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The Real Secret to Becoming a Successful Writer

On the myth of meritocracy.
writing and calligraphy

How do you become a successful writer? Successful writers offer predictable advice. "Perseverance is absolutely essential," J.K. Rowling says. "Read a lot and write a lot," Stephen King advises. "Write what you know," Rowling adds. "Perseverance," Ta-Nehisi Coates reiterates. Work hard, hone your craft, don't be discouraged by rejection, believe in yourself. Whether or not you are a successful writer depends on you: your dedication, your resilience, your personal qualities. Writing, as described by successful writers, is a meritocracy. It's a profession in which quality, talent, and most of all grit are rewarded.

It's understandable that very successful writers would see writing as a meritocracy. When you work hard to reach a goal, you naturally attribute any success to the hard work. Yet many talented people toil a lifetime and never become J.K. Rowling or Stephen King. On the other hand, some folks like, say, George Will or Maureen Dowd churn out piffle with no particular craft or insight, and are rewarded with cushy sinecures and prestigious bylines.

The truth is that, in writing, as in any profession, merit is only tangentially related to success, if at all. I'm not a hugely well-known writer, so I'm not the sort of person who generally gets asked for writing advice by eager young up-and-comers. But as a mid-level freelance content generator, with some decent bylines but no real chance at reaching that Times column in the sky, I do have some thoughts about how you (yes you!) can become a successful writer.

Become Really Famous Doing Something Else First

In writing, as in all things, who you are is more important than what you do. If you're a widely recognized politician or actor, it's relatively easy to parlay that notoriety into a writing career. Fox newscaster Bill O'Reilly has "written" a series of best-selling boilerplate history books with co-writer/ghostwriter Martin Dugard. These volumes leap off the shelves despite indifferent prose and the latest sexual assault allegations against O'Reilly.

Much less repulsively, Angelina Jolie has written a number of New York Times op-eds about everything from refugee policy to mastectomies. Jolie's columns are thoughtful, informative, and well written. But lots of people can write thoughtful, informative op-eds. Jolie was selected not because she had persevered as a writer more than any of her competitors, but rather because wildly famous actors who want to contribute op-eds to the New York Times get to contribute op-eds to the New York Times.

Have Strong Connections in the Publishing Industry

If you can't be somebody important, the next best thing you can do as an aspiring writer is to know someone important. The smartest thing that John Podhoretz ever did was to be born to conservative journalist superstars Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter—both writers and editors at Commentary, the magazine that the younger Podhoretz now edits. Screenwriter and director Nora Ephron was the daughter of Henry and Phoebe Ephron, both of whom were also screenwriters. Stephen King's son, Joe Hill, is also a successful horror writer.

This isn't to say that Hill or Ephron are bad writers. But, again, lots of people are hardworking and talented. To be successful, you need a little something extra. Being born into the right family will do it.

Be Privileged

Virginia Woolf pointed out that no woman could have written Shakespeare's plays because, in the age of Shakespeare, women faced huge barriers to becoming writers. Shakespeare might have had a sister "as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as he was," Woolf wrote. But where William was taught some Latin and Greek at school, his sister Judith would have been barred from education. She wouldn't have been allowed to act on the stage. If she had conceived a child out of wedlock—as William did—her life would have been ruined. Rather than becoming a great writer, Woolf says, Judith would have " killed herself one winter’s night and lie buried at some cross-roads where the omnibuses now stop outside the Elephant and Castle."

There's more support for women writers now, but there isn't equal support. Other marginalized groups face greater barriers to success too. A 2015 study by children's book publisher Lee & Low Books found that almost 80 percent of publishing and review journal staff in the children's book industry is white. That means that white people are more likely to have parents or relatives in the children's book industry to help them gain a foothold. It means, given the extensive segregation of American society, that white people are more likely to have friends and acquaintances in the children's book industry who can help them. And it means that book pitches by and about people of color are likely to be met with more skepticism and resistance. In fact, another 2016 Lee & Low survey found that only 28 percent of children's books published that year in the United States had a black, Latino, Asian, or Native American main character. That was a substantial increase over previous years—but the number of black, Latinx, and Native writers who wrote or illustrated children's books was much smaller, at only 6 percent.

I was able to pursue my own writing career in large part because I'm married, and my wife has a full-time job. That meant we had health insurance, so I was able to take a risk and quit my job to try freelancing. At the time I first went freelance, gay marriage was still illegal in most of the country. Being heterosexual gave me career choices as a writer that I wouldn't have had otherwise.

And, of course, having the money to get an expensive education, and network with the right people, is a huge boon to a writer. David Brooks came from an intellectual family who sent him to the University of Chicago. He wrote a satirical piece about William F. Buckley Jr., who was visiting the school that week. Buckley offered him an internship at National Review, which launched his career as a conservative commentator. If he'd been unable to afford University of Chicago tuition, he wouldn't be sneering at liberal elites in the New York Times today.

Be Lucky

Luck, by its nature, is unpredictable and unanalyzable. The right agent may happen to read your proposal at the right time. You could start writing for a small magazine that unexpectedly catches fire. Someone, somewhere is going to become a successful writer. Even if you aren't famous and don't have the right relatives, it might be you.

This is, broadly, the argument for focusing on work and craft, rather than on fame and privilege. You can't control who your parents are or your gender or sexuality. Thinking about your disadvantages can make you despair. Why not look at what you can control? Do the work as if it will be enough, and maybe it will.

The problem is that meritocracy isn't just a program for maximizing effort. It's an excuse for the status quo. If the best writers always meet with the most success, then we don't need to think about the inequities of the insurance market, or question whether children's book publishing choices are racist, or ask why the Times has more regular columnists named "David" than it has regular columnists who are black women.

Lots of extremely talented writers work very hard and have little to show for it. That's not because they didn't persevere as unflinchingly as David Brooks. It's not because they weren't as dedicated to their craft as Bill O'Reilly. It's because success in writing often has little to do with perseverance or dedication. The best writers don't always win. The world isn't always, or even regularly, just. So yes, work hard, write what you know, learn to handle rejection. But if you don't succeed, remember that meritocracy is a myth. Which means that, not infrequently, you can do everything right and still fail.