The 3 Elements Essential for Success as a Writer

    success as a writer

    Writers come in all shapes and sizes, from all personal backgrounds, all walks of life, and all cultures and countries. We’re a varied bunch, but we all have something in common: in order for any of us to make it past first base in this business, we have to possess three elements for success as a writer. These traits are non-negotiable. If we don’t possess all three of them, we’ll never be writers, and we’ll certainly never find marketable success.

    What are these traits, and how do we solidify them in our lives?

    Trait #1: Talent

    In some ways, talent is the easiest of the three, since it’s something over which we have no control. We’re either talented, or we’re not. Generally speaking, talent incorporates one or all of the following:

    • An aptitude for words, which can include (but isn’t necessarily limited to) an understanding of language and a perceptive ear for powerful and rhythmic phrasings.
    • An instinctual understanding, however raw in the beginning, of story structure.
    • An insatiable curiosity, a desire to discover truth, and a willingness to be audaciously honest about the human experience and the world in which it takes place.

    I consider talent the least important, simply because it’s the only one of the three traits that is useless without the other two. Still, it’s important to recognize that without that original kernel of talent, all the watering and weeding in the world won’t cause the growth of a burgeoning tree.

    Trait #2: Learning

    I use the word “learning” instead of “knowledge” because “learning” indicates more than a static pile of facts stored in our brains. Learning encompasses the following ideas:

    • An ongoing process that suggests a mindset in search of enlightenment more than a simple checklist of facts to be mastered.
    • A hunger for knowledge that is further stimulated, instead of sated, by the actual discovery of knowledge.
    • A willingness to devote an endless amount of time and energy to studying the craft.

    Even the largest measure of talent can only carry an author so far. We must study to show ourselves approved by reading widely and voraciously, researching the tenets of the craft as seen by other authors who have proven themselves through their own devotion, and seeking and accepting the wise criticism of readers, editors, and other writers. Writing is a skill that can be learned by almost anyone, and it is in the learning that we raise ourselves above raw potential to refinement and eventual mastery.

    Trait #3: Diligence

    Finally, we come to the most important of the three traits, the bottom of the pyramid, the foundation for the previous two. Without diligence, we will inevitably lack the ability to grit our teeth and put our innate talent or our sought-after knowledge to practical use. Writers who possess diligence are able to bring the following to their writing desks:

    • A commitment to writing, even in the face of its difficulties.
    • A certain amount of hardheaded tenacity that allows them to keeping marching right past the inevitable discouragements.
    • A consistency is showing up for work every day, no matter what else has to be sacrificed.

    The writing life is filled with setbacks and even outright failures. Without the determination to persevere, no writer will make it past the starting gates. We have to be willing to devote our time and energy to pursuing our craft, polishing it, and loving it even when it isn’t lovable.

    In order to call ourselves writers, we have to act like writers. We must recognize our responsibility to our talent. We must open our minds to studying and perfecting the art of writing. And we must be willing to do these things day in and day out. Writing isn’t always a hobby; it isn’t always a career; but it is a lifestyle. If we can devote ourselves to pursuing these three traits, we can wake up every morning with assurance that we are writers.

    About the author

      K.M. Weiland

      Historical and speculative novelist K.M. Weiland is the author of Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

    • Lee says:

      I didn’t read your article. I would have liked to, except for the box right on the left of the screen that begs me to like it. I don’t, so is there any way this can be removed?

      I only commented to tell you that I would have read your article if this site wasn’t so preoccupied with being accepted. I mean, come on. Really?

    • ilan ver says:

      tnk you admin

    • very good post. After reading it, I started to wonder if I had those three traits. It’s like I had a checklist in my brain that was going…”mmmm, yeah i have that – check. mmmm let’s see oh that too – check!”

    • Ash Menon says:

      While I do agree with #2 and #3, I don’t agree with number 1 being important. Talent, to me, merely gives you a head start. A person without talent can arrive at the exact same quality of work as that of his talented peer, as long as he is willing to put in the extra effort for it.

    • Thank you very much for summing this up.

      Like so many others, I agree with you. But: I was always a little concerned about the talent. It would be so much easier if some testing or some teacher could say: “YES, you’re talented.” The other things on your list then wouldn’t be so much of a problem, because knowing that you have talent, in my case, would make you work hard experience that wonderful journey.

