As Bette Davis said, it ain’t for sissies.

The wonderful Susan Johnson, journalist and author of seven books has given us the following top ten tips for pushing your writing forward for February (just in case you are already missing the January tips):


The first rule is persistence. How badly do you want to write? Do you know the difference between wanting to write and wanting to be a writer? If you do, then chances are that you already know that persistence is another word for obsession, that a writer is somebody who writes and who doesn’t just talk about writing. A writer is somebody for whom writing down the world is the only way of existing in the world, that is, a writer is a person who only understands the world through writing.


Follow Richard Ford’s advice and marry somebody you love who thinks you being a writer is a good idea but don’t follow his next piece of advice about not having children. It is possible to be obsessive about your writing AND also have children (although you may need to pay for the psychotherapy bills when they are adults or at least be prepared for the psychological fall-out when they were adults. But, hey, does anybody know a person with parents – whether they are writers or not – who hasn’t suffered some version of psychological fall-out?)


Never show your writing to your friends or your family before it is published. They can’t read your work with an unbiased eye, no matter how willing or generous-hearted they are. You need a cold, professional eye.


Only when you genuinely care about the value and truth and logic of the work you are creating will you be successful. And being successful is not about money or prizes or good reviews or acclaim but it is about making the finest book that you know how to make. So even if you are the author of seven novels no-one has ever heard of, you can continue to create with an open heart, knowing that no-one might ever read your books in large numbers but knowing that the book you released into the world is as good as you could possibly have made it.


Don’t believe that you are the next JK Rowling or the next Stephen King. You are more likely to be the next Susan Johnson (and NOT the best-selling romance author one!) or the next Lionel Shriver, who wrote seven books before she cracked the market – with what is known as her ‘breakthrough’ book, WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN. But for every Lionel, there are many more writers who haven’t yet – or might never have – their breakthrough book.


Love what you do, really love it. Love is the best thing since money or sliced bread. If you love what you do you are truly blessed. You already have everything you need.


Edit, edit, edit. Cut your very best sentence or paragraph or page if it really doesn’t fit or make sense or is just a show-offy bit of writing. Everything needs to work logically and organically and beautifully. Everything needs to be in your book for a reason.


Read. All writers are readers. You have to read enough to see how it is done. Before I wrote my first novel I took apart some of my favourite books, as if they were clocks, to look at their workings. How did Fitzgerald work the wonder of his seamless plot in THE GREAT GATSBY? Why was Emma’s voice so spectacularly alive in Flaubert’s MADAME BOVARY? Taking a book apart will not – sadly –  turn you into Fitzgerald or Flaubert but it will allow you to learn their tricks and techniques. I once read John Braine’s terrific book about writing craft HOW TO WRITE A NOVEL and in it he writes that you are allowed to steal the vessel but not the words inside.


Dream. Always carry a notebook and a pen. Research. But make sure you write at the end of the dreaming and research. I repeat: a writer is a person who writes.


Have a back-up occupation. No-one ever believes how little money writers earn from their fiction, even much more acclaimed authors than me who have published numerous books. You need to be able to earn money – luckily I trained as a journalist before I took up fiction full-time, and I have recently returned to full-time journalism because I am a single-parent financially supporting my two teenage sons. My writing is currently on hold (my new novel MY HUNDRED LOVERS The Autobiography of A Body will be published in Australia in June) but I am hoping that the writing dam will burst joyously forth when I finally get around to writing again.

Oh, and don’t ever forget persistence, persistence, persistence. It is not only beginning writers that need it, it is all writers, all the time, every single day. Art requires the most enormous commitment on the part of its practitioners. As Bette Davis said elsewhere, it ain’t for sissies.


Susan Johnson’s books have been nominated for the Association for the Study of Australian Literature Gold Medal, the Miles Franklin Award, the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the National Biography Award, the Queensland and Victorian Premier’s Prize, the Banjo Award and the Kibble Prize. She is published by Allen and Unwin and Heinemann in her native Australia, and has been published by Faber and Faber, UK and US; Washington Square Press; Actes Sud (France) and Klub dla Ciebie (Poland). She gave the 2011 Ray Mathew Lecture at the National Library of Australia in August, 2011, and her memoir, A Better Woman, was recentlyserialised by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. She is the recipient of several fellowships from the Literature Board of the Australia Council, as well as scholarships to the Cité Internationale des Arts, Paris. She lives in Brisbane, Australia. She is a senior feature writer at Qweekend magazine, Brisbane. Her website and blog is

2011 Ray Mathew Lecture

One Reply to “As Bette Davis said, it ain’t for sissies.”

  1. I say this is wonderful of you to instill it in me how persistence will carry my writting on and on. I am a beginner, haven’t finalised with my first novel even, and i tell you time is never there! And i now need a personal laptop after the operating system of the computer at my workplace crushed and all data got lost, my bits and bits of the book inclusive! But it shall be persistence that shall carry me on.

    All the tips you have talked of are equally vital, and, please, keep on motivatng me, i will get there.

    Thanks be to you dear Susan.

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