Writing for a Living

Interested in learning what it takes to be a professional writer?

You’re in the right place!

This is an in-depth guide to major topics that will help you understand what it means to make a living as a writer.

It’s an arduous journey, and you may spend years of struggling before you even get a single book published. Stick it out though, and you could fulfill your wildest dreams.

The rewards for success are limitless. With one book you could achieve everlasting fame, fortune, and reverence.

Your work could be adapted into games or movies played by beautiful actors and actresses.

But before you continue, let me say it again. It may take years to start seeing results.

However, if you are like me and willing to pursue your seemingly childish ambition to become a professional writer, then I promise this guide will help you.

Table of contents

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The life of a Writer

A woman sitting on her porch rail contemplating life as a writer.

The first thing you need to know is that writing is not a method for you to earn money fast.

If you are looking for a way to get a lot of money fast, I recommend gambling or selling drugs (Please do not do this. It was a joke. Those are terrible ideas and you will ruin your life if you do them)

In all seriousness though, writing is not an effective get rich scheme, so don’t quit your day job until you become successful. 

Some authors don’t see success until after 10 years of writing.

Don’t expect to make much money at first no matter how good you are. It’s important to keep reminding your self that it is a long term investment.

Writing your story can take years, and the process of getting an agent, contract with a publisher, and your book finally on a shelf may take several more.

Should you become a writer?

Do you have what it takes?

I hope so!

Listed below is a basic list of pros and cons that come with living as a writer.

General Lifestyle

Making a living as a writer can be just as much like a normal job as any, though the amount of work is based on how much you get done rather than set hours.

A typical day consists of many things depending on what kind of writer you are.

Some writers spend all day every day just writing. Others are busy balancing writing with marketing, promoting, or working a day job.

Your lifestyle as a writer depends on how successful you are as a writer, and how you can structure your life around writing and everything else you are involved in.

Want more? Here is an interesting article by James Clear, on The Daily Routines of 12 Famous Authors

Hours

The working hours of a writer can be both a blessing and a curse. Could you finish your daily work in a single hour?

Yes.

Could you also take ten hours to write one paragraph?

Yes again.

Between the self managing and conditions of creativity coming and going, the amount of time it takes can vary.

The good news is that many talented writers are able to set aside a certain number of hours every day and fulfill their writing obligations.

You get to choose your own working hours and the time of day you want to work, as long as you can successfully meet all deadlines.

Writing goals and deadlines

Page sizes vary, but the average word document is around 500 words long.

To show publishers that you are making progress on your work, many will expect a weekly report containing certain number of pages for your work.

Daily word counts are one method many writers utilize to stay on track.

This means that if you hold yourself accountable to writing three pages everyday, you will need to type 1,500 words.

And don’t worry about keeping count yourself, most writing software has a tool that can keep track of word count.

By creating daily goals for word count or number of pages, you can break the mentality of trying write an entire story and just focus on smaller goals that take it piece by piece.

Staying on Track

One of my favorite tactics to maintain self discipline is grounding myself.

I am not allowed to leave or have any fun until I finish my work. Most of us no longer have our parents to tell us that we are grounded if we don’t finish our work.

After researching article after article, one pattern popped up enough times it cannot be ignored.

Successful writers develop their own writing system.

It all starts with building habits.

To do this, create a routine that you follow every single day without fail.

Example:

Wake up at 8:00am every morning. Eat, drink, exercise, take a hot or cold shower, then sit your butt down and get ready to write by 9:00am.

Once you are writing, take away any distractions like emails, phone calls, or social media apps until you have a break.

Write and keep writing whether the content is garbage or amazing.

Take a break for lunch. Usually the range is around 30min to an hour.

After your break is over, it is time to get back to writing again. Keep writing without distractions until you have hit your writing goal.

Once you are finished for the day, call it good. There is always more writing to do, but it also is important to have a social life and do more than just work.

Go to bed at an appropriate time so you are well rested.

Rinse and Repeat.

By following a writing routine, you are able to train your mind- and more importantly your brain- to focus on writing during certain parts of the day.

Overcoming writers block

So you followed your writing routine, but somehow you still can’t get as much done as you would like to.

Following a routine can become difficult, especially if you get a bad case of writers block and stare at your computer screen for an hour contemplating your existence.

