7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Rachel Friedman

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers (this installment written by Rachel Friedman, author of THE GOOD GIRL’S GUIDE TO GETTING LOST) 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.

Rachel is excited to give away a free copy of her book to a random commenter. Comment within one week; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: Penelope won.)


Rachel Friedman is the author of The Good Girl’s Guide
to Getting Lost: A Memoir of Three Continents, Two Friends,
and One Unexpected Adventure
(Bantam; 2011).

A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and
the creative nonfiction program at Rutgers-Newark, she
teaches literature at John Jay College of
Criminal Justice. See her website here.


1. You simply can’t write all day long. At least, I can’t. When I gave up my job as an editor to finish my first book, I was absolutely thrilled. Now I’m a real writer, I thought. I’ll put words on paper all day long, day after day.  Now that I’ve finally got the time, I said to myself, writing will be easy. Wrong. The first issue with having endless hours to write is that it’s very easy to put off the actual writing. A leisurely cup of morning tea? Don’t mind if I do. An early morning walk in the park? Yes sir. Mid-morning Internet searches of strange diseases on the Internet I think I might have?  Well, now we’re getting a bit personal. But you get the idea. I found that without any structure to my day, I just drifted along, not getting very much writing done at all. Teaching a couple literature courses at a local college was the best thing I could do for my writing life. It gave me a reason to get out of the apartment, a little bit of steady income, and an environment to interact with others in what was otherwise a pretty isolated day. Over time, I’ve discovered I only have 3 or 4 truly productive writing hours in me, usually first thing in the morning. After that, I turn to editing or research or teaching preparation.

2. Sign a contract with yourself. Most people report to a boss. Writers, especially before we have book contracts or magazine article deadlines, report to ourselves. We might be a mean boss to ourselves (though I don’t recommend this) or a cheerleader-type boss (you can do it!) or a somewhat negligent boss who prefers to sneak out early for a round of golf rather than deal with his employees. No matter what type of boss you are, it’s difficult to self-discipline. A friend once recommended typing up an actual contract with a deadline (for short assignments or novels and anything in between) and signing ittwice: boss you and writer you. This might sound rather schizophrenic, but I can tell you that it works great.

3. Work on a mix of long and short projects. If you’re writing a book, it’s a long haul. It could be years before you’re finished. Focusing on the same lengthy work day in and day out with little sense of the closure or accomplishment can be daunting and depressing. Mixing in shorter assignments (freelance essays or short stories or blog posts) helps keep me motivated. Everyone needs daily pats on the back.

4. Joining a writers’ group is good for your writing and your soul. It’s true: one is indeed the loneliest number. And we writers are engaged in work that forces us to be alone for many hours of the day. When I finished my MFA, eight of us graduates started a writing group. We meet once a month and workshop each other’s pieces. My fellow writers provide invaluable feedback and belonging to a collective also enforces a valuable writing deadline. Not to mention the bonding over success and rejections. If there happens to be an abundance of rejections that month, we meet on a Friday and add some much-needed bottles of wine to the gathering.

5. Get out of the house. Take walks. Meet friends for coffee. Hit a yoga class. Do not sit inside staring at your blank screen all day. This is how one begins hearing voices in her head. Trust me. I’ve been there.

6. Get a good accountant. One of the perks of being an honest-to-goodness writer is the tax write-offs. These come in many shapes and sizes that are, if you are anything like me, far outside the typical English major’s ken. Spend a few hundred bucks and let a professional do your taxes. You’ll save yourself some cash in the long run and some valuable writing time.

7. Get dressed. It sounds rather romantic to sit around in one’s pajamas all day producing brilliant sentences, but woman cannot live by pjs alone. I get dressed like I’m going to the office for the day. A very, very casual office, mind you, the kind where you can wear Hawaiian shirts any day of the weekbut an office nonetheless. This helps motivate me and also ensures that my husband comes home to a decent-looking human being with her hair brushed, a relationship bonus.



