Op-Ed: Five Things Non-Writers Should Know About Writers and Writing

So, you may have noticed that despite being in the place of what would normally be a Being a Better Writer post, this isn’t that. And no, it really isn’t. Though if you’re an aspiring writer, this is a good post to read, because it’s going to be helpful, so I’ll leave it tagged under BaBW.

So then, what am I putting forth today? Well, it’s basically my shot at doing away with a lot of the misconceptions about writing, being a writer, and being an author. Because one thing I’ve found as I’ve embarked on this crazy, busy journey is that not a lot of people know a lot about it. And, even worse, what they don’t know is usually filled in with a lot of completely untrue misconceptions.

So, this little editorial is meant to set some of this misconceptions about writing and being an author straight. Because, being an author myself, I’ve heard a lot of them. It’s meant to be shareable (there are actually buttons at the bottom of the page for that), so if you’ve ever heard some sentiments to the opposite of the topics discussed here from someone, go ahead and fire this at ’em.

So, that said, and without further ado, here are five things that non-writers should know about writers and writing.

1) Writing is a Lot of Hard Work
This is one of the most common misconceptions I hear about writing. That it’s not work. That’s it’t not hard. That it’s not a “real” vocation (Yes, I hear all of these all the time).

This just plain isn’t true. Writing is a dedicated effort that takes hundreds, thousands of hours worth of both practice, planning, and devotion. Unfortunately, most people don’t think of it as something that does, because after all, they can write. They do it all the time! Text messages, letters, Facebook posts … they write all the time. How hard could it be to write a story?

The truth is that it’s very hard to write a story. It requires a very different set of tools to writing a text message, copying down the minutes of a meeting, or writing someone a letter. These things are straightforward and simple because they’re personal. Writing a story, however, is very impersonal. It has to be written from a perspective outside the writer’s own, and convey it’s tale to a vast audience of varying talent, comprehension, and capability. Writers must figure out how to paint a picture in each and every reader’s mind—a challenge considering that all of them will be very different people, and yet the same words the author pens must in each case create the same vision.

Even more difficult, good writing doesn’t just tell someone a story, it makes them experience it. It brings the travails and journeys bound within its pages to life in the reader’s mind. And so even greater care must be taken, more talent used, in order for this to work.

It’s why so many who say writing a book or a story is easy never actually do it. If writing the next Harry Potter or Star Wars was easy, we’d be flooded with them. But we aren’t. Because the process of writing is hard. It’s work unlike anything else, too (and as someone who worked commercial fishing boats in Alaska for tuition money, I know hard work). It taxes the mind, battles with the intelligence … it’s difficult.

Writing is work. Hard work, plain and simple. We’re not sitting at a keyboard chortling about how easy we have it, playing video games until about an hour before we finish and then charting out a few thousand words in a half-hour. We’re sitting there beating our head against a screen, trying to find the right words to bring a firefight to life in a reader’s mind, or get inside a character’s head so that we can properly depict their reaction to a breakup. We’re sitting there, yes, and we may be staring at the screen in silence, but our minds are active.

Now, before I move on, there are always some foolish individuals who laugh and say “Yeah, sure, whatever,” and roll their eyes like they’re still sixteen. To those of you thinking that right now—prove me wrong. Write a book. Sell it. Prove it isn’t work.

Now, moving on to—

2) Writing is Time Consuming
Here’s the simple fact of the matter. Writing is not quick. Above, when I mentioned how some people seem to think writers just sit down, mash at the keyboard for a good twenty or so minutes, and produce a few thousand words? Well, they don’t know what they’re talking about.

Again, I think this comes back to what people expect based on their personal experience (and lack of) with writing. Many people think that if you know what you’re doing, the words just come. And … it’s not that easy. Writing a book is more than a count of words per minute. And yes, I have been asked about that last one. I myself aim for writing 3000-4000 or more words per day. Which is in the writing world, actually quite a lot. Some of the more prolific writers only average 2000 a day. Some less. Many are happy with only 500 words a day.

