How To Be A Successful Writer

It is midnight at the casino. You are dressed in your marmot cape and sapphire encrusted top hat. One of your entourage of monkey butlers serves you cream liqueur from a decorative Viking flagon emblazoned with the letters of your name. You hold your priceless ivory dice to your companion’s lips for a second... and roll.

What writer hasn’t dreamed of this exact scenario whilst curled up in the rafters of their frozen attic lodgings? It is only natural to dream of success. But what do we mean by success? What is the test? What will satisfy us? Let's consider three reasonable definitions of success as a writer: financial reward, popularity and critical acclaim. What must we do to meet the minimum criteria in each?

Financial Reward

Being served cream liqueur from a personalised pearlescent flagon by a monkey butler is all well and good, but this is of no concern to the committed writer. If your goal is to keep and maintain a monkey butler, there are other, more lucrative professions open to you. The goal of the committed writer is, simply and self-evidently, to write. So we can say that the minimum criterion for financial success is to achieve a salary from your writing sufficient to maintain a living. That is to say, to earn enough money to prevent precious writing time being wasted in, say, unblocking commercial fat ducts, populating electronic document management solutions or distributing discount coupons for motorised cheese graters.

What should we consider to be a living wage? In the UK, the living wage is £7.65 per hour (or approximately £14.3K per year based on a 36 hour week). But let us neither be masochists for our art nor greedy opportunists. The national average wage is approximately £26,500. Let us be content with enough.

Joe Heller

True story, Word of Honor:
Joseph Heller, an important and funny writer
now dead,
and I were at a party given by a billionaire
on Shelter Island.

I said, “Joe, how does it make you feel
to know that our host only yesterday
may have made more money
than your novel ‘Catch-22’
has earned in its entire history?”
And Joe said, “I’ve got something he can never have.”
And I said, “What on earth could that be, Joe?”
And Joe said, “The knowledge that I’ve got enough.”
Not bad! Rest in peace!

Kurt Vonnegut


Writing scratches the soul’s itch. It is satisfying for its own sake. But, we must be honest and say that this is not enough. Writing must be read. There is emotional capital in knowing that your efforts are not going to waste and it is accumulated in direct proportion to the number of people that you know to have read your work. The ultimate success would be for everyone to have read your work who is capable of doing so. This is desirable, but also lofty, impractical and ragingly egomaniacal. So what is our minimum criterion? I think it is this: that our writing should be available to as many readers as possible. A £1 million contract for your magnum opus in return for a print run of one copy should be of no interest to you. What’s the point in being rich and out-of-print? Conversely, being translated into as many languages as possible is highly desirable, even if it is not easily achieved by the amateur. All barriers that are in our power to remove, we must remove.

Critical Acclaim

Let us say we have achieved our crazed ambition and have foisted our work on every literate individual in the known universe. Is this sufficient in itself? Inevitably, it would not be long before you emerged from your frozen attic lodgings to mutter tentatively: “Well... what did you think?”

We cannot fire words forever into the silent chasm – we need a report. It may be cheek-warming praise or brain-flaming hatred, but anything is better than nothing.

Of course, however falteringly we ask the question, the expected answer is as follows:

It was the best thing I have ever read.

But, most modestly, we must put aside the early draft of our Nobel acceptance speech and set our sights on the low bar. What is our minimum criterion?

Criticism may delight or sting. We cannot help but let flattery flutter the strings of our heart or let icy malice pierce it. Take to heart what you will, let it nourish your endeavours and then discard the rest as nothing more than rancid air funnelled sloppily in your direction.

Private correspondence, thankfully, ends its influence in the heart. Favourable public criticism, however, will maintain and increase our readership indefinitely; likewise, unfavourable critical responses could slow the development of our readership or even arrest it entirely.

In either case, our minimum criterion must be to maintain a positive balance of favourable criticism, for the sake of our sanity as well as our sales.


Having defined our minimum criteria for success, how might we achieve them?

Our financial target, though humble, can never be reached unless we charge for at least some of our work. However, we should not feel tied to existing business models and expectations. Low prices will encourage take-up. Consider the success of the 69p ($0.99) app. Remember that your financial goal is modest.

Naturally, we must have something to sell. The more you can write, the more you can publish. Your work should stretch out into the world like tendrils from a carnivorous plant, drawing your victims ever closer to the maw. Finish everything you've started. Get it out there!

Of course, selling upwards of 26,000 copies of our work every year from a standing start is unrealistic. Don't give up the day job just yet. But, let us not get distracted from our aims. If your job doesn't allow you some space in your brain and some time to write – somewhere, somehow – then you are no longer a writer.

If quantity of readership is our aim, then the internet offers the most suitable solution. Literacy is a precondition of its use and it is as pervasive as print throughout the literate parts of world and often more easily accessible. Electronic text can be distributed around the world instantly and repeatedly for little cost. Thus, it is possible to achieve our goals without the assistance of a publisher. One caveat is that our work will need to be marketed if people are to discover it. Some of this will be free (posting to forums and social networks, reviews, word of mouth), some will require funds.

How can we ensure that criticism of our work is largely positive? As always, our finished writing must be immaculate. No excuses. This is all that we can do.

The work that we do towards each of these aims bolsters the others. Low prices boost circulation, high circulation exposes us to criticism, favourable criticism stimulates sales. The rest is down to the ivory roll of the dice.

Should you fail to heed these words, do not be surprised if you are roused from unconsciousness at three in the morning to find yourself drunk and penniless, abandoned in the alleyway behind a popular casino, your cape stained with rancid cream liqueur, and your body horrifically mauled by emancipated monkeys.