Since earlier this year when I kicked my writing habit into gear – waking up every day before 5am to plan, write, and edit my first manuscript – I have voraciously consumed writing advice. Most advice is good. Some of it feels bad. Some sounds like a dubious sales pitch for certain services. Inevitably, some recommendations conflict with others. I want to contrast two trends of advice for aspiring authors like us: the tug-of-war between the craft-focused and career-focused mentality.
Career-focus tells us to dream big. Shoot for the moon, land among the stars. You miss the shots you don’t take, so on and so forth. The central idea is that you approach writing with a workmanlike attitude, treating it like a career long before you’ve published. Goals are lofty, exceeding what you may think of as realistic or attainable. These high aspirations drive us to work harder, so that even if we don’t reach them, we go farther than we would have if we dreamed small.
Career-focus tells us that it is never too soon to start the sorts of activities that build our resume, platform, and audience. Author web sites, social media engagement, submitting, cons, writing groups. Career-focus says start early and submit often. The point is twofold: First, rejections far outweigh acceptance, so buy yourself more lottery tickets. Second, having even one other legitimate industry entity take your writing seriously increases the chances that a second will.
Career-focus has a certain pragmatic, drill-sergeant wisdom. It takes discipline, practice, perseverance, marketing savvy, and credentials to make it in a competitive field like fiction writing. Without these qualities, no writer – no anything, really – will last, much less succeed.
The potential danger that I feel in my own heart as a new writer when reading this sort of advice is that it may push me to try to run before I walk, and to measure success by numbers. I know now that by sitting down to write a full-length book as my first foray, I jumped from the couch and decided to run a marathon. I don’t regret that one bit, but I more fully appreciate the depth of the challenge. The writing itself is still a work-in-progress. I just started developmental editing on my first draft, and even with an amateurs eye, I see huge improvements from my first thousand words to the last. Focusing on also learning to market and submit and navigate the business side of things takes away valuable time from learning the craft. Also, numbers can discourage. Tallying rejections, counting words, researching acceptance rates – these things can be speed-bumps to motivation.
It takes discipline, practice, perseverance, marketing savvy, and credentials to make it in a competitive field like fiction writing.
Craft-focus tells us to take our time and live in the moment. Set achievable short-term goals. The journey of a thousand steps starts with one, and we eat elephants one bite at a time… so on and so forth. The central idea is that perfecting your art comes first, and following your passion leads to the best results. When you are first starting out, like me, and like you, all of the other activities that are admittedly essential to any writing career distract from our primary goal: become a better writer.
Craft-focus tells us to practice, practice, practice. Get feedback from peers – whether in writing groups, forums, or editors. Read about writing. Re-read your own work and revise. Work hard, but always focus on the writing itself. Craft-focus is very zen. It says to let go of sales and marketing expectations and write your passion to the absolute best of your ability, and have faith that your passion, talent, and energy will eventually yield results. Craft-focus says that grinding too hard for the lofty long-term goal burns us out. Focus on your daily writing goals and the intrinsic joy of the creative act to maintain your fire.
Craft-focus has the gentle wisdom of a kindly mentor. It remembers the human element and nurtures our hearts and souls, trusting that joy in the process leads to long-term fulfillment, peace, and, yes, even results. Without joy, what good is success?
The potential danger that I feel in myself as a new writer is the invitation to neglect the hard parts. Writing is fun. The business of writing is intimidating. If I focus exclusively on my craft for itself and never engage with a real editor or go through cycles of submission and rejection, I may have fun. But, I am likely to end up with a hard drive full of stories with an audience of 1. An unshared story is a sad thing, an incomplete thing.
It remembers the human element and nurtures our hearts and souls, trusting that joy in the process leads to long-term fulfillment, peace, and, yes, even results. Without joy, what good is success?
What’s my point? Should you pick a side? Is all advice bad? No and no. Only fools struggle alone, ignoring the hard-earned wisdom of more experienced peers. That path comes from vanity and leads to frustration. I personally delight in a number of writing blogs and podcasts. They have definitely improved my writing.
I believe that different writers need different blends between these two seemingly opposed schools of thought. I believe that the same writer may need to adjust that balance over time at different phases of their life and career.
Some days, a friendly goal such as ‘I want to write an engaging scene’ is not enough to drag me out of bed at 5am. It takes the big dream, to kick my butt into gear.
On days when the weight of the big dream crushes me, celebrating a scene I can be proud of refreshes my spirit.
I have come to the conclusion that both schools are correct, but their advice in a vacuum misses the essential ingredient: you. Know yourself, reader, and know your mood. Engage with the strategy that speaks to you and bring you the most joy and progress, especially when you’re just finding your stride, as I am – as you may be.
How do you keep your passion pre-publication? How do you strike a balance between focusing on your art and investing in your career? Let us know in the comments.
2 thoughts on “The Tension of Craft vs Career”
I think the ‘practice, practice, practice’ part of craft and the ‘always show up’ part of career goes hand in hand into their own category of Turning Pro.
As a writer heading into fiction, I definitely don’t have any career in sight, because it’s something I’m doing based solely off faith. I just keep writing every day until I reach the finish line.
This was an interesting read. Thanks for sharing, Josh!