If you get stuck, dont fall into bad habits like checking your phone or surfing the web.

This will mess with your brain’s reward system and make writing all the more difficult and undesirable.

Instead, come up with a method to overcome writers block.

There are hundreds of methods to get your creativity flowing. Look up different techniques online and keep trying them out until you find one that works.

Here are some examples I think help:

  • Go for a walk
  • Do push ups and sit ups
  • Play with something
  • Meditate for 15 minutes
  • Ask myself what would make the situation more interesting
  • Outlining
  • Skip the current section and work ahead
  • Read for a timed amount of time
  • Review the characters in the scene
  • Take a step back to think outside the box

Writing is like falling asleep. If you can train your brain into a sleep schedule, your can train it to follow a writing routine.

Pros

Writing is the process of bringing your thoughts and ideas to life. In ancient times, people thought that written words were magic.

You could make symbols and some random knowledgable person would suddenly see images you wanted inside their head.

Magic.

At its best, writing for a living is exactly that.

There are so many great reasons to start writing.

Feeling of accomplishment

IT TAKES A LOT OF WORK TO FINISH YOUR FIRST STORY.

If you have finished your first book or short story, I am proud of you.

It takes a lot of effort and determination to focus on one story from start to finish. You will have to fight perfectionism, doubt, and a host of other thoughts that eat at your mind while you struggle through.

That being said, just finishing is a reward onto itself.

Passion

For many writers, the passion to bring your thoughts and ideas to life is what drivers them.

Sharing your story is like giving a gift to randoms strangers. You can make them feel a range of emotions and feelings that can influence them in powerful ways.

Personally, I never had a strong passion in life until I decided to write.

Then, like getting caught in a never ending hurricane, my life and my purpose have never been the same.

Without the dream or pursuing writing, there would be a void. Something missing in my soul.

If you share this passion with writing or any or activity, you know just how reward the thought of it can be.

You are your own boss

NO MORE MICROMANAGING!

Sick and tired of your boss ordering you to work on projects you don’t care about and to do them in a way you disagree with?

Know you can work on a rewarding project your way and on your own time.

It is your book and you are in charge. You can publish it if you want or just keep it buried away as a precious memory.

Want to kill off every character?

Go ahead!

Stories are a work of art and you are the artist.

Craft it how you want, when you want, and in any way you want.

Whether you spend two weeks or ten years working on your story, the choice is up to you.

Obviously if you get a contract with a publishing company you will have to produce your work within a given timeframe, but that time is yours to choose when you work as long as you get it done.

When you are judged by your finished work, everything up to that point is in your control.

The Money

No matter if you write in your free time as a hobby or you do it professionally, after a certain point in time a few things are likely to happen:

  • You will write multiple stories.
  • Your writing skills will gradually be honed and refined.
  • The amount of followers you have will grow.
  • Eventually you will be able to profit off of your writing.

I can’t say if you will become the next best selling author, but even if you are able to sell a few hundred copies, you will be making some money.

Health and creativity

Writing as a hobby or professionally is a great outlet for your creative mind.

Unleashing your creative side when you spend all day doing statistical analysis and data reconfiguration (That is Chandler’s job right?) is healthy for your brain.

For many people, writing can be a therapeutic process. The act of being in control of characters and their lives gives you a sense of empowerment.

Written communication skills

Simply put, the more time you spend trying to communicate, the be get at it.

You spend hours upon hours learning to communicate imagery and actions through words on a page.

Writing skills transfer.

You will write emails better, communicate your ideas better, and structure written concepts better.

Communicating has many more uses that just storytelling.

Cons

Nothing in life is ever perfect.

Especially writing.

Every word written and every statement made can and will be scrutinized.

Writing is difficult, and the pressure to perform breaks many aspiring writers.

If you are unsure that you want to travel the path to become a writer, then make sure you pay attention to the rewards as well as the consequences.

Loneliness

People are social creatures.

We need human interaction. Writing in a dark room by yourself all day with nothing but your thoughts, means at times, living in isolation and solitude

Quality is not black and white

Agents have a keen eye for talented writers, but judging the quality of your own writing is difficult to measure.

With everything going on inside your head, how can you ever decide if what you said or how you said it is truly great or utter garbage.

It can take years of practice before you can fundamentally understand how to create a captivating story that is written in a way that engages readers.