Now, that may not seem like much—and again, many have said as much. I’ve heard people declare that they can do a 2000-word quota in twenty-minutes, since they type at 100 wpm. Or say that writing up a 4000-word document at work only takes them an hour at work, so writers are just lazy. Except …

Yeah, there’s a catch. In those cases, these people are operating under a very poor assumption that they don’t need to think about any of those words in order to write them. In their mind, the story will just “write itself” or they’ll have it in their head and it’ll just come right out, just like the minutes to that meeting they were just in.

This isn’t true. Sure, I probably have a pretty high words-per-minute count … which would matter if I was just typing out something that was already in front of me. But I’m not, and neither are other writers. They’re crafting a story. They’re writing out a paragraph, realizing that it doesn’t convey what they need it to convey, and then trying to decide if they want to forge ahead and leave it for editing, or change it now. They’re pausing to ask themselves “Well, what would this character notice first after this reveal?” Or realizing “I don’t know how a transmission works. I need to look that up!”

Writing isn’t an exercise in copying something out of our mind in a word-to-word transaction. It’s the challenge of taking an image, an experience, and figuring out how to best place that on paper.

3) Writing is Intricate
There’s another thread that most non-writers don’t think about. Specifically, the plot thread. Or, rather, threads. When most people pick up a book or see a movie, they may think “Wow, that was a cool plot!” but they’re usually not thinking past that. It’s just a cool plot. The book came with it.

What they don’t realize is that someone had to make that plot.

Under both 2 and 1 I spoke of authors that beat their heads against keyboards trying to figure out what a character would say, or how they would act. Now, thankfully, we’re not always doing this, or we’d buy a lot more aspirin than we already do … but we do buy aspirin.

See, readers only ever see the end results of our labors. They see the “completed puzzle,” so to speak. What they don’t often see is all the effort the author took putting that puzzle together. Building it from scratch, figuring out what the picture would be, cutting out the pieces, then feeding them to the reader one at a time so that it would all make sense. They don’t see that.

Ever see one a movie or a mystery show where the main character builds a giant wall-chart connecting all the elements of the case with yarn or string, and everyone thinks that they’re mad? Well, that’s an author. With every book. Building a good book is an intricate process. How will one character react to a plot element? What about another? What about the antagonist’s goal? How does that fit in? What about the mentor?

Every book, every creation an author makes, is a delicate, detailed effort in taking hundreds, sometimes thousands of different elements addressed in the work and making them come together in a way that tens of thousands of different readers can make sense of.

Sound tricky yet? Well, it is. Everything has to be accounted for. Jim is mad at Joe? Why? What happened? When did that come in? And what did Jane have to do with it? Every explanation can lead to another note, or another question. And everything has to wrap back on itself and be contained, in some way, by the book in the end.

In case you were wondering, this is why we can seem a little distant when we’re working on a book. We’ve got a whole world inside our head—or sometimes several—and we’re working to make it all make sense.

I did say it was time-consuming. All this takes focus and attentive care to detail. It’s tough, but—

4) Writing is a Labor of Love – AKA Writing Doesn’t Pay Well
We do it because we love it. We love coming up with strange new worlds. We love coming up with grand adventures, or forbidden loves, or daring escapes. And best of all, we love seeing people get lost in what we create. We love seeing our stories become real to them, seeing our characters become their friends, their guides on new experiences or new places. We go through all the hard work, all the practice, all the labor and effort … because we love it. Writers tend to enjoy what they do: When they don’t, they tend to stop being writers fairly quickly.

Now you certainly noticed that little caveat at the end of the topic subtitle there, and yes, this is something none-writers need to understand: As authors, we love what we do. But we tend to get paid squat.

Think back on the number of books you’ve bought in bookstores in the last year. Think of how much they cost. Now go ahead, add all that up. Now multiply that number by .07.

