Been Writing for Years? You Still Have A Lot to Learn

Many of you already know my writing history.

Awful poetry at the age of 5.

A part-time gig at a weekly newspaper at the age of 19.

Writing sex toy reviews by the age of 22.

And now, at the age of 31, I’ve created content for online magazines, alternative newspapers, both regional and national print magazines, and a slew of blogs.

Not too shabby.

What I’ve always wanted, however, is to write a book. A book that garners interest from traditional publishers, and that eventually ends up on the shelf at Barnes & Noble or McNally Jackson or the Trident Bookstore/Cafe.

Up until recently, however, I didn’t do a damn thing about it.

A year or so ago, however, I co-authored an ebook with sex counselor Ian Kerner. And after that sold surprisingly well, he asked me to ghostwrite an ebook for another client. Once I’d completed those two projects, it occurred to me: I just wrote two books. Maybe this whole long-form thing isn’t entirely out of the question.

So in the late summer / early fall, I began working on a book proposal and, at the end of November, I began querying agents. And then, almost immediately, I received a handful of responses from agents who were actually interested in seeing the full proposal.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, the rejections I subsequently received were both kind and constructive, and I filed their comments away in the back of my mind for future use. But it was my most recent rejection that rang especially true. What this brilliant agent told me was that my proposal was pretty solid… but my sample chapters were where it all fell apart. I was long on narrative and short on scene, making my chapters seem pretty flimsy. It touched upon something I had already suspected.

In Naked, Drunk, and Writing, Adair Lara wrote that “overly fluent writers, those to whom words come fast, have trouble going deep in their writing.”

It was true. I’d been spending so much time writing service pieces and listicles that I just didn’t know what it took to build a scene in a long-form book.

So though I’d read it only a year before, I read Lara’s book again, in its entirety. (It’s all about writing personal essays and memoirs, and has an entire chapter on scene-writing.) I also simultaneously read a memoir (Claire Dederer’s Poser), so I could pay extra attention to how other writers built scene and arc and character. Now, I’m ready for a massive rewrite (followed by a bit more slash and burn from my writing partner).

I’m not a terrible writer. Even though I began questioning my ability to write this book, and bemoaning the fact that I’d squandered my chances with several agents, I know there are areas in which I absolutely shine.

But even when you’ve been writing for years, there’s something new to learn, or something old and valuable to revisit.

Which aspects of writing do you feel you still have a lot to learn about?

Related: Spill It: How Do You Handle Rejection as a Writer?, How to Increase Your Chances of Landing That Book Deal, Breakneck Book Report: Adair Lara’s Naked, Drunk, and Writing, Has the Editing Process Crushed Your Soul?, Walking in Someone Else’s Shoes


  1. I haven’t tackled a book yet, but I can relate to what you describe. When we traffic in words for a living, it becomes surprisingly easy to sound good without saying much. Every time I read a novel or a poetry collection that’s especially breathtaking, I marvel at both the economy of language and how much each word means. Must mean, that is. After all, years are happening in the space of 10 or 20 MS pages.

    On that topic, I wonder: read any writing books that address this great divide? That those of us who write client work for a living have trouble dumping that mantle when we work creatively on our own?

    • This really rings true. Writing a book is SO different than churning out articles and essays. So much more complex, so much more to juggle. I’m going to check out both those books you mentioned. Thanks for the great post!

    • Hey there Lindsey – The Adair Lara book I mentioned in my post is the best one I’ve read for this sort of thing. But I must admit… while I devour books on the business of writing, I haven’t read as many on the art and craft of writing.

      A few I’ve read in the past:
      Stephen King’s On Writing
      Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird (one of my faves)
      Arthur Plotnik’s Spunk & Bite

      Obviously, I need to find some more. Lara has a great list of suggestions at the end of her book.

  2. I’ve been writing since I was 9, and I’m ashamed to admit that I only started to do something about it 3 years ago (in addition to just printing out my stuff and giving it to my friends to read). And it amazes me to find how difficult some scenes are to write now that I am writing it as a novel. I’ve had the story in my head for over 7 years now, and there are still missing pieces.
    But the most important thing I learned is to just keep writing it.
    P. S. Good luck with your book!

    • Thanks Pinar! And I know how you feel about that sense that you’ve waited too long… but I’m realizing now that it’s never too late! At least you’ve started! Good luck to you, too. 🙂

  3. The phrase “going deep” struck me with fear. I am a grant writer and I have written hundreds of proposals to win money for non-profit and business. I have been successful, but I haven’t gone outside of my comfort zone in many years.

    I have thought about writing policy articles that would be read by the public, instead of review committees. But that would mean, I’d have to do real research and generate an original and thought-provoking thesis. That type of work is similar to novel writing in the level of depth and intellectual persistence. I would have to exercise an imagination that I currently do not possess. Your article helped me muster up the guts to write bigger.

    Thank you!

    • You can do it, Caroline! I feel self-doubt all the time. I ask myself: Am I writing anything that actually matters? Am I nothing but a low-rate listicle creator? Am I good enough to be something more? Then something I’ve written connects with a reader, or an editor, or an agent, and I’m reminded of why I want to do this. If writing public policy articles is something you want to do, I feel there’s no better way to learn than to dive on in.

  4. I’ve been writing since I was 12 and working on a book since about 2006 — about 6 years. It’s a long haul working on it and sometimes I even question whether its worth it. I’ve written a proposal, but also want to have the full book ready before querying. I think it’s true. There’s always something new to learn. I was a television soap writer turned website/magazine turned hopeful memoirist. Even after all this time working on it, I’m constantly surprised by the new things I need to learn — how to write out of sequence but connect scenes through theme, how to structure a scene and chapter. I’m with you. Always important to keep learning! Good luck!!

    • Good for you, Celena. My favorite professor (Sue Shapiro) says that she always writes the full manuscript before shopping around the proposal. This can be especially helpful if you’re a first-time author (and it’s crucial if you write fiction). And I think it’s great that you already have your proposal ready to go.

  5. Hi Steph —

    I so agree with you. I actually just wrapped my first book project, after about 20 years of writing articles — I wrote 11 of 30 chapters for a business book. And it was an incredible experience. I had to use everything I ever knew about reporting and writing long features, and learn a bunch of new tricks for getting hard-to-access sources and for organizing mountains of research and turning it into a ripping yarn, all on a deadline.

    But I love stretching. I also did my first annual report this past year, and first government contract. We should all just keep right on growing our knowledge, because it leads to great new assignments.

    • I love that last thing you said, Carol. That we should keep on stretching and growing. Aside from expanding our skills set, it keeps things interesting! Every time I add something new to my writerly toolbox, it gives my business — and the passion I have for it — more oomph.

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