Should You Quit? A Writing Checklist for Frustrated Writers
If you are a writer, one thing is certain: you have felt frustration about your writing. This will continue as long as you write.
It happens like this: The words won’t come out right. Or an editor will say, “no thanks.” Or an editor will ignore you. Or you’ll publish something, and everyone will ignore you. Or you’ll tell yourself, “I hate this thing I wrote. I am bad at writing.”
All of this will happen again and again, and it may make you think about doing something extreme: quitting. That’s not to take a hopeless or pessimistic view. Writing, like human flight, is an unnatural act. Making any type of art is difficult. Success is not guaranteed.
The following is not a writing checklist to say whether you should quit full stop. Rather, it is a writing checklist to help you answer this question: if you are frustrated, and you want to quit, have you really done everything possible to improve and thereby surpass the desire to quit?
In that spirit, I invite you to ask yourself these questions…
A Writing Checklist for the Frustrated
1. Do you write consistently? Have you made it a habit? Do you set aside some specific writing time in your day or your calendar—even thirty minutes every morning, or one full day every waxing moon? Do you stick to that schedule come what may? Do you write, write, and write some more with the realization that not every idea is gold and quantity breeds quality?
2. Have you fully internalized the fact that even the best writers write crappy stuff sometimes? Do you have an appreciation for how difficult it is to get really, really good and how hard the best writers actually worked to get good, and how many times they were rejected? Have you read legendary writers such as Ray Bradbury and Anne Lamott talk about their struggles and used this as a reality check?
3. Have you availed yourself of the single most powerful form of help: coaching and mentoring? Do you have a writing coach or mentor who is invested in your work? Have you gotten honest, constructive feedback about your work from your mentor? Have they helped you identify your writing path? Have you taken their feedback in a spirit of open-mindedness and self-improvement and acted on it?
4. Are you in a writing group? Do you surround yourself with other smart writers who support you and give unbiased reactions to your work? Have you found a group that’s aligned with your writing goals?
5. If you try to be as objective as possible, is there any sense of forward momentum in your work? Has your writing been getting better, month by month, even if only a bit? Why or why not? Do you have any real writing successes you can articulate—even if they feel small—in the past week, month, or year? Can you feel a bit of pleasure in those successes and build on them?
6. Do you make a consistent effort to actually publish, whether that’s just posting on your personal Medium page, or sending your manuscript off to a literary gatekeeper? Do you realize that everyone is so goddamned busy and distracted, and so much writing—even good writing—gets rejected, and those who publish successfully do it by “writing like a motherfucker” and sending their writing out into the universe again and again and again?
7. Do you have one or two close friends—who really understand your work and your goals—who can give you honest feedback? (It helps if they’re fellow writers, so you can reciprocate and help each other.)
8. Do you read deeply? Do you act on Stephen King’s advice that “if you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the tools to write.” If you’re a science fiction writer, do you read a ton of science fiction, for inspiration and ideas? Do you read widely, i.e. stuff outside your main area? Do you read short stories, philosophy, romance novels, history, quantum physics, young adult fiction, classics, weird etiquette manuals from the 1940s?
9. Do you talk to other writers—especially those on a similar path—to get a realistic sense of their successes and rejections and frustrations? In other words, is your sense of how you “should be doing” checked by reality and real people, or is it just based off an ideal that exists in your head?
10. Do you live an interesting life? Do you have unique experiences—relationships, places traveled, books read, jobs done? Do you draw on these things in your writing? Do you drill more into the topics that actually fascinate you or more into the things that strike you as “hot right now”?
11. When you read this writing checklist, how do you react? Do you say, “Uggghhhh. That sounds overwhelming / annoying / like too much work”? Do you invent excuses? “I tried finding a writing group this one time, but the people sucked. So, clearly, I can’t try again.” Or do you say, “Alright, I’ll keep after this. Here’s my 30-day plan”?
12. Does writing make you happy? Do you sit down each day—or stand, if you’re one of those standing desk people—with some iota of joy? Or, if not joy, do you find some other emotion and leak it into the keys? Do you let your writing move you?
The right questions, followed by a space to answer them, have the power to help us realize things that griping and self-disappointment do not. I hope this writing checklist helps you.
But the truth is that I wrote these questions for myself. First, because answering them and acting on them has helped me climb walls, both real and imagined. And second, because I know I’ll need these questions in the future, to help jolt me out of the bottomless pit of ego despair and into a mode where I have a plan. And then I can just write and trust that everything will work itself out.