- Michael Thompson
Don’t kill your darlings
“This is just a theory, but I think I know why your writing gained traction — you lived 30+ years without a smartphone!”
My friend Jake Daghe recently said this to me and I couldn’t help but agree. When I began writing, the fact I couldn’t rely on technology to entertain myself growing up made it easy to consistently come up with stories to tell.
But regardless of the experiences I had, I still needed to learn how to write in a way that made my articles memorable and helpful to the people reading them.
Like anyone pursuing creative work, I made a ton of mistakes starting out. But I also made some decisions that turned out to be pretty smart and below you’ll find my top 5.
1. I choose my teachers carefully
Early on in my sales career, I asked a top performer to help me prepare a proposal for a client. But instead of sitting down with me, he said — “It’d be easier if I just did it for you!”
I’ll never forget that as it taught me a valuable lesson: just because someone is great at something, doesn’t mean they’re the best teacher for you.
This thought popped into my head when I began writing. As a result, instead of chatting up top writers, I reached out to a good writer with a reputation as a great editor and an even better teacher and paid him to walk me through my first few articles.
This investment of a few hundred dollars and 10 hours of time is still paying off today. While working with him, as someone who hadn’t written more than a few sentences in close to two decades, within 2 months I got featured in Fast Company, INC, Thought Catalog, Elephant Journal, and Thrive Global. Not only that, but I can now support my family with part-time editing work and helping people get quickly featured in mainstream publications where I’ve built solid relationships.
If you’re new to the writing world, think hard about the type of teacher you need. Reach out to them to speed up the time it takes you to move from crap to decent. If you can’t afford an experienced coach or editor, join a community of experienced writers with varying styles and steal what resonates and disregard what doesn’t.
People love to say there aren’t any shortcuts to success. But when it comes to writing, you can absolutely cut the line. All you have to do is surround yourself with teachers who will help you learn how to write well.
2. For every article I published, I reached out to a writer I liked
Every week for the past 3 years, I’ve gotten on a call with a writer whose words I connected with. But again, instead of going after Elizabeth Gilbert or Ryan Holiday, I reached out to people who were around the same place as me or a year or so ahead.
This was one of the best decisions I’ve made not only professionally, but also personally. Over the years, some of these people have not only become regular fixtures in my life. But we’ve also grown out our careers together which has made writing that much more meaningful.
Find your crew of people to hang out with. If you can’t find a tribe, make one. Then do whatever you can to lift each other as you climb together.
If I’ve learned anything during my writing journey it’s that the key to long-term creative endeavors is doing whatever the hell you can to make it not feel like work. You gotta figure out a way to extend the fun.
Getting to know other writers will help with that. Your days will not only be more interesting. But their mere presence will also help you push through the hard days which increases the odds of keeping at it.
3. I forced myself to sit on articles for a few days
I sent a draft to my dad for review. I was expecting it to be littered with red marks. But as I scrolled through his revisions, I was shocked by the lack of critiques. Unfortunately, the idea I’d written a 10 outta 10 was short-lived as waiting for me at the end of the document were the words — “Would you want your writer crush to see this?”
I was eager to argue back. I wanted to explain the world had changed and in order for people to see my work, I needed to publish a lot. But the more I thought about his comment, the more I began to see his point. Fast forward to today and I’ve never once thought to myself something I wrote ended up worse after I let it breathe for a few days.
Your job when starting out is to determine which kind of writer you want to be.
Some people want to quickly get their ideas into the world to see how they hit. Others want to dive deep into topics they’re passionate about and write the best article they can.
For me personally, I want people to click on my articles because of my name and not only because it’s a good title. For this to happen, I need to take my time as more times than not, my best thoughts don’t come until my third or fourth draft.
But don’t let what I do influence you. There is no wrong or right way to write, only your way. Just keep in mind if you go the quantity route, you’re waiving your right to complain as your practice reps may not compete with professional posts.
4. I ignored the advice to kill my darlings
Everyone loves to quote the words made famous by Stephen King, “Kill your darlings.” And don’t get me wrong, I’m big on editing and making sure every word serves a purpose.
But why kill something when all you have to do is delete it and move it over to another document with all your other favorite thoughts and lines that didn’t make the cut?
Keeping a collection of all the unused thoughts and sentences you like will not only save you time in the future. But it will also help spark ideas.
If you want to make it as a writer, what you collect is just as important, if not more so, than the words you publish. This includes not only the lines you get rid of but also any story, quote, or idea that crosses your mind that could make its way into a future article. Keeping copious notes will speed up your ability to publish good stuff faster as you’ll be working off a puzzle instead of staring at a blank page.
In short, your million dollar paycheck is found in the notes you keep.
5. I focused solely on writing and I didn’t worry about marketing
“Don’t waste time marketing. Instead, focus on getting so good at writing that other people feel compelled to share your work!”
A friend of mine said these words to me when I was starting out and I’m so glad I listened to him.
When I think of not only myself, but also my friends who’ve moved from amateur to pro, there’s always a moment when they made a commitment to themselves to block out the noise and focus solely on getting good at their craft.
During your first year, prioritize writing, reading, getting to know other writers, and learning how to properly edit over spending your time messing around on Twitter (unless it’s to test your ideas to get feedback). This is especially true if your work isn’t very good.
Learning how to write great articles other people want to share is a much better strategy than publishing average work and spending time trying to get people to read it.
Tying it all together
I couldn’t imagine starting my writing career today. It’s gotta be hard to block out the idea that you can make money doing it. But fight like hell to play the long-game. One of the best parts about artistic pursuits is there’s no such thing as retirement and the faster you get the basics tight the longer you’ll get paid to play.
- Choose quality teachers and embrace the mindset of an apprentice.
- Find your crew of creatives and be good to each other.
- Take your time to think about what kind of writer you want to be.
- Never throw away your ideas and treat your notebook like gold.
- Focus on writing until people start sharing your work.
Last but not least, if you’re having trouble coming up with things to write about, put down your phone and lift up your head.
Few things will help you write engaging stories faster than putting yourself out into the world and hanging around interesting characters.
If this advice resonated with you, join me and a few writer friends for weekly writing tips and monthly video roundtables here.