Writing Grit: Successful Writers Don’t Give Up

Writing Grit: Successful Writers Don't Give UpEarlier in the year I attended a course at the Victorian Writers’ Centre. At one point the teacher told us about her degree in creative writing. She felt that many of her classmates were more talented than she was. She thought they were more naturally gifted writers. But she put her head down and studied and read and wrote for all she was worth. She has two books published now and teaches creative writing at RMIT. Her classmates are yet to be published.

I remembered this anecdote as I was thinking about a seventh point I could have included in my Get it done post. This piece of advice is applicable whether you are writing a thesis, or writing a novel. It is as simple to say as it is sometimes difficult to put into practice. To paraphrase Yoda — finish what you begin. No matter how hard it seems, no matter how much you doubt your abilities, don’t give up.

It sounds glib, but stop rolling your eyes. I have science to back me up. I mean real science.

We tend to look at high-achievers and assume they have some innate talent we lack. While it may be true that aptitude has a part to play, a far larger slice of their success comes down to the time and effort they put into their craft. Psychologists have developed a scale to measure deliberate effort over an extended period of time in the face of adversity and discomfort.

They call it grit.

“No matter how hard it seems, no matter how much you doubt your abilities, don’t give up.”

Thomas Edison said that genius was one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. Angela Lee Duckworth is one of a small group of researchers who study the ninety-nine percent. She carried out a number of studies on participants ranging from cadets entering Westpoint Military Academy to children competing in national spelling bee competitions. Her findings should be profoundly comforting to all of us who strive to hone our craft, whether it is writing fiction or getting that Nature paper.

In an excellent TEDx presentation, Duckworth describes the core components of grit and the characteristics of gritty people. First, they are able to focus on a single goal without getting distracted by other things. Second, they persevere in the face of obstacles and set-backs. People with grit set their sights on a task, and don’t stop until it is done, even when the going gets tough.

She saw this in Westpoint cadets, where individuals who scored highly on the grit scale were least likely to drop out. She saw it in spelling bee kids, where those kids who devoted time to the hardest kinds of study were most likely to do well in the competition. Other factors we might normally associate with success, like IQ or Grade Point Average, were not as good at predicting ultimate success as a high score on the grit scale.

If you stick with it and finish what you start, no matter how tough it is or how many shiny things beckon for your attention, you vastly improve your chances of becoming a leader in your chosen field. When I’m asked whether I give any weight to people having a PhD in an unrelated field, I say absolutely. If nothing else, it tells me that they can take something tough and see it through. It tells me they have grit.

“People with grit set their sights on a task, and don’t stop until it is done, even when the going gets tough.”

I remember an interview with an actor who said he’d practically completed a PhD, as if writing the thesis was a mere formality. It’s a common phenomenon. Universities even have official acronyms for it. But as far as I can see, ABT (All But Thesis) and ABD (All But Dissertation) are fancy ways of saying GU (Gave Up).

Of course, all that time and effort comes at a cost. You have to say no to some things in order to focus on your writing or your research. You have to push on when your faith in your ability is not just failing, it has dropped out and started pushing trollies at the local supermarket. Ira Glass, the man behind This American Life on National Public Radio, has a brilliant take on this.

There is a short video of Ira Glass talking about the work you have to put in to get from the stage where you are able to recognise quality, to the stage where you are able to produce quality. It is part of a larger series on storytelling, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. In fact, you should watch it now. Definitely the excerpt, and if that whets your appetite watch the whole interview.

I mean it. Watch it now. I can wait.

For the click-impaired, I’ve transcribed a few salient sections from the excerpt:

For the first couple of years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good. Okay? It’s not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, your taste is still killer. And your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you.

A lot of people never get past that phase. A lot of people, they quit.

Most everybody I know who does interesting creative work, they went through a phase of years where they had really good taste and they could tell what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be. They knew it fell short. It didn’t have the special thing that we wanted it to have. And the thing I would say to you is that everybody goes through that. And for you to go through it, if you’re going through it right now, if you’re just getting out of that phase, you’ve got to know it’s totally normal.

And the most important possible thing you can do is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week or every month you know you’re going to finish one story. Because it’s only by actually going through a volume of work that you are actually going to catch up and close that gap. And the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions.

It takes a while. It’s gonna take you a while. It’s normal to take you a while. And you just have to fight your way through that.

It seems to me that Ira Glass is talking about grit. And I wholeheartedly agree with his advice. Even when you feel you are never going to make it — especially when you feel you are never going to make it — don’t give up. Because the difference between a published author, and somebody who merely wishes they were a published author, may simply be that they showed more grit.

They refused to give up, and so should you.