      I wondered how this sentence agrees with the theory about talent:

      “Writing is a skill that can be learned by almost anyone, and it is in the learning that we raise ourselves above raw potential to refinement and eventual mastery”

      What do writers do that don’t have much talent, but are still persistent, learning, ambitious and do everything else on the list. Can’t they be successful then? Will their writing always be “bad” writing? Or not enjoyable?

      I think this is really difficult. There is always someone that likes the writing of someone else, as long as someone has put the effort in to seriously work on the writing. Maybe we can still distinguish between skilled writing and … well, however you would call the other writing. It’s one of those mysteries, I suppose.

      • To a large extent, I would describe talent as a certain “ease of accomplishment.” Those who are talented at something might be able to reach mastery more easily than those without quite the same endowment. So, perhaps you could define a talented writer as one to whom words come (relatively) easily. I don’t believe talent defines itself in the finished product of a story or book, because art is too subjective to nail down to absolutes. An author whose stories I find brilliant might be one you think is second-rate. I laud his talent; you tell him to get back to the basics.

    • I would add passion and an innate love of writing and books. But I guess that is assumed.

      But really I think that there are those who say they want to write, and who don’t get anything down onto paper, because they simply don’t love it enough to do all the hard work it requires.

      What I would say is that I have encountered many writers who love to write and want to write, but have trouble getting “there.” You already know my opinion about the “writers who don’t write,” but I think these writers fall into a category that can’t be ignored. In that case I think they just need our support.

      But I absolutely agree with you that as soon as the insurmountable challenges that some writers face have passed, then there are NO MORE excuses. You need to get off your but and do the work and that requires diligence.

      It’s funny how the other two require diligence as well–it requires diligence to establish learning and it requires diligence to continue to practice that talent. Because you better believe that talent can fade without practice.

      Another perfectly written post K.M.! Can’t wait to have you on the {C2C} on Wednesday!

      • Great point about talent fading without practice. We tend to think of talent as something inherent that can never dim. But talent can be squandered in many ways other than just failing to utilize it. We’ve all heard the stories about famous artists and actors who shot their life to pieces through poor choices – and their talent suffered because of it.

        Can’t wait to visit C2C tomorrow!

    • Like others have stated, I think talent is had to define and, being on the list, creates debate. My personal opinion is to play devil’s advocate: That talent is also acquired rather than bestowed. If talent isn’t acquired- then your other two criteria becomes counterproductive and contradictory. Learning becomes a finite process determined by limitations in your genes. And Diligence becomes destroyed, broken dreams.
      True, that talent exists in some measure based on our genes? (Perhaps), but talent might as well be defined as: something to be learned on your own which was previously beyond you.
      My two cents, take care

      • As I mentioned previously, in response to Mike Fook, I will concur that talent belongs on this list only depending on how you define it. I tend to think passion is the flip side of talent, in that passion is what allows us to identify and nurture latent talents. Most of us don’t develop a passionate interest in pursuing something for which we have zero talent.

    • Erin says:

      This a fantastic post that I not only find inspiring but motivational at the same time – in fact, I have printed it to go up on my Visualization Wall! I like the idea of the three building blocks and how eloquently you voiced your opinion on learning and diligence… very insightful. Thank you.

      • I’m a visual learner myself, which is why I particularly like the idea of the traits as a pyramid. Glad you enjoyed the post!

    • I appreciate the definition of talent that you give here; so often the word is used without elucidation. It becomes a meaningless term that only serves to either deflate or bolster the ego.

      Can we add cool author photo with typewriter to the list of must-haves? 🙂

      • The problem with making a typewriter photo a must is that typewriters are getting more and difficult to find. Gotta love the clickety-clack of those old keys though!

        • U.Written says:

          Sometimes I go on Etsy just to stare at pretty candy-colored typewriters!

          • Etsy has all kinds of fun writing goodies.

            • My favorite paper shop in Boulder, Two Hands Paperie, sells vintage typewriters. They’re adorable and I love gazing at them. Then going home to my (new!) keyboard!

    • I think I have talent (ugh, having to say that yourself makes it bad thing). Am willing to learn. The only thing I miss is the diligence.

      I am not of bad will, I even make plans, but somehow those plans get changed more then not. To many distractions in life. Television is the biggest one.

      I am also someone who needs to get a kick under his butt to get started. What is that word again, pro….? I always find little things to postpone what I have to do. It’s like a disease, almost feel bad if i cannot find a reason not to do what is on the agenda. 🙂

      • Consider yourself kicked! 😉 I find that schedules help me prioritize what’s important (writing) and what’s not (television). If I’m able to organize my day so that I get the important things done first, squeeze in the things of lesser importance wherever I can, and save the non-essentials for brief rewards – everything gets its fair shake in the end.