Mental health

Many writers are known to have mental health issues.

These include depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder.

With the pressures of writing, many authors risk falling to substance abuse, using alcohol, narcotics, and other drugs as either a method to cope with life, or to enhance their creativity.

Writing for a living can mean a life of living in you head. Make sure you can stand the one inside yours.

Pressure

Success is arbitrary and never certain.

One book could sell thousands of copies, and the next only a few hundred.

Make sure you can work knowing the odds are against you.

Your agent will need results.

Fans will want results.

You can’t blame writers block or anything else in life for preventing your from finishing.

Stress from meeting expectations will make you doubt your abilities and self-worth. Fighting those thoughts on a daily basis is a tough obstacle to overcome – especially if you are just starting out.

Opportunity Cost

Simply put, this is everything you will be giving up in the pursuit of becoming a successful writer.

  • All of the money you could have earned from a day job, part time job, or side hustle
  • Time spent with your kids, friends, and family
  • Building skills
  • Exercising and other hobbies
Focus and Determination

Set your sights on one story. No distractions, breaks, or starting on the many other stories bursting from your brain.

You have one goal.

To keep working on your current writing until you finish it.

You will have to learn the discipline to trust that other amazing opportunities need to be put off until later.

Fight through learning and prioritizing so many other things

To maximize the success and sales of your writing, you will need to incorporate many of the topics below.

  • Digital marketing
  • Graphic design
  • Editing
  • Publishing
  • Advertising
  • Merchandising
  • Storytelling
  • WordPress
  • Website design
  • Social Media
  • Blogging
  • Photoshop and cover art 

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Professional Quality Writing

What does professional quality writing look like?

How am I supposed to know if my writing is professional enough to get published?

Theses are common questions you need to ask yourself.

Learn

Learn as much as you can and never stop! There is always something you can learn about. Knowledge is what empowers someone with the tools they need to succeed.

You can learn about anything when it comes to down to it. So why not how to be a writer?

The first step to progressing in any skill, is to learn about what you are interested in.

Learn the basics.

Once you have a firm understanding of the fundamental part, delve a little deeper. Once you understand that, delve deeper again.

Rinse and Repeat until you are comfortable in your understanding.

As for applying this to writing, simply look over every aspect of my website. Then go to other websites and learn what they have to say.

When you are ready to write, it is time to move on to the next phase, practicing.

Practice

You can only go so far when all you do is learn.

At some point you will need to realize that its time to strap on your combat boots and head off to war. It’s time to apply what you know, try and try again, and most importantly fail until you succeed.

So how do you practice writing?

Just do it.

Whether you are writing a poem, short story, or novel, you will need to start practicing if you want to get any better at it.

Write a lot and write often.

If you are at the beginning stages, do not worry about making mistakes or creating a perfect work of art.

Just write.

Read

When your head decides to close off its creative capacity for the day, and any bit of imagination fizzle out like a lackluster kazoo, then it is time for a different approach.

Reading is extremely important to understand what quality writing looks like.

Don’t know how to structure your dialogue or how to describe a vivid piece of your world?

Find a book that does it well, and mirror what that author did. Analyze their style and find patterns that exploit their methods for success.

Reading successful books is to great writing as exercising is to a great body

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Editing

Self-Editing
  1. Start to finish
    • Speed through your first draft to get all your basic ideas on the page and a firm idea of what is supposed to happen
  2. Fix major holes in the story
    • Basically this edit is for making sure the plot and subplots all make sense and don’t leave the reader thinking “WHaT??”
  3. Correct minor holes and inconsistencies
    • Make sure that any changes were accounted for when going through. If you changed dialogue in chapter 3, make sure that the old dialogue is not mentioned again in chapter 17.
  4. Improve areas that are lacking
    • Add better dialogue, narrative, emotion, cliff hangers, etc.
    • This is the time to spice up your work
  5. Flow and Voice
    • Reduce passive voice
    • Read your story out loud
  6. Grammar
    • Punctuation, correct spelling, and other common mistakes

I personally believe in having six rough drafts completed in this order because it takes care of the big issues first, and then gradually works its way to fixing the smaller problems.

Won’t be doing unnecessary work that you will have to do later.