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30 thoughts on “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Rachel Friedman

  1. Ella Rae Achen

    Thank you for the tips, I think some of them will really help me out, especially number 3. I just got my degree and am taking some time off and I thought I’d be getting all kinds of work done on my latest novel idea, but I’ve barely touched it. Maybe trying to break it up and work on some new smaller things will help and it’ll keep my creative juices flowing. Number 7 sounds like a really good idea too. Thanks again and good luck in the future! 🙂

  2. Kristine Duffey

    Thank you for the great tips! Very nicely put. Love the part about the PJs! I wouldn’t mind the chance to find out how much I can get done in my PJs for a month but then I’m sure it would get very old.

  3. Jen Jayaram

    This is a wonderful list of practical tips and insights. Thank you for sharing.
    As an aspiring writer, I will put these to good use!

  4. E. L. Psomiadis

    As a teacher by day, I find that this is so true! I always think that "when summer comes, I’ll have all the time I need to write." But then I have to move unexpectedly (thanks, mold!). And then, I have to spend my time avoiding people who want me run errands for them, because, you know, now that it’s summer vacation, I have so much time. People now think I’m super irresponsible since my mobile phone is always off or out of battery power 😀 (Esther)

  5. Susan Wider


    Thank you for my new checklist!

    #1 reminded me to create more structure in my day;

    #2 prompted me to draft a contract;

    #3 reassured me that my project mix is not frenetic after all;

    #4 suggested that my feeble writer’s group attempt should be renewed;

    #5 helped me see that outside activities don’t mean I’m slacking off;

    #6 yes;

    #7 motivated me to add bling and excavate my closet.

  6. vv

    Funny! As I began to work from home, I was surprised how quickly I became socially awkward. I need to get out at least once a week. Social media doesn’t count.

  7. Tony James Slater

    It all true! I find that treating it like a ‘real’ job is the only way to get anything done. I have a space set aside where I write (surrounded by hamsters, but what can you do eh?). I go there for a set period, usually 2 hour stints – even if I do nothing in the two hours but check and re-check email, it means I spend some time every day at least trying to write. It’s ‘do not disturb’ time. And then reward – I get out of the house, walk down the lane, look at the sky, the fields, the trees… ahh! A bit of nature goes a long way! Quite often I not only blast through my negativity (if I’ve got some going on) but quite often I end up sprinting home, having just thought of the EXACT way to phrase the next bit I’m writing!
    Otherwise my discipline is terrible and I go days with nothing written – it only works for me if I make it my job. It also gives me the separation that’s so hard to achieve when you work from home – I can have fun and get away from it all, just by being in the other room – yet if inspiration strikes (like after the second bottle of wine is opened) I’m only a few steps away from my desk.
    Thanks for a fascinating post!

    ps. I can’t win the book alas, as I live in the UK. D’OH!

  8. Valerie Norris

    A contract with yourself? Never thought of that! Thanks for the suggestion. I may try it. Opportunities to do something else are much too tempting.

  9. Mary

    Though I do dream of being a full-time writer, I can totally see myself procrastinating and not writing all day, even if I’ve planned. it. Great post! Plus, your book looks awesome. Happy writing!

  10. Kristan

    Your memoir sounds awesome!

    I recently quit my job to pursue writing, and it’s definitely hard to be a writer all day. #3 has been helpful — and is a good reason to have a blog, if anyone has been considering it — and #4, #5, and #7 are all very true for me. I look forward to doing #6 one day. 🙂

  11. @broglarkin

    Re:#3, Amen! I never got anywhere with my book until I discovered that working on it alone achieved nothing … You simply have to work on other things, too, if you want to get something as time-consuming as a novel under your belt. Side note: you also can’t get away with ‘writing’ seven different novels at a time. None of them will be any good. 🙂

  12. Ann Best

    I can’t write long stretches every day either! So glad to read Rachel’s Seven Ways to do it. And she’s reading this memoir that sounds intriguing. I would love to "win" a copy of it!


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