    • Robyn says:

      Wow – thank you – that was a wonderful and very timely post.
      In the past I’ve let my insecurities and that nasty little editor-in-the-head voice get the better of me. Last year I submitted a piece and had to listen to that nasty editor crow “see – told you you were’nt any good”. So – this year is a new year and I’m going to write – for me, because I love expressing myself in words and because I have something to say. I’m going to be be diligent and I’m going to give myself time and permission to write. So there editor-in-the-head! Take that!

      • That infernal internal editor can wreak havoc if we let him. I’ve found that the best solution for keeping him in his place is focusing on the reasons we began writing in the first place. If we’re doing it because we love it (as we should be), we’ll keep right doing it – and enjoying it – no matter what that inner voice starts harping on.

    • You have such wonderful insight, K.M. You’re my favorite teacher. I love your videos!

      Warm Regards,

      • You’re very kind! I’m glad you enjoyed the post – and the videos.

    • A wonderful list. I agree that talent, to a point is important, as if you’re not a good story teller, writing will be extrememly difficult. Just like it’s impossible to be a commedian if you can’t ever get the punch line right. Diligenence is important too as it’s easy to get discouraged. It took me 15 years to get my first novel published. Learning never stops for a writer.

      • I think so many young writers want the writing life to fall together as quickly as possible. What they’re losing sight of is that writing isn’t a destination, but a journey with pit stops along the way.

    • A wonderful list. I agree that talent, to a point is important, as if you’re not a good story teller, writing will be extrememly difficult. Just like it’s impossible to be a commedian if you can’t ever get the punch line right. Diligenence is important too as it’s easy to get discouraged. It took me 15 years to get my first novel published.

    • Stuart says:

      I completely agree with these 3 traits, but if I may, I’d like to add a fourth trait. Passion. Passion for what you do, where you want to go. Without passion, it’d be almost impossible to succeed with writing. In fact, it’s passion that has kept me going all these years.

      A great read, and thanks for sharing 🙂

      • Passion very nearly made it onto the list. I left it off only because I felt it was the inherent motivator behind learning and diligence. But I agree, definitely: no passion, no point.

    • I thought it was very interesting when you said
      “Writing isn’t always a hobby; it isn’t always a career; but it is a lifestyle.”

      Some of us tend more toward the hobby end of the spectrum, others are at the career end, but the lifestyle is relevant to us all. More than anything, the above sentance motivates me to put the advice from this article into practice.

      • I hate it when writers who aren’t interested in a writing career – or are perhaps temporarily unable to achieve it, for whatever reason – are made to feel guilty for maintaining writing as a “mere” hobby. What we do with our writing isn’t so important as the writing itself. They journey is the important thing for all of us, no matter the destination.

    • The great thing about writing is that we can take so many of its lessons and apply it to the whole of life. When we become better writers, what we’re really becoming is better human beings.

    • Sher says:

      I agree with all of them but definitely diligence. There is no way to become a writer without any of them but you can have all the talent you could ask for but if you aren’t willing to do what it takes you won’t get anywhere. And that’s true of more than just being a writer.

    • Nathan Wrann says:

      I disagree with placing Talent on this list. Talent is simply the ease or difficulty with which a person does something well. All of the points under your talent Trait are things that can be learned and will get better with practice. When we see a great hockey player we say “oh he’s so talented” we don’t consider the fact that he spends 8 hours a day practicing. Same goes for writing. No doubt those points you’ve listed under the talent trait are important, however, for some they come easier, and with less practice (we call those people “talented”) for others they come from lots and lots of hard work and when an amazing piece is created from all of that hard work we say the writer is very “talented”.

      • In large part, I agree with you. We could look at talent from the backside and say it’s really nothing more than inclination. Insofar as it’s true that most of us are more inclined toward those things that are reasonably accessible to us, talent *is* important. Insofar as it’s true that some of will be willing to grit it out, even though it’s more difficult for us than others, it’s not so important.

    • Scott Fields says:

      Hey, you . . . I liked your approach here–the whole pyramid structure, working from the top down. Talent heads the list, but only because it’s the smallest and least important element. Diligence really is the foundation. And the learning thing is key, too. Funny how many “writers” out there think their talent alone is enough to carry them through, that studying the craft isn’t a significant (nope–that’s VITAL) part of the process.

      Well done (as always).

