If someone had asked me in my early days as a book coach what quality was most critical to a writer’s success, I would have said perseverance. It was the thing that most obviously separated the writers who made it from those who didn’t. After all, in order to succeed, you have to finish, and in order to finish, you have to stick with it, day after day, month after month, year after year, whether the writing is going well or not. Perseverance trumps procrastination and doubt – the two things that tend to derail a great many writers.
While I still consider perseverance to be paramount, another quality has risen to the top of my list of qualities critical to a writer’s success: the ability to receive feedback.
In my early interactions with a potential client, I can tell what their general stance is on feedback. They fall somewhere on the spectrum from closed and defensive on the one side and open and willing to learn on the other.
CLOSED/DEFENSIVE <————————> OPEN/WILLING TO LEARN
Someone who is closed and defensive thinks they already know it all. They are hyper protective of their idea and their vision and if they seek help at all, it is under the guise of wanting confirmation that what they have written is already great. They don’t really want feedback; they want a quick “win.”
But winning is not a place you arrive; it’s a way you behave. And the most successful writers behave with a growth mindset.
That’s the term coined years ago by Dr. Carol Dweck, a Stanford professor of psychology and author of the book, Mindset. A growth mindset is the opposite from a fixed mindset. It means you are flexible and open, always willing to learn:
“The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.”
Here’s what a growth mindset tends to look like in writers:
- The writer is open to improving. They are not afraid to look at their skills and to assess them. They acknowledge the areas where they could be better. They welcome honest feedback.
- The writer is willing to learn. They read in their genre to see how writers they admire approach a character or a scene or a structural element. They read books and blogs about writing to learn from wise teachers. They go to lectures, partner with other ambitious writers, seek out a coach to help them get strong.
- The writer wants to know how their work impacts their readers. They want the outcome to be effective and make an impact. They consider the end-goal of the work, not just how it makes them feel as they write.
- The writer works hard to bring their vision to life, focusing on the work and not on external measures of success. One of my clients recently finished a draft of a novel; it is her second, and her first did not sell. She was starting to feel closed and fearful about the new book, until she recognized that feeling, and made a switch. She began to focus on what she calls “the satisfaction of excellence.” The satisfaction of excellence has nothing to do with landing an agent, getting a big book deal, or making a lot of money. It has to do with mastering the craft.
- They are grateful for the chance to write, the time to write, the space to write. They are grateful for the people who support them and for their readers, no matter how small or large the number.
Good writing takes a very long time to develop – 10,000 hours spent trying to spin a tale or an argument, trying to find your voice. Having a growth mindset means that you don’t just sit alone during those 10,000 hours, banging away and ignoring the rest of the world. You seek to get better every time you write. You seek the satisfaction of excellence.
Jennie has worked in publishing for more than 30 years. She is the author of four novels, three memoirs, and The Writer’s Guide to Agony and Defeat. An instructor at the UCLA Extension Writing Program for 10 years, she is also the founder and chief creative officer of Author Accelerator, an online program that offers affordable, customized book coaching so you can write your best book. Find out more about Jennie here, visit her blog, discover the resources and coaching available at her Author Accelerator website, and connect online.