nice warning symbols too. I’ll include a link here in my article.

  9. Can Avatar

    Thanks holly! i saved this article.


    1. Campbell Avatar

      I hope I do good! It is my biggest dream to become a writer

  10. Maggie Noctis Avatar
    Maggie Noctis

    Okay, that was definitely something. I have since I was very little thought about being a writer. And I do not know if you just killed that thought or inspired it even more. The way you turn writing into business. I mean, I know you are right but it is kind of like you are missing the rest. The happy and amazing part. The part of it that makes me happy. You go on about telling who is not going to cut it. But who says that they are not going to. That the people not following the strict rules are not. I think that you are partly right but you are missing the fact that someone with extreme talent can do almost anything.

    1. Holly Lisle Avatar
      Holly Lisle

      Joy is the primary reason I write. But money to feed my family is the very important secondary reason.

      And talent… Calvin Coolidge has the final say on talent.

      “Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”
      –Calvin Coolidge

      I was a bad writer when I started. It took me seven years of unrelenting persistence to become a good writer whose work sold professionally

      Thinking about writing will never get a book done, and will never let you know how much you still need to learn before you can be a good writer. Only writing can do that.

      I don’t write opinion pieces. I write from what I’ve lived.


    2. Moran Broadhead Avatar

      Hi Maggie!
      I think Holly’s point is this: people who make excuses for why they can’t possibly do something, or refuse to listen to sound advise, or refuse to work at constantly improving their writing — these individuals are displaying attributes of behavior and ways of thinking that almost guarantee they will not succeed in writing at a professional and publishable level. These are most often the kinds of folks who are quick to blame their environment or other people for their failures. Unless they change their mindset and take some personal responsibility, they keep themselves from progressing.

  11. Vickie Morrison Avatar

    Would you read what I’ve written, 8000 words so far. It may not be worth anything but 1) I’ve been driven 2) I’ll make any changes you suggest. It’s not finished.

    1. Holly Avatar

      I won’t, but there are some very good reasons why:

  12. Robert Gillum Avatar
    Robert Gillum

    Duplicate reply: Thanks so much. My two novels so far involve a lot of solo exploration by the main character so I was a bit worried that I would have to do a lot of rewriting.

    PS: Evergreen Planet/A Science Fiction Archery Adventure on Amazon
    Valiant Hearts//Pending final edits(A lion and lad kind of story in WWI times.

    1. Holly Lisle Avatar
      Holly Lisle

      Happy to help.

  13. Robert Gillum Avatar
    Robert Gillum

    In regard to my comments about Burroughs writing, how strict is the one third/two thirds rule in regard to prose and dialogue respectively.

    1. Holly Lisle Avatar
      Holly Lisle

      Not strict at all. I point out in my classes that there’s really only one rule you can’t break as a writer, and that’s “Don’t be boring.” (Said in a lot of different ways, depending on context.)

      Rules of thumb, which the two-thirds/one-thirds rule is, just give you a quick way to scan what you’ve written and see if you’ve dragged on with exposition at the expense of keeping your story moving.

  14. Robert Gillum Avatar
    Robert Gillum

    When Tarzan was in the jungle alone, he lacked anyone with whom to talk, so Burroughs was definitely in violation of the two thirds dialogue, one third prose principle that I understand is in vogue in the publishing industry. Yet, Burroughs Tarzan novels were very popular.

    1. Holly Lisle Avatar
      Holly Lisle

      Styles of writing change across the centuries. Burroughs was phenomenally popular. So were Dickens and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

      But remember, these guys didn’t have to contend with television, the internet, social media, video games, movies, virtual reality, cell phones, and jumping in your car to drive to the beach. Their competition was dinner and getting laid, and the size of families back then suggests even with limited competition, they weren’t completely riveting. 😉

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x