The Myth of Overnight Success (and why it’s bad for writers)

JordanBusiness of Writing, Craft, Writing. Practice.

by Jordan E. Rosenfeld

You know it when you see it: that author everyone is talking about all of a sudden. One day, you’ve never heard of him or her, the next minute, J.K. Rowling or Jonathan Franzen or someone whose name is now almost household appears out of the void of obscurity (to you). And because of the explosive nature of success, it looks as though t this success happened instantaneously. This person tossed off a book, found an agent and bam, a month later: bestselling magic!

But…it’s a myth. Overnight success is an especially damaging myth to writers.

Many years back I had the pleasure of interviewing authors for my radio show Word by Word, and as a contributing editor at Writer’s Digest Magazine. For a writer who is also a groupie of writers, it was one of the highpoints of my writing life. I spoke with hundreds of writers (including some of my faves: Aimee Bender, Isabelle Allende, Tess Gerritsen, Chuck Pahlaniuk Louise Erdrich, TC Boyle, Yann Martel). What I learned both from speaking to them, and also in my own long slog toward publication of my three books, is that overnight success is an utter myth. Not only is it a myth, and I mean for writers specifically, it’s a dangerous one to any writer who truly wants to make a career (by which I don’t necessarily mean money), and here is why:

Practice: Writing is a craft, and though talent can take you far, the only true way to produce anything good is through practice. Lots of it. A painter of landscapes I met once said she had to paint “miles of canvas” for every finished painting, and I think it is the same for writers. We must write libraries of words. Even if you are a beacon of shining raw talent, you probably have a trick or two to learn, a habit to curb, or a new way of writing you’d like to try out. I think writers age like fine wines, personally, and the more you polish, the better. And there’s all this pressure in the digital age to get books up fast and then faster, which often does you a disservice. First drafts can be written in a rush, but subsequent drafts need a bit of time.

Polish (with help): All of the authors I interviewed had a writing partner, a writing critique group, or an editor they worked closely with. They did not rely upon their own eyes at all times to catch what wasn’t working. Because they sought feedback, these authors also did revisions of their work. Some of them did many, many revisions. And while the word often terrifies newer writers, I firmly believe that real writing—real craft and certainly polish—happens in the revision.

Persist. Every writer I interviewed was famous for a “breakout” book; while this was their first published book, it was actually the author’s third or ninth written novel. Which was all to say if your first book doesn’t make magic, I beseech you, by the mother of all holy things, keep writing!

The moral of the story is: Overnight success comes after walking a road over time of practice, and persistence. Nothing is ever wasted as a writer. You’ve walked another step toward another mile. Anything else is rushing, and you know what your mother taught you about haste making…




JordanThe Myth of Overnight Success (and why it’s bad for writers)