How to be a successful writer (or anything)

Before I begin in earnest I should say a few words about my writing credentials. I have never published a book, I have never had a poem published anywhere of note, I have not earned more than a couple of hundred pounds by writing over the course of my life, I have not had an article or blog post published in the last two years, none of my content has ever gone viral, and I doubt I will ever make a living on writing.

You may now be thinking that I can hardly have much to say about success as a writer, and in some ways you’d be right. Like many aspiring writers, I have struggled to become successful and to achieve anything of worth.

You don’t have to venture very far to be inundated with images of success and of successful people living their best lives. You end up feeling that by comparison you really don’t have too much to show for your years, whether you care about writing or something else.

There’s a lot of advice out there, too. The industry pros and the ones who made it tell us the tips and tricks of the trade so that we too can become as successful as they are.

When we read a blog title like the one above, “How to be a successful X”, we look straight to the “how” because we want to learn the steps that will take us to that elusive “X”. In doing so, we overlook our notions of success.

Success is always a question of criteria. We cannot know that something is successful unless we have some measure, a point at which we can say, “this has met the standard”. The problem with being an unsuccessful writer is that the notion of success goes unquestioned.

As is so often the case when we measure up our lives, we believe that our standards are our own, when more often than not they are the standards of other people (or our fears about the standards of other people) which have crept in.

The hard reality to face is this: what do I think it means to be successful? And is this actually my idea of success, or someone else’s?

In writing, I used to think that it was about how many people read my articles and poems. Traffic and web analytics make it easy to quantify. Making a living out of writing is another way I might have previously measured my success as writer as another quantifiable measurement.

These aren’t really things that I care about, though. I don’t want to write sensational, quick-off-the-press clickbait. I want to write creative essays, poems, blogs, share insight and play with words, write in my journal, write letters to my friends.

Success at writing has become about writing what I want to write, not writing what I think other people want me to write, and then worrying if they like it or not.

Success is always a question of criteria.

Isn’t this the nature of success in so many areas of life? This generation is preoccupied with success and failure, “making it” or going unnoticed. We’ve missed out on whether we actually want what is on offer. We’re trying to score without asking if the goal posts are even in the right place.

Success (and failure) is a measure of fulfilling (or falling short of) a criterion, so we should ask what the criterion is in order to reframe our sense of success/failure. It’s a different way of evaluating our lives.

A couple of years ago, I caught this sinking feeling, like the beginnings of an illness. Eventually a word floated to the surface of my mind, and then sunk right through me like a stone: Failure.

Even admitting that I felt like a failure felt like a failure in itself, an admission that I was not living up to (what I thought were) my own standards. I met the person I’d eventually marry, I earned my degree, got a job, wrote for various publications, travelled a fair bit, but it didn’t matter that life seemed in working order. It didn’t amount to anything. I hadn’t done enough.

Our concern with failure is rife and we’re crushed by our perceived inadequacy. Yet we’re missing out on the fact that we often hold the power to determine our own success and failure. I ask myself what it means to be successful in the context of my life: to be a sensitive and understanding husband, to have meaningful friendships, to contribute to society, to always learn, and to write and write some more.

That’s the catch. The success is in writing, not in who or how many read my writing. The success is in the act of writing itself, in publishing poems and essays on the internet and not minding that the size of the readership will barely fill up a Starbucks.

Maybe this is the wrong question to ask, anyway. Should we ask “why” instead of “how”?

It’s difficult to share writing because it can be so personal, and a rejection of your writing feels like a rejection of you as a person. But in the end, I see success not in whether other people like my writing, but in whether I like it myself. A poem is a success as soon as I’ve shared it, because I’ve put it out there, I’ve accepted that I don’t care about it’s reception.

The other day I wrote this piece about shopping malls and architecture in Manchester. I shared it on the Real Rose Facebook page and also through my personal account. Not a single person gave it a like, but I consider it one of the most successful things I’ve ever written, because I finally shared a piece that I wanted to write without caring about the opinions of others. It’s not a perfect essay by any means, but it’s more the kind of post that I want to produce, the writing that I would like to write more of.

Perhaps this is wishful thinking, having positive thoughts and “being your best self” regardless of your reality. I’m not suggesting that we can think ourselves to fame, achievement, riches, love etc. But then these things aren’t “success” in themselves; these are just some of the outward markers we use to determine the measure of others and of ourselves.

Maybe this is the wrong question to ask, anyway. To ask “how do I…” always presupposes that we are aiming for this thing, this idea of the successful. Should we ask instead, “why” instead of “how”? Why write? Why become a business leader? Why start a companny? Why go traveling?

I apologise if you came here looking for some practical advice to write better content or drive traffic to your website or make money from writing. There are plenty of blogs which can help you with those things, if that’s what you’re looking for.

In the end, we have to ask ourselves whether we want to be miserable living by the standards of others, or content by living up to our own. Reading this reflection won’t get your book published or help you go viral, but hopefully it will make you a more successful writer.