      – Scott

      • I’ve met few (okay, actually I can’t think of *any*) successful authors who powered through on talent alone. Talent, taken by itself, is really a shriveled, pitiful little thing. It needs learning and diligence (and passion) to grow.

    • Mike Fook says:

      I love to pick apart posts – and when I saw the title I just knew I could grab a couple of handfuls here.

      Then I read it – and came up empty. You’re right – a writer these three things to be successful, and probably cannot succeed without any of the three. Damn it!

      Of the three – the one that counts least is – talent. There are, what I would consider, many talentless writers – like maybe myself, that are making a living at it. Diligence can sometimes overcome talentlessness.

      Will read more here in the next couple of days. Cheers! MF

      • Sorry to disappoint. 😉 Yes, I admit that the point of talent is perhaps a little wish-washy, if only because we might all define talent a little differently. Plus, when it comes right down to it, it’s difficult to separate talent from the other three. We can’t look at one successful writer and say, “Oh, he obviously made it on talent alone,” while looking at another author and saying, “His success is entirely based upon diligence.”

    • Good post. Very instructive. I’ll remember the 3 >:)

    • These are all absolutely true, Katie. I remember years ago reading somewhere that writers are students of human nature, and at the time I thought, “Surely there’s more to write about than just that!” But it turns out that, no, there’s really not.

      People read to learn about being people. And if you’re so obsessed with learning that stuff that you can’t be satisfied with simply reading about it. . .hey, welcome to the life of writing!

      • Along the same lines, I’ve always loved the quote from Willa Cather’s book The Song of the Lark: “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they never happened.”

        • Oh, yes, Cather! I remember that quote! Such a beautiful way to put it: “fiercely.”

          She was such a wonderful writer.

    • Galadriel says:

      Thank you so much for this simple summery of writing essentials.

    • I think that we all knew this deep in side, for it makes sense. It’s quite simple logic really. Thank you for putting it into words and sharing it with us! 🙂

      • It’s how sometimes the simplest truths are the most complicated to grasp.

    • Elaine says:

      I agree that Talent is the least important. Without the work ethic to get something TO DONE, you’re always stuck in the first stage. Believe me, I’ve been stuck there for years. I know so many people who do not do something because they think they do not have the *talent* for it. They write-off the possibility of doing something because they attribute others’ success to Talent, when more often the case is there is a significant work ethic behind the success.

      I think talent, prose, and a rhythmic sense for language is something so many of us can actually build and develop because it is not that much different than the speech we use every day. Talent is not a have-it-or-you-don’t thing. It comes in various degrees and can be strengthened through Learning and Diligence.

      • If you have a high-school level understanding of grammar basics and if you can parse an intelligible sentence, you probably have all the foundation of talent that you need. From there, it’s just injecting the necessary learning and discipline to carry it forward.

    • Perry says:

      Great post. I like the fact that it’s a balance between talent and skill. In my experience (not only in writing) increasing skill sometimes uncovers talent.

      • Talent is one of those “diamond in the rough” qualities. Who knows how many uncovered talents we have? We only discover them by pairing them with passion.

    • @Eternity: Hard work is something we’ll never regret.

      @Dave: I tend to think that the good writers are those who are addicted to learning in general. It’s that insatiable sense of curiosity – that *need* to know – that pushes us to ask questions. And what is fiction if not one big search for answers?

      @Rohini: Oh, yes! I like the comparison between learning and oxygen. Without either, we’d shrivel up and die.

    • True. Diligence and unwavering commitment to writing(or any undertaken endeavor) is utmost important is what I’d like to say. The passion to push, learn, make mistakes and learn from them on daily basis helps us in reaching our true hidden potential. Learning never stops and it never should, pretty much like oxygen supply.

    • It’s nice to see the concept of talent put in context. It’s too easy to get caught up worrying about it and, as you say, it’s not something we can control. I like that you placed an emphasis on learning as a continuing process rather than knowledge. Learning is the real engine of my writing practice. The more I immerse myself in that process, the more passionate I become about writing as well as I can.

    • I must concur, as and ex DJ all those things apply to the craft and it is the same with writing. Hard work and perseverance always pays off in the end. Learn it, practice it and evolve it.

    • I firmly believe in the responsibility artists bear toward their gifts. It all comes back to applying diligence and learning to our talent.

    • Insightful post – I must say that these three traits are essential to writing. Thanks for sharing. The following phrase impacted me most.

      “We must recognize our responsibility to our talent. We must open our minds to studying and perfecting the art of writing.”

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