You’ve heard that old joke. A guy asks a New York cabbie how to get to Carnegie Hall, and the cabbie says, “Practice, practice, practice.”

I’ve written before about work ethic issues, deadlines, laziness, and the barriers we tend to erect around our own creativity. I’ve preached that you should be able to write anywhere, any time—not just in your special little writer’s nest after everyone in the house has gone to bed, or before they wake up in the morning. This advice is intended to help you write more often, to write more words—to practice your craft.

A few weeks ago, at Wondercon in San Francisco, I was cornered by the guys from the Guys Can Read podcast. A couple of nice gents, enthusiastic supporters of books and reading . . . my kind of guys. I was delighted to do the interview and delighted with the podcast. One of the things I touched on in that interview was the quote I’ve often repeated but still don’t know how to credit:

So many people say, “I’m going to write a book,” having never written before, having no background or education in it, but none of them would ever say in the same cavalier manner, “I’m going to play cello for a major symphony orchestra.”

Who was it who said that everyone has one great book in them? I hate him (or her), whoever it was. It could be that everyone has a great story to tell—a real-life experience that would be worthy of a book—but that doesn’t mean everyone has the ability to write well enough to actually do it, and end up with a manuscript worth reading. This idea that everyone who passed high school English can do what I do peeves me to no end. That screenwriter who compared the idea of sitting down to write a book to walking into a symphony orchestra and demanding a cello hit it spot on.

No one would really think they could just pick up a cello and play it, and reasonable people would accept that even after some lessons that they wouldn’t have the talent to play the cello at the level of Yo-Yo Ma. I shot baskets in the driveway with my father and brothers as a kid, that does not make me ready for the NBA. I could practice and practice and practice and I would never be anywhere near as good at basketball as the average NBA third-stringer, let alone Michael Jordan. I just don’t have the talent for it.

When I was in college I was in a string of would-be punk bands that never did get a playing gig. One of the reasons for our lack of success may have been that as a journeyman punk bassist I wasn’t really that good. Thankfully, I came to that understanding while still in college, left the punk world behind as anything but a fan, and concentrated on learning how to write.

I’ve practiced that craft ever since. I read books about how to write. I have a bachelors degree that says “Cinema & Photography” on the diploma, but was really a liberal arts degree with an emphasis on screen writing. My senior thesis project was a screenplay.

I live for writing the way professional athletes live for their sports, or professional musicians live for their music. It’s well known that to be a great athlete or a great musician requires practice, but for some reason that lesson is lost when it comes to writing. Could it be the seemingly endless string of books by people we all know are not writers, from whatever this Snooki person is, through a range of other “reality” TV “stars” . . . Jessica Simpson “wrote” a “book” about “Achieving Your Dream Wedding,” Was that before or after her televised celebrity marriage disintegrated on basic cable? And then there are the politicians. Raise your hand if you think Sarah Palin actually sits down at a computer and writes those books beginning to end. Really?

For those of us who don’t have something to sell that the publishing business thinks can make it a fast buck—reality show “fame,” a pop princess’s wedding plans, or a politician’s partisan talking points—we’re going to have to do it the hard way.

We’re going to have to learn to write.

We’re going to have to actually sit down and write.

We’re going to have to accept and consider criticism.

We’re going to have to survive rejection.

We’re going to have to think about what we just wrote and how it could be better.

We’re going to have to seek out and accept the advice of agents and editors (the writer’s equivalent of coaches).

We’re going to have to practice.

Musicians do it, athletes do it, and the best of them combine raw natural talent with hours and hours and hours—no, years and years and years—of hard labor in order to achieve greatness. Michael Jordan was born with certain physical attributes that helped him play basketball better, but ultimately he became the greatest basketball player of all time by working his ass off for years.

So when your friend tells you she’s thinking of leaving her job as an engineer to write a novel, and you know for a fact that she’s never written a full sentence of fiction in her life, just smile and wish her good luck. Eventually she’ll run across someone who doesn’t know her, won’t have to bump into her at family functions or at work, and who will be willing to tell her not to quit her day job.

If she quits her day job anyway, and spends the next several years taking courses, attending workshops, not just reading but studying books on writing, and banging out short stories, failed attempts at novels, notebooks full of poetry in which each poem is just the tiniest bit better than the last, and eventually she writes a great novel, well, then, good thing you didn’t tell her to quit her day job.

—Philip Athans

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. I think it’s the most common thing to say: ‘I’m gonna write a book’. The why is quite simple IMHO: Everyone -well, everyone who attended school in whichever form or shape- learned to write. Write sentences, that is.
    Also, eveyone has their memories of events, be it from hearsay (third person), actual things that happened to them (first person), or just ‘plain made-up’ stories, either factual (non-fiction) or just fantasies (fantasy/fiction). Hence, in essence, it is general belief that ‘writing a book is just something you do’. After all, us lads all thought we were going to be the next Pele, or Cruijff or any modern day star football (soccer) player. Some of us succeeded, the majority however still gets out of bed every morning and goes en route the office for our 9-2-5.

    The above is just to point out that yes, everyone has a story in them, and everybody thinks they can write it down. And they can, be it sentence for sentence, but they can.
    In my li’l book of knowledge, there is however a HUGE difference between being able to write down an event, and being able to translate an event into a -readable- story. The latter is where we Wordsmiths come in… (Perhaps this is where the distinction between writers and authors actually arises…)

    Let it be known that this is the view point of a wannabe writer (author?)


    C. Matt Hewes (

  2. Rectification:

    I said ‘plain made up stories’ and named the factual ones ‘non-fiction’.. That’s not right of course… should be -because it is- fiction. Bad choice of word, sorry..

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