Advice for Beginning Storytellers

Ira GlassIra Glass:

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not.

But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this.

And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

Ira Glass (born March 3, 1959) is an American public radio personality, and host and producer of the radio and television show This American Life.

See the video here.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were a brand-new beginner?

Thanks to Bonnie Grove for pointing this out to me!

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Books & Such Literary Agency. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!

61 Comments

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  3. Paula Grant-LeClaire on October 8, 2011 at 8:29 PM

    I wish that I had never listened to the old adage “write every day”. It’s not my style and I simply cannot do it meaningfully. It took me 10 years to finally realize that I wasn’t a bozo for not being able to write every day and feeling bad about it. I finally figured out how to do my own work schedule that agrees with my style and personality and am more productive than ever.



  4. Dee Krull on October 8, 2011 at 6:18 AM

    Being an Artist, Singer and Writer, I have experienced exactly what Ira Glass talks about. I started to paint when I was in grade school. I will be 65 in January and now I am a true artist.(According to my friends and family)

    I have been singing since I was five. Seven years ago I joined a community choir but it wasn’t until this year that I truly became a Singer.

    I have been writing since high school, even published. I published my first book this year.

    As I write the next book in a series of five I realize how much I have learned and how much better this next book will be. I could feel bad about my just published book, I know it isn’t as good as it could be, but I have others on the shelf that will be that much better because of that first book.

    What do I wish someone had told me when I was a brand-new beginner? I’m not sure I would have listened to be honest. I think more encouragement from my parents when I was in school.

    The things I experienced in life, good or bad, have shaped the person I am and who I was meant to be. It is reflected in my art, music and writing.

    Thanks Ira, you said it all.



  5. Kimberly on October 8, 2011 at 1:41 AM

    Brilliant quote!

    I’m still very much a beginner, and this gives me great hope that I will eventually write the way I want to on paper and not just in my head.

    I think reading good stuff, stuff above your current writing ability is key to stretching yourself to reach your potential.



  6. David A. Todd on October 7, 2011 at 10:38 PM

    I have to give three things, not one.

    1. Genres exist for a reason (i.e. reader expectations and preferences); learn the expectations of your genre before you write the book. I’d have written my first book differently.

    2. You will have to do most of the marketing for your book(s). I might have walked away before the writing bug bit me.

    3. You will have to spend as much time developing a platform as you do writing. I might have walked away even after the writing bug bit, before the infection really sunk in.



  7. Maril Hazlett on October 7, 2011 at 10:37 PM

    I wish someone had told me that learning to be a writer is like becoming a runner – you need to train a little bit everyday.



  8. Stephen King on October 7, 2011 at 9:21 PM

    Ira Glass is awesome, and this post is excellent.

    I wish I’d listened several months ago to the advice several people had for me. Granted, if I had, I wouldn’t have had such an interesting topic as Requiem for a Pseudonym to post about in my own blog today, but I also wouldn’t have wasted as much time.



  9. Christopher J Gaumer on October 7, 2011 at 8:27 PM

    Good Lord – one story a week? If I write 4 hours a day, I need three months.



  10. Brianna on October 7, 2011 at 8:26 PM

    I adore Ira Glass. Thanks for sharing.



  11. Sarah M. on October 7, 2011 at 7:55 PM

    I wish someone had told me that the correct way to craft a story is to do what works for me. There is no tried and true correct way. I also wish someone had been there with a whip to not only make me finish a story but to take the time to do a second draft.

    This advice is brilliant and I’m going to spread it to every beginner I know.



  12. Kristin Laughtin on October 7, 2011 at 7:30 PM

    Your first draft doesn’t have to be perfect.

    Needing five drafts doesn’t mean your story sucks.



  13. Liz on October 7, 2011 at 7:21 PM

    Great blog!

    Even if someone had told me how much hard work went into writing I wouldn’t have believed them. But it is hard work and it is fun and the more you do it, the better you get at it. And to keep going. Also, editing and revising is even harder but ultimately, so incredibly satisfying. Writing isn’t for quitters.



  14. Larry Carney on October 7, 2011 at 4:29 PM

    Grab a snorkel and harpoon, because there’s sharks in the water.