If you edited out of this order, then you could fix grammar only to have to rewrite and entire chapter and redo the grammar on it again.

Save yourself the time from editing parts that will just end up changing later on. Fix the major problems now, and the little things later.

Beta readers

What they are:

Beta testers are groups of people who test out a product before a company releases it to the market.

It is a great way to get reviews from a small group of relevant consumers that mimic your target audience.

The first people that will read your work and give feedback are known as Beta readers.

How does someone get beta readers?

The easiest way is to join writers groups on Facebook (such as Beta readers and critique partners)

How does it work?

Quid Pro Quo. 

They will read and give feedback on your work if you do the same for them.

Post a synopsis of your story with a description of its genre and word count. If someone thinks you will be a good fit, they will contact you. And if you see someone’s post and think they would be a good fit for you, contact them.

Role of a beta reader

Beta readers are not there to nitpick your story.

It doesn’t matter if they would have made a dragon swoop in to kill the king or not, its your story not theirs.

Of course they can give an opinion, but it is just that. You know your story better than they do, so change anything if you think it belongs.

Rule of thumb for beta reading and critiquing:

According to best selling author Brandon Sanderson, beta readers should spend much less time critiquing little details and focus more on emotion.

How did a scene or chapter make them feel and why?

This helps you way more because you will know if what you intended to do hit the mark or not.

After all, eliciting emotion is the most important goal for your work.

***

Getting Published

Traditional Publishing

If your dream is to make it big and sell a million hard copies and have fan signings and do book tours, then traditionally publishing might be the choice for you.

Many writer have a goal to sign a substantial contract with one of the big 5 companies in publishing.

They are book powerhouses and sell more copies than anyone else. With their support, you will have a high chance of success.

Click here for a list of the publishing companies with the most sales in 2016

Resources:

(What publishers want) https://www.writersservices.com/resources/what-do-publishers-want#:~:text=Publishers%20want%20authors%20who%20use,stories%20or%20features%20for%20them.

Literary agents

If you want to be traditionally published, you will need to find and get representation from a literary agent.

Literary agents are the people responsible for getting your stories into the hands of publishers.

Why do you need an agent?

Because publishers get thousands and thousands of manuscripts every year, and agents are a filter that make sure that publishers only see quality works worth publishing.

This a good thing. There are way more agents to look at your work. That means a higher success rate for getting published.

Agents also know and understand the industry. They know what publishers are looking for, and who they should send your manuscript to.

When publishers do decide to offer you a contract, agents are responsible for negotiating on your behalf.

They are also much better at negotiating than you would be.

They have connections to people

How do you get a literary agent?

Now you know why you need an agent, but how do you get one?

First: you will need to find an agent through a variety of source, but research literary agents over the internet to find agencies and recommendations.

When you spot an agent that matches the qualifications for your target audience, story, and genre you will need to message them.

Second: you will need to follow the literary agent’s submission requirements through an email with specific formatting, and additional information.

Additional information needed may include a brief bio of your experience as a writer, any works you’ve completed/published, a query letter, a synopsis of your story, and up to 3 chapters of your story.

Third: Wait for reply. You could end up waiting six months to hear back. And it might be a rejection, so apply to more than one agent at a time.

Additional Sources:

Literary Agents- https://publishedtodeath.blogspot.com/2014/08/agents-looking-for-science-fiction-and.html (fiction/fantasy agencies)

What Publishers Hate- https://www.ian-irvine.com/for-writers/what-publishers-hate/

Self-Publishing

Getting and agent is really hard and even if they spend months sending your manuscript to every decent publisher in existence, it still might not work out.

What are you left to do?

You poured your heart and soul into creating that story and you’ll be damned if it doesn’t get published.

Luckily you can publish online without an agent or traditional publisher, and in some cases make a lot more money.

Vanity press agents: Watch out for these kinds of offers. A vanity press will ask you to pay to have your book published.

You should never have to pay to have your book published.

***

Marketing

Let’s say you wanted to know how to be a writer that sells books for a living.

If you want to make money from writing you need to sell your book to thousands of people.

Selling books requires an audience that knows about and wants your books.

Getting an audience to know about your books requires marketing.

If you want sales, then you need to market your book.

Lesson on Marketing

If you want to sell copies of your book and you are not already an established author, you will need to find a way to generate sales.

