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How to Measure Your Success as a Writer

How do you know if you are succeeding as a writer? Success can be measured in a variety of ways and your self-esteem and mental health will thank you if you decide what those metrics are sooner rather than later.
Here are some ways that the industry collectively measures success.
How many titles do you have?
How many reviews does your book have?
What’s the average rating of your title on Amazon?
How many sales have you had today, this month, this year, last year?
My opinion is that NONE of the those factors should be used to measure your worth as a writer. At least not completely.
Take a look at that above list while considering the following question: What control do you have over those elements?
Those indicators of success are externally motivated and you have relatively little control over them.
Let’s do a quick run through and I’ll show you what I mean.
Number of titles. You have some control over this, but only some. Writing a novel is a complicated process that takes the time it takes. Some writers are prolific and can bust out a novel in a week, while others move at a more human pace and take a year or more to write a book. Sure, you can find some hacks to save you time and the more you write, typically the faster you become, but in my surveys of other author’s works, the books take the time they take. While you may be able to shave some time off your production schedule, building your back list takes time and you can’t manipulate time. (If someone’s figured out how to do that, you should definitely let me in on the secret!)
Number of Reviews/Rating Average. You can write the best book you are capable of. Hire a professional editor, pay for a fabulous cover, have the most excellent back cover blurb and then someone can leave a review that goes something like this:
“I’m giving this book a 2-star rating because the cover is purple and I hate purple.”
This is an extreme, sarcastic example, but we’ve all seen reviews that have nothing to do with the actual book or the quality of the content. What I’m saying is that reviews are subjective and arbitrary. Once you put your book out into the world, you don’t have a say who reads it, how they judge it, or whether they judge it fairly.
So before you hang your value as a writer and a human on a subjective set of standards, ask yourself this question.
Why do I write?
If your answer has anything to do with making money or receiving accolades, I might gently suggest that you back slowly away from your computer and keep your day job. Can writers make a living writing novels? Sure, they can. But will they? Will you? It takes more and more titles on your back list in order to gain traction in this current environment. And it takes the time it takes to write each book. You could absolutely drive yourself insane trying to write fast enough to build a back list of titles big enough, quickly enough, to be able to feed your family or make a car payment.
Instead of asking how the industry looks at success and then chase after that adult version of a popularity contest, why don’t you ask yourself what success looks like for you.
Maybe it’s composing a beautifully crafted sentence. Or maybe it’s completing a novel that has a difficult theme that is close to your heart. Maybe it’s just simply finishing a novel. Perhaps you measure success by looking at the quality of book you write, book over book, and being able to see improvement in your own personal craft.
My point is that measuring success needs to be very personal. You can’t let the world decide for you. History is littered with writers who made it big, after they died. Do you want to spend your whole life feeling like a failure, only to have your grandchildren revel in your posthumous success? That would sort of be a waste of your life, don’t you think?
You decide what success looks like and then you need to be willing to reevaluate from time to time. Success can be a moving target.
As a brand new writer, your biggest measure of success might be to simply get to the end of the story and be able to write ‘The End’. Once you’ve accomplished that goal, your measure of success might be holding your very own print book in your hands. There is some tangible proof of your success, right?
Don’t get me wrong, external feedback can be great. When you get a five star review from a complete stranger telling you how amazing your book is and that they are now a fan for life, you’ll be on cloud nine. But cloud nine can evaporate just as quickly as it formed.
Because you’ll eventually get the one star rating that reviews your work as super lame sauce with a cherry on top.
If you give yourself permission to feel worth as a writer based on arbitrary feedback, you are in for a roller-coaster ride of love and hate, doubt and pride. That roller coaster will make you crazy.
Do reviews matter? Sure they do. And so do book sales. But my point is that what should matter more to you than that is something that you can actually influence. You can directly determine whether your craft is any good (get an editor, take classes). You can determine if your cover is great (hire a designer and don’t settle for less than awesome).
But you can’t help it if an internet troll decides that they are going to go online today and give every book with green on its cover a bad review.
If on your first day as a novelist, you decide that success for you means topping the NY Times bestseller list, you’ll likely have a very long wait to feel successful. And chances are good that there will be many benchmarks along the way towards that grand prize where you could measure success.
Set small, attainable goals that move you toward your big one and celebrate every time you check something off the list. Your first sale. Celebrate it. Your first review, glory in that.
It’s okay to dream big, just give yourself some check points along the way to keep yourself going.
Happy Writing!
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