  15. Allison Duke on October 7, 2011 at 4:10 PM

    Great post. Even though I’ve been writing stories since kindergarten and “novels” since age 10, I still feel like a brand-new beginner. My early stuff was so terrible that I always want to shred or delete it when I find it now. Now that I’ve been working at it for over 20 years, I’m starting to be able to read what I write without cringing at the sheer awfulness of it. Maybe in a few more years I’ll be able to write something others will want to read.



  16. elaine @ peace for the journey on October 7, 2011 at 3:58 PM

    Who knew that Mexico didn’t produce enough salsa for itself?

    Interesting watch… great encouragement.

    peace~elaine



  17. Shilpa on October 7, 2011 at 3:56 PM

    I wish someone told me about rejections! I wrote my first draft dreaming my book would be gobbled up the day the publishers receive it! And yes, that I would be very rich! Haha. That was during my pre-research period when only getting the story on paper mattered. Now I am wiser and yes, time is the best teacher.



  18. Dawn Ford on October 7, 2011 at 2:26 PM

    AHHHHHHHHH! And that ladies and gentleman was a collective sigh of relief. Great post! Great comments! I needed both today!



  19. Flower Patch Farmgirl on October 7, 2011 at 2:10 PM

    Well, I am a brand new beginning and this made so much sense to me. Thanks, Ira! I’ve always known you are one cool cat.



  20. Catherine Johnson on October 7, 2011 at 1:51 PM

    That is great advice! There’s no time limit on that stage so no wonder you prematurely sub in the semi-early days.



  21. Jared Garrett on October 7, 2011 at 1:43 PM

    Rachelle and Ira, this is exactly what I needed today. Kinda weepy now.



  22. Theresa Froehlich on October 7, 2011 at 1:03 PM

    Children don’t evaluate their creative work or censor their creative activity. Adults tend to judge and evaluate so often that we stop creating.

    I have learned to accept creativity as a journey. A journey always has stepping stones.

    Coach Theresa



  23. Christy on October 7, 2011 at 12:48 PM

    I love this description: not yet being able to living up to your own taste. Thanks for the encouragement!



  24. Heather Hawke on October 7, 2011 at 12:16 PM

    Write for your audience. If you don’t want to write in a way they want to read, choose a different target age/genre. But I don”t know if I would have listened.



  25. haley on October 7, 2011 at 12:15 PM

    I wish someone had told me not to expect my first ten books to be good. Because that’s how long it takes for your writing skills to catch up with your potential. That means you should go ahead and write those books, but don’t get too attached to them. Because practice is important… but it never makes perfect.



  26. Donna K. Weaver on October 7, 2011 at 12:12 PM

    I’ve loved this quote since the first time I heard it. Thanks for the reminder.



  27. joan Cimyotte on October 7, 2011 at 11:58 AM

    Well…45 years ago Sister James Marie told me to learn grammar, spelling, penmanship. Read “Ivanhoe” “A Tale of Two Cites” and a host of other classics. I think that was good advice.



  28. Stephanie McGee on October 7, 2011 at 11:47 AM

    I wish someone had told me early on when I started writing in high school not to edit as I go when it comes to my first draft. And by edit, I mean finish a chapter and print it out then spend all my energy and efforts reworking it over and over rather than writing the rest of the story.

    There are a multitude of reasons it took 8 years to finish that book. This is one of them.

    (I’m a much faster writer these days since I’ve learned not to edit as I go.)



  29. Mary Ruth Pursselley on October 7, 2011 at 11:07 AM

    I wish someone would have told me that my first ‘novel’ (written at age 14) wouldn’t be a bestseller–or wouldn’t even get published, for that matter–but that it was important to write it anyway, to learn the craft. I could have focused my efforts on learning to be a better writer rather than wasting energy dreaming of being on the Today Show and being rich and famous and people asking for my autograph in the grocery store.
    I might not have listened to whoever told me that, but I wish they would have told me anyway.



  30. Adam Porter on October 7, 2011 at 10:34 AM

    As a green as grass 20yo I started writing for a local rag published by a 50-year “ink in his blood” newspaper vet. I started writing editorial pieces for him. About 3 months in I wrote a “Christmas” story.

    After it was published he showed me a similar piece he’d written a few years prior. The difference was substantial. He told me: “I loved your premise, but you rushed the final product. Take your time, think a little more. Never submit your second draft.”

    One of the many lessons that stuck with me. Now, after 15 years of bylines, I still follow that rule.



