How Writing for a Living Didn’t Prepare Me to Write for a Living

A few months ago I wrote a post for Career Authors in which I talked about how my experience as a copywriter came in handy for novel-writing.

As hinted in the piece, there’s another side to that coin, a gap between expectation and reality in the transfer of writing skills. Or in my case, a LACK of transfer of those skills. At least at first.

When I set out to write my first book, I thought writing for a living would prepare me to write for what I would hope would be a new living. I had written for my supper for more than 20 years. I had the discipline to write on the daily. I knew that when deadlines loomed and clients (or editors) waited, writer’s block wasn’t an option.

Easy, right? I’d simply take my writing skills from here and copy/paste them over there.


Despite the fact that I had a toolbox crammed with writer’s tools (handy) and the discipline to write rather than heed the siren’s call of a full dishwasher (also handy), novel-writing was a world apart from copywriting.

It wasn’t just the sheer volume of words. I expected that writing 90,000 nouns, verbs and adjectives would feel different than writing a few hundred. It was the dearth of skills I had not yet acquired, let alone honed, that surprised me.

I found that while I knew how to write dialogue that would help define characters, I had to learn to give my fictional people rich internal lives. I discovered that although I knew how to turn a phrase, I’d need to figure out how to twist a plot. I realized that good storytelling very often trumped good writing.

That was the real a-ha moment for me.

I had oodles of experience creating lush mental pictures through my writing and knew my way around figurative language. I soon found that it didn’t mean a thing if the story itself wasn’t interesting. I discovered that, for the most part, a good story could withstand okay writing, but not the other way around.

Not that I advocate verbal mediocrity, mind you. How you say something is as important as what you say. It was simply an epiphany that taught me that I couldn’t rely on writerly gymnastics the way I could with copywriting.

So I dug deeper into my toolbox. I read books. I took classes. I went to the writer’s school of hard knocks and made mistakes then tried to learn from them.

It’s been a journey—one that’s far from over. The more I learn, the more I discover how much there is to learn. And that’s the beauty of it, really. Writing isn’t about the triumph of achievement. It’s about reaching farther, growing, learning, becoming, discovering what you didn’t know you’d need to know.

What’s been a surprise as you’ve transitioned from a career or life stage? What advice would you give your younger, greener self? I’d love to know.





Author: Kathleen Valenti

Author of the Maggie O'Malley Mystery Series, including Agatha- and Lefty-nominated PROTOCOL.

16 thoughts on “How Writing for a Living Didn’t Prepare Me to Write for a Living”

  1. Beautifully said, Kathleen. Creative writing is so much different from any other type of writing and novel writing Trump’s them all.

    I would tell my greener self that it’s all right to slow down and take time. Impatience with this step and the next step is my downfall! I’d also tell myself that there is more than one “right”way to write a novel and the one that works best for me is my right way. I rewrote my first novel a million times. Once after each writing class I took. That book still lives in my file cabinet. Its a mishmash of every writing style and plot format from each class I took and little of it in my voice.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thank you, Kait! Taking time–either to enjoy the journey or to write the best book we can–is such a valuable lesson. And I totally agree about the “right” way to write. It’s so individual, and that’s a beautiful thing!


  2. I felt much the same. I’ve been writing for a living (technical writing) since 1998. How hard could writing fiction be? Pretty darn hard. I had the discipline to write every day and hit the deadlines, but like you I had to learn the “rules” of writing fiction. And I’m still learning. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Wow, Kathy, I’m going to put your quote re: good story vs. good writing on a sticky note near my computer, for the next time I get stuck. And I’d say, judging from your books, that you’ve nailed both. I will ignore my full dishwasher. That is also advice to live by.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. So well said! It’s such an epiphany about storytelling. I like to study the classic stories, those that have remained popular over time, and try to identify what about their storytelling makes them so everlasting. Understanding sadly remains elusive.
    Fiction is certainly not easy, no matter how you come at it. I think your pro writing background has given you a toolbox that serves you extremely well for fiction.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love to deconstruct stories to see how they’re assembled. The challenge comes when they’re so compelling I stop reading like a writer and fall back into reading for pleasure. (I suppose that’s the ultimate compliment to the author!) As you say, fiction isn’t easy. Hopefully we learn and grow along the way!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. When I want to deconstruct a story, it has to be on the second or third read otherwise I lose the overall mystical experience that attracted me to that writer in the first place. I actually did a chart of one of Stuart Neville’s books, arbitrarily establishing points for levels of conflict and color-coding the plot and subplots then did the same for my book to see why it was sagging in the middle. That was a huge boon to my writing. Wish I’d kept the charts. They’re lost or put away somewhere really secret. It would have been lovely if I started this sooner. I feel like I have less time to screw around figuring out the business. PS My favorite work avoidance technique is cleaning the kitchen, an endless task as I have a teenaged boy eating twice as much food as I anticipate so I’m constantly cooking something.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My teenage boy is also endlessly hungry. He asked me to leave a platter of meat for him in the fridge for convenient snacking–ha ha!!

      I would have loved to have seen your Neville chart! If you track it down, let me know. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I am a pastor and public speaker and use story-telling as my main way to draw people in and make a point . I use a story plot-line to shape my messages. It was a surprise then to discover I needed to learn how to tell a story–and not simply write poetically– on paper. I’m still learning.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Beautifully stated, Kathleen.

    Had I known how difficult it would be, and how ill-prepared I was, I don’t think I would’ve ever gone down this path. I guess that’s one reason why we can’t tell the future, and I’m forever grateful for that because I love what I do. Usually.

    The main thing I’d tell my greener self is the same thing I have to constantly tell myself now, “Trust the process.” Somehow it works.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Man I’m trying to go for copywriting and I could never imagine trying to write a fiction novel; after all, my strength is summarizing and condensing…a big leap right there!!!

    It’s like boxing vs. UFC fighting.. yeah they share similar aspects but they’re both totally different sports!!

    Liked by 1 person

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