7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Sheldon Russell

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers (this installment written by Sheldon Russell, author of THE INSANE TRAIN) at any stage of their career can talk about writing advice and instruction as well as how they possibly got their book agent — by sharing seven things they’ve learned along their writing journey that they wish they knew at the beginning.



Sheldon Russell is the author of The Insane Train
(Nov. 2010, St. Martin’s), a suspense/mystery named
a Top 100 Best Book of 2010 by Publishers Weekly.
In 2006, his book, Dreams to Dust: A Tale
of the Oklahoma Land Rush (2006)
 the Oklahoma Book Award in Fiction. With
The Yard Dog: A Mystery (2009), Russell introduces
the Hook Runyon series. See his personal website here.


Here are 7 things I’ve learned so far about writing. The operative words are “so far.” Like with most artistic pursuits, perfection can be allusive and learning a life-long endeavor. I make no claims to have achieved writing perfection. I don’t have all the answers or even very many of them. So, with that caveat, I offer my best advice:

1. Have a sit down with yourself to find out if you really want to do this.
There are lots of rewarding things in life other than writing, so make certain your ambitions are well directed. You must love living in your head, have a high tolerance for isolation, and a stubbornness that borders on mania.

2. Quality matters, not who you know or who you don’t know, not the number of submissions, or the perfectly wrapped manuscript. Politicians and movie stars not-with-standing, the only commodity that separates one writer from another is the quality of the work.

3. Critical reading skills are a prerequisite to writing quality narrative. A writer must be able to recognize good writing from bad writing. This can be learned only through reading books, all kinds and lots of them. I know of no shortcut.

4. Understand from the start that no matter how hard you try or how good you become, not every one will like what you do. But listen to your critics. While they’re not right all of the time, they are right some of the time. Go ahead and cry if it helps, and sometimes it does, but then take a hard look at what they’ve said. They just might be right.

5. Practice writing like you’d practice shooting baskets. Do it over and over until you have the feel for the balance and rhythm of language, the exact word in the exact place. Practice until the subconscious has developed an aversion to melodrama. But never confuse writing-related activities with writing practice. Great writing does not come from attending conferences or being the president of an organization or hanging out in a bookstore coffee shop. It comes from writing, from shooting hoops.

6. Be yourself because writing is like a marriage. Perhaps the real you can be faked while dating, but fakery can not be sustained over the long haul. Keep your stories close to home because emotional integrity makes for good writing. There’s plenty of untapped experiences within each of us, no matter how meager our adventures, to write the greatest of books.

7. Define your success and remember to be happy. Writers, driven souls that we are, have no natural end-game. So when success comes, stop and enjoy it for a moment.


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6 thoughts on “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Sheldon Russell

  1. Tom Bentley

    Man, I’ve practiced shooting hoops and writing words for countless hours, and it’s STILL hard to get the right spin on the ball, and on the words. But it’s certainly better than if I hadn’t spent time dribbling and scribbling. Thanks for the good stuff, Sheldon.

  2. Kiara

    Thank you for the excellent post, Sheldon!

    You’re right, writing is something you need to be dedicated to. Like any skill, it takes practice, and you won’t get anywhere in writing if you don’t develop the raw skills – such as reading and writing – to do so. I loved what you said about being yourself and being happy in whatever stage of writing or publishing you’re at, as it’s so crucial to enjoy the process and stick to who you are. If you don’t, you might find yourself somewhere you never wanted to be.

  3. Jessica Lawson

    Thanks, Sheldon! You’ve put together some great advice here. I especially like the comparison to shooting baskets. Keeping in shape and keeping a feel for the "ball" is definitely something I need to be more consistent on. That tip made me want to be a better writer and made me want to get in shape physically as well, so kudos on the double whammy 🙂


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