  31. Susan Bourgeois on October 7, 2011 at 10:22 AM

    Writing has always been a passion for me, even when I didn’t realize it.

    I’ve always nurtured my writing but I wish someone would have told me to nurture it outwardly.

    I wish someone would have told me two things.

    1) If this is your passion, learn about it from the ground up.

    2) Don’t give up early on in the submitting process, continue to refine your work until you get it right.

    That’s how I look at it now. I’ve been writing for pleasure for four decades.

    I’ve only recently begun to tap into the world of writing a novel. I put a great deal of time and effort in learning the process and I’m loving every minute of it.

    Anything we attempt in life gets better the more we do it.

    When I first got married I wanted to be a great cook like my grandmother from New Orleans and my Cajun in-laws.

    I bought one of the top cookbooks in the area “Talk About Good” and that’s where I began to practice.

    I had a passion for cooking. I wanted to be great at it. My husband complimented my first attempts and over the years I’ve become an accomplished cook.

    I don’t think this is any different than what I am working towards in the area of writing.



  32. Heather on October 7, 2011 at 10:02 AM

    This quote has been making rounds on facebook, & it was interesting to hear the response from my friends who are professional (like, disney and pixar) artists. They agreed with it only 50%…The gap is lifelong, not just a few years, and your taste is NOT killer. (I have years and years to go before I close this gap.)



  33. otin on October 7, 2011 at 9:13 AM

    I keep plugging along. When I go back and reread some of the hundred short stories I’ve written in the past few years, I cringe at my early ones. Some of them need total rewrites. Every day I learn something new. One thing about me…I never quit!



  34. Peter DeHaan on October 7, 2011 at 9:09 AM

    I wish I had been told that there is much more to writing then just writing.



  35. Kathrine Roid on October 7, 2011 at 8:56 AM

    I think I personally needed to have “write every day” repeated more times and ground tighter into my mind. Interestingly, it’s related to what Ira Glass said: “It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions.”

    That is getting committed to memory. 😀



  36. Wendy on October 7, 2011 at 8:47 AM

    That last line sometimes feels like the story of my life.
    Hmm…hunt for the story. (And don’t stop hunting for it.) That’s what would have been good to hear early on.
    ~ Wendy



  37. Vanessa (PurpleSong) on October 7, 2011 at 8:44 AM

    What do I wish someone had advised me when I was starting out?
    To keep it simple, stupid(or silly!) K.I.S.S.
    Our lives are complex and to put into story is even more challenging, because there is always so much detail. Our journey is never a straight path! It took me a number of tries to get my story down (thriver of abuse, lost voice when my music partner and I broke up, then gained it back and now give back to other abuse survivors.)
    It’s better to say just the important bits and leave some detail out, because if people want detail that’s when they’ll go to buy the book, or whatever!~



  38. Susan L. Anderson on October 7, 2011 at 8:18 AM

    As a beginner, (hopefully near the intermediate stage), I’ve often thought, I don’t know how my writing will improve. How can it get better than this?! Although frustrating, I have reckoned with it somewhat. It’s like having your first baby and with all the new demands, you can’t understand how anyone can have more than one child. Then, you get pregnant again, and again. Then you see. I have also discovered that setting out to write is like gazing at a Degas` painting and deciding to become a Prima ballerina.



    • Kathrine Roid on October 7, 2011 at 9:03 AM

      “I have also discovered that setting out to write is like gazing at a Degas` painting and deciding to become a Prima ballerina.”

      This made me laugh – because it is true.



  39. carol brill on October 7, 2011 at 8:05 AM

    I wish my first writing group had told me how much work my early writing needed. In an effort to be supportive, they were kind and encouraging, and usually not very critical. In my experience, Writing groups walk a fine edge, they support us to keep us writing and sometimes, are too kind.



  40. Anne Love on October 7, 2011 at 7:53 AM

    Wonderful piece of encouragement, as well as all the comments. Thanks.



  41. Sharon A Lavy on October 7, 2011 at 7:41 AM

    You can’t run a marathon successfully without training and practice.



    • Susan L. Anderson on October 7, 2011 at 8:44 AM

      Yes, I agree. No matter how talented you are, you’ve got to work out.



  42. Jackie Ley on October 7, 2011 at 5:35 AM

    I wish someone had told me I needed to have patience and settle in for the long haul. Also it took me too long to get involved with online writing communities which is where I’d have found out I needed to settle in for the long haul!