The good news is you don’t need a college degree to understand the basic ways you will market your stories.

Target audience:

You need to decide who you are marketin to. You can’t say you want to sell your product to everyone and expect them to buy it.

Would a 50 year old mechanic want to read a childrens story about how great it is to be rich?

Probably not.

You would want to advertise car instruction manuals to them, or interesting modifications you can do to cars.

The same goes for your audience.

Write and market your story to the right audience based on:

  • Age
  • Genre
  • Niche (specific type of story like cyberpunk)

Marketing Funnel:

This marketing and sales principal describes the journey a customer takes from their initial interest to purchasing your product.

  1. Awareness: Customers need to become aware of your products existence.
  2. Consideration: Provide more content to engage consumers interested in your product
  3. Conversion: Ask consumers to buy your product
Building an audience

Having a following on social media or forums dedicated to writing shows proof of your skill to publishers.

In other words, the more followers you have, the more likely you will generate sales and be successful.

Listed below are common ways to build a following:

Blogs: Prove your knowledge to fans and publishers by writing about topics that relate to your content

Short stories: Writing short stories is a great way to get a lot more content out that can reach different demographics.

Videos (youtube): Create engaging content to get views and subscriptions.

Poems: Showcase your poetic skills to the world and post them on platforms that get the best results.

Guides: Write guides on writing. Thats what I did :).

Social media: Using instagram, facebook, twitter, reddit, LinkedIn, and other platforms is extremely important. Engage your audience and grow your following.

Advertising: Most marketing campaign need advertising to be successful. There are many types of advertising methods such as Search Results Ads, Display Ads, Popup Ads, Email Ads, and many more. Expect to shell out some cash if you want some fact traction.

Enter writing contests: Awards from winning any writing contest are a great method to showcase your skills and convince publishers and viewers that your content is worth reading. https://blog.reedsy.com/writing-contests/

Network at events: *sigh* It’s not what you know, but who you know. People are driven by emotions. Unless you want to be another name on a submission that gets thrown away, connecting with people in the industry is the best way to get your foot in the door.

Interacting with people: Not just industry professionals. Interact with everyone. Interact on content, opinions, on forums, etc. This is how you will promote yourself.

Website: Build a free website on WordPress. Write engaging content. Get traffic.

***

Making Money

How much should you expect to make from your book?

Honestly, that is an impossible question because nobody can predict the success a book will have.

There are indicators that can help, such as:

  • Do you already have a fan base?
  • How well written is the book?
  • Are you a marketing wiz?
  • Have you published before?

The truth is, unless you are already an established author, your book could flop or sell millions of copies, and nobody can tell you which one until it’s been on the market for a while.

How much money would you make?

Agent FEEs = 15%

But lets say for instance your book sells 20,000 copies throughout its lifetime.

Let’s do some math.

Traditional publishers will pay around $2,000 – $10,000 as a signing bonus for a manuscript and its rights. Once the book is released and sales are generated, authors will earn around 12% of the sales from royalties after the initial signing bonus is paid back.

In this case, say you got paid $5,000 up front for signing. Your books sells for $15 each and you sold 20,000.

$15 x 20,000 copies = $300,000.

You get 12% after the first $5,000 is paid back.

$300,000 x 0.12 = $36,000 – $5,000 =

$31,000

But wait! We cant forget about our agent (15%)

$31,000 x (100% -15% = 85%)

$26,350

If you become an established author selling around 20,000 copies a year, you might want to go the route of self publishing.

Authors that self publish make 40% – 75% on their royalties depending on the median they publish on.

Examples include Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, and IBooks.

Let’s do some more math (I know sorry). This is what selling 20,000 copies looks like when self publishing.

20,000 copies at $15 = $300,000

With 40% royalties

$300,000 x 0.40 =

$120,000

But wait! we cant forget about agent fees (15%)

$120,000 x (100%-15%=85%)

$102,000

Compared to $26,350 from traditional publishing, $102,000 is a much better number.

Just remember, that while self publishing is more profitable, it is also much harder and work intensive when it comes to editing, marketing, advertising, promoting, and overall selling.

Book Advances

When

Amounts

Tradition is based on the belief that writers need that sum of money to live off of while either waiting for their book to publish or while they work on their next book.