That’s around how much those authors made in sum total, from those sales. It varies. Some earn as low as 1% of the cost of the book (.01 for those of you who can’t do math). Others maybe as much as 15%. But that’s still not very much.

Now, thankfully this is kind of changing, with indie authors making 30-70%, which is a lot more fair. But even then … how many books do you buy?

Authors write because we love it. We work hard at it. But we more often than not will work hard at a second job to make ends meet. Even “successful” authors with major publishing houses are only earning 10-15k a year from their writing. But they love writing.

But …. no, we’re not made of money. It’s been said that the quickest way to make an author a millionaire is to give them two-million dollars and watch half of it vanish.

Now, I’m not saying every author should be getting free grants to “pursue their craft,” nor that we’re all poor. There are authors out there that have reached the holy grail of quitting their day job. What I am saying is that we love it … but we also want to get paid for it, and would like to reach that holy grail for our labors.

So don’t whine when you see that an author’s new book costs almost as much as your lunch did. Don’t rationalize that “They’re earning all this money anyway because thousands are going to buy that book”—not unless you are personally going to buy those thousands. It might to you be a $9.99 paperback that’s only a few hundred pages thick, but that paperback represents thousands of hours worth of work. And don’t you dare think that “Well, they’re probably rich from other people buying it, so I’ll just steal a copy; they don’t need to be paid, right?” unless you think that all your labor ought to be so voluntary. If you really want it, bite the bullet and realize that the buck or two (and that’s being very generous) an author earns off of that sale is well appreciated.

We write because we love it. But we would like to be able to afford to write more. That’s a mutually beneficial exchange all around.

5) Writing Isn’t Perfect, Editing Isn’t Easy Either
Oh does this one come up a lot. Scan through reviews people leave online, or browse through the world enough, and you’ll hear things like “I found a typo on page three of this book. Clearly someone didn’t care enough to make sure they did a good job, so—” yadda yadda yadda.

And you know what? Stuff it. If you’re looking for perfection, stop reading anything written by a mortal. You won’t find it.

Take a 300-page novel, for example. A 300 page novel will run around 100,000 words. Think about that for a moment. 100,000 words. Can you do a tally mark for every single word?

No. That’d be ridiculous. You know what’s equally ridiculous? Expecting even a team of people to catch every single possible error in 100,000 words. Assuming each word is an average of only five letters long, that’s 500,000 characters.

Every. Single. One of those. Must be checked.

Hence, nothing is perfect. Oh, there are books with poor editing, or no editing at all, but only a single typo, or even several dozen? Not unusual. Most people just tend to glaze over them. Crud, I have a copy of Jurassic Park on my shelf. Paperback. A couple of editions in, so it’s been through several new editing passes.

Around a dozen typos.

Look, authors try, we really do. We work hard, spending hundreds of hours with editors pouring over manuscripts. But it’s unrealistic to expect that we would catch every error in 500,000 possibilities. It’s just not feasible.

We try. We really do. But we cannot deliver perfection. We do our best to get close, but that’s the most we can offer.


So there you have it. Those are five things about writers and writing any non-writer should be aware of. That writing is hard, difficult work. That it’s time consuming. That it’s intricate. That we do it because we love it … but really would like to be paid halfway decently for it. And that no matter what we do … it’s nigh impossible to create a perfect copy free of any errors.

And you know, if you’re thinking of getting into this writing business, it can’t hurt to look at this as well and think about it. Be forewarned, as they say.

So to all of us crazy, hard-working authors … Good luck.

Now let’s get writing.

EDIT: There is now a SIXTH thing, which you can find here!


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3 thoughts on “Op-Ed: Five Things Non-Writers Should Know About Writers and Writing

  1. Number five is one I get a lot. I find that the people who are on the hunt for errors are the same people who don’t write but wish they did. It’s annoying to say the least.


  2. I could have easily fallen into the camp detailed in #5–heck, one of my early PMs to you could easily be translated in that vein. I apologize for that.


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