  43. Addy Rae on October 7, 2011 at 4:06 AM

    Three things.

    1. Take the time to learn how to structure your plotting. I can plot all I want, but without understanding more about structure, I was flailing and wasting time.

    2. Your first draft will be horrifically bad. This says nothing about you, and it does not mean you are a terrible writer. It does mean that you need to learn to revise.

    3. Line edits and revisions are NOT the same. Do structural revisions first and don’t get bogged down on line edits on parts you will eventually cut!



    • Jaimie on October 7, 2011 at 11:46 PM

      Couldn’t have said it better.



  44. Alex C. Telander on October 7, 2011 at 3:28 AM

    Thank you for this Rachelle. Of course, some times we think we’ve breached that gap when we haven’t . . . but then that’s all part of the mantra of “Never give up!” and “Don’t stop trying!”



  45. Aimee L. Salter on October 7, 2011 at 2:13 AM

    I wish someone had told me that learning the craft takes time – but you’ll come up with a satisfactory product FASTER by putting the writing aside and learning for a while, than you by just writing alone.



  46. Thedesertrocks on October 7, 2011 at 2:13 AM

    A great post and I wish I knew then….



  47. Jessica Naccari on October 7, 2011 at 1:56 AM

    Thanks. I needed this today. And everyday probably. 🙂



  48. Angelica Weatherby on October 7, 2011 at 1:52 AM

    Will be put into posts to refer a writer to when I see they need it. This is a great post you made here. I love doing NaNoWriMo and hanging out with writers and reading agent blogs is addicting. Thanks for sharing!



  49. Dean K Miller on October 7, 2011 at 1:43 AM

    Of all the words you’ll write, none are more important than the one that comes next…



  50. Cheryl Barker on October 7, 2011 at 12:50 AM

    I wish someone had told me the importance of being involved in writing groups — in person and online (and yes, through blogs like yours, Rachelle!) We gain so much knowledge, encouragment, and camaraderie when we surround ourselves with other writers and folks in the publishing industry. Invaluable help!



  51. Jo Eberhardt on October 7, 2011 at 12:41 AM

    That’s great advice.

    When I was beginning, the one thing I wish someone had said was:

    Just do it. Believe in it. Don’t study something you hate just because it’s the “right thing to do”. Don’t give up on writing because it’s “not practical” and “it won’t get you a job”. Believe in yourself and believe in your dream. If you follow your dream, it might not come to pass. But if you don’t follow it, it definitely won’t.



  52. Beth MacKinney on October 7, 2011 at 12:35 AM

    Keep writing and don’t waste the postage.

    ; )



    • Beth MacKinney on October 7, 2011 at 8:50 PM

      At least, not for awhile. : )



  53. Krista Phillips on October 7, 2011 at 12:30 AM

    The thing about being a beginner is this: There are some things you just have to figure out yourself.

    You can be told “Your first book won’t sell, you have to write more!” a billion times, but the beginner still holds out hope. (okay, well, THIS beginner did/does, HA!)

    People can tell you that it takes years to get published, but in the back of your brain, there is this thought that, just maybe I’m different, that I can be the one that editors see and go WOW, I like HER!

    Then rejections roll in. Critiques are given. And reality begins to settle in.

    It’s kinda like telling a teenager pretty much anything. THEY know everything… and it isn’t until they grow up a little that they realize how little they actually knew.

    But I still want to get that first novel published…



    • Sarah Thomas on October 7, 2011 at 11:23 AM

      Exactly! Why do they even TELL us those stories about people who published their first draft and got an awesome book deal through an editor they met on an airplane?



    • TC Avey on October 10, 2011 at 9:24 AM

      I hadn’t thought of it like a teenager before…it made me laugh at the similarities and want to cry at them too!



  54. Nancy S. Thompson on October 7, 2011 at 12:12 AM

    So there’s hope for me yet, huh? Good! But I’m kind of disappointed. I love my first story. I don’t want to give up on it. Thanks for telling us what no one bothered to tell you. Much appreciated!



    • TC Avey on October 10, 2011 at 9:22 AM

      I’m in your boat, but I’m not giving up on my first story or my second. I will go back and edit, but I’m not giving up. I love them too much! I’m sure you feel the same way. Hang in there!



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