Nowadays however, that sum is only enough to keep someone afloat for a few months. It can take years for a book to finally get released into stores, so the advance is more of a signing bonus.

Royalties

What are royalties? When someone buys your product (book, story, poem, etc) the publisher will pay you a percent of the money from that sale.

According to Self-PublishingSchool, typical royalties from a traditional book contract are around 10%-12%.

That means for every $10.00 of your product sold, you will earn between $1.00 and $1.20.

For self published authors, the royalties are much higher between 40% and 60%.

Why doesn’t everyone self publish?

Because traditional publishers have a much greater reach when it comes to advertising and promoting books. You may not get as high a royalty, but you will definitely get more sales.

What you write about and the number of people it will reach

Mainstream content anything that is more likely to be popular by appealing to a larger mass of people.

Niche genres or indie books are going to be much harder to sell. They appeal to a very specific group of people with more narrow interest.

***

Advice

Writing isn’t for everyone. It may be too daunting to even start when looking at how far you will have to go. You need to decide it writing is even worth it to you.

And thats okay!

Everyone has to start somewhere. What you need to decide, is what you are willing to do. One way to achieve your goals is the SMART method

Smart Goals

Goals are the object of a person’s ambition or effort that aim accomplish a desired result.

How do you know if the goal you choose is the right one?

Make sure that any goal you have (for writing or otherwise) follows the SMART guidelines listed below.

Specific: You will need to set a specific goal for what you want.

Measurable: Your goal needs some what for you to measure if you are succeeding so you can evaluate your progress

Attainable: Be realistic and honest with yourself. Are you going to be the next JK Rowling? Nope, but selling 50,000 copies is certainly possible

Relevant: Is your goal worthwhile to what you really need?

Timely: Decide on a target range of time for when you need to accomplish your goal. If it takes longer than anticipated, adjust.

How not to write a boring book

Learn as much as you can and practice as much as you can. Read great books for inspiration, and analyze how great authors create meaningful stories.

If you are brand new and want to learn how to write stories, I recommend looking over these sections:

Another important tip, is to learn about your genre and read similar stories to the one you want to write. This is crucial if you plan to write to a niche market.

There are certain tropes and expectations that every genre contains. Romance novels all have love conflicts. Mysteries are all about solving a case using clues.

If you can write your unique story with your genre’s standards, you will increase your chances for success.

After all, people love things that feel familiar but are different.

Writing OCD

Have you ever just stared at your screen for an hour going over every single detail or implacation that one line of dialogue could impact.

Worrying about one sentence or paragraph or result of a characters action will delay you more than anything.

When you get frozen – and believe me you will-

Do your best to remember that no book is written the way it is published. Most books go through countless revision to perfect its contents, and many times there are still mistakes!

Do not worry about specifics too much for your first draft. It’s called a rough draft for a reason.

You will be editing and changing parts of your story. Just try to get your story down

Be patient with your progress and results. As long as your story is unique, interesting, and makes sense, readers will enjoy it.

Start doing a little bit more everyday

Terrified of the idea that you will need to start a website?

I sure was!

It took me months to craft this website into what it is today, but I did.

And you can too.

Be brave and do a little more than you did yesterday. Just like trying anything new, you always start knowing nothing and gradually get better at it.

Get your basic thoughts and ideas down and them go back and edit in everything you do, otherwise you will get stuck with the endless possibilities that can hold you down with everything you do

Keep an idea book

One problem that many writers face, is getting side tracked.

How many times do you start with one story only to get a passionate rush with the thought of another one?

Stop writing the story you are stuck on now and switch to the one you are motivated by?

Thats where an idea book comes in.

You can use a notebook, diary, journey, or even google docs (I use it for literally everything)

Any time you get an interesting sotry idea, or think of a new story you might want to create, write it down.

By putting it on a piece of paper or organizing it in your files, you can tell yourself that if and when you might need it, it will be there waiting.

Its also a great way so come up with ideas for your current story. Something might not fit into your story now, but that doesn’t mean it wont later.

Never Give Up

Writing for a living is hard work.

But if writing is your passion and your dream, don’t let anyone tell you to stop.

Write and fail and write and fail and keep writing and keep failing!

Fail so hard it hurts.

Then get back up and keep going because nothing should ever stop you.

Be patient with yourself and your progress.

Good Luck!

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