Monday, February 11, 2013

Do You Have Rules for Success?

How do we achieve success as writers? We are relentlessly drawn to reading advice on this subject. After all, finding our answer to that question is elemental to our drive and our desire. 
The literary industry may be spinning in space right now, turned on its head by changes, and searching for its own identity and its own way to either hold on to or recapture success, but for writers, it always comes back to the work. (That should be The Work, I guess, to distinguish it as the writing itself, as opposed to all the extraneous factors involved in getting published.)
I recently came across an article* in which a 19th Century woman, Amelia Barr, who became a successful writer after many years of toil, offers nine rules for success. You'll notice some of them feel familiar, like favorite slippers we've broken in and depend on to keep our toes warm on our journey. My favorite is her wrap-up at the end. That last paragraph is going up on my writing wall. :)
Here, for your reading pleasure, is Amelia Barr's advice on how to succeed:
9 Rules For Success by British Novelist Amelia E. Barr, 1901
    by Maria Popova
“Genius is nothing more nor less than doing well what anyone can do badly.”
The secret of success — like its very definition — remains amorphous and forever elusive. For Thoreau, it was a matter of greeting each day with joy; for Jad Abumrad, it comes after somenecessary “gut churn”; for Jackson Pollock’s dad, it was about being fully awake to the world; for entrepreneur Paul Graham, it’s aboutpurpose rather than prestige; for designer Paula Scher, it means beginning every day with a capacity for growth. But perhaps, above all, success is about defining it yourself.
Still, those who have succeed — by their own definition, as well as history’s — might be able to glean some insight into the inner workings of accomplishment. From the 1901 volume How They Succeeded: Life Stories of Successful Men Told by Themselves (public librarypublic domain) comes a wonderful essay by British novelist Amelia E. Barr (1831-1919) who, the despite devastating loss of her husband and three of their six children to yellow fever in 1867, went on to become a dedicated and diligent writer, eventually reaching critical success at the age of fifty-two.
At the end of her essay, under a section titled “Words of Counsel,” Barr offers nine tips for success, echoing some familiar themes — Tchaikovsky’s insistence on work ethic over inspiration, Ray Bradbury’s case for perseverance in the face of rejection, the importance of having a good routine and working with joy, and the necessary reminder that success requires a deliberate investment of effortand good writing takes time.
  1. Men and women succeed because they take pains to succeed. Industry and patience are almost genius; and successful people are often more distinguished for resolution and perseverance than for unusual gifts. They make determination and unity of purpose supply the place of ability.
  2. Success is the reward of those who “spurn delights and live laborious days.” We learn to do things by doing them. One of the great secrets of success is “pegging away.” No disappointment must discourage, and a run back must often be allowed, in order to take a longer leap forward.
  3. No opposition must be taken to heart. Our enemies often help us more than our friends. Besides, a head-wind is better than no wind. Who ever got anywhere in a dead calm?
  4. A fatal mistake is to imagine that success is some stroke of luck. This world is run with far too tight a rein for luck to interfere. Fortune sells her wares; she never gives them. In some form or other, we pay for her favors; or we go empty away.
  5. We have been told, for centuries, to watch for opportunities, and to strike while the iron is hot. Very good; but I think better of Oliver Cromwell’s amendment — “make the iron hot by striking it.”
  6. Everything good needs time. Don’t do work in a hurry. Go into details; it pays in every way. Time means power for your work. Mediocrity is always in a rush; but whatever is worth doing at all is worth doing with consideration. For genius is nothing more nor less than doing well what anyone can do badly.
  7. Be orderly. Slatternly work is never good work. It is either affectation, or there is some radical defect in the intellect. I would distrust even the spiritual life of one whose methods and work were dirty, untidy, and without clearness and order.
  8. Never be above your profession. I have had many letters from people who wanted all the emoluments and honors of literature, and who yet said, “Literature is the accident of my life; I am a lawyer, or a doctor, or a lady, or a gentleman.” Literature is no accident. She is a mistress who demands the whole heart, the whole intellect, and the whole time of a devotee.
  9. Don’t fail through defects of temper and over-sensitiveness at moments of trial. One of the great helps to success is to be cheerful; to go to work with a full sense of life; to be determined to put hindrances out of the way; to prevail over them and to get the mastery. Above all things else, be cheerful; there is no beatitude for the despairing.
    Apparent success may be reached by sheer impudence, in defiance of offensive demerit. But men who get what they are manifestly unfit for, are made to feel what people think of them. Charlatanry may flourish; but when its bay tree is greenest, it is held far lower than genuine effort. The world is just; it may, it does, patronize quacks; but it never puts them on a level with true men.
    It is better to have the opportunity of victory, than to be spared the struggle; for success comes but as the result of arduous experience. The foundations of my success were laid before I can well remember; it was after at least forty-five years of conscious labor that I reached the object of my hope. Many a time my head failed me, my hands failed me, my feet failed me, but, thank God, my heart never failed me.

*from the website:


  1. I'm always amazed at how much hardship and sadness people had to overcome in earlier history. It's something important to remember as we go through our own challenges. Amelia Barr sounds like an amazing person. I loved the suggestion to greet each day with joy. I try to do that everyday, but I'm not always successful.

    1. I'm working on that one, too, Natalie! When nothing else works, I just remind myself that I get to brew some coffee, and that brings a smile. (I'm easy)

  2. That is some great advice! So much hard work is involved. Those who think insta-success comes with writing are so, so wrong.

  3. Linda, I love these rules. My primary rule is to do something toward your dream or goal every day. It becomes a habit. And the power of compounding is amazing. I love that idea of meeting each day with joy. I agree with Natalie, sometimes I don't... but the coffee helps. :)

  4. Excellent advice that we all need to pay attention to.

    1. If only (some of us) had brain synapses that would remind us every day! But well worth developing a focus that allows us to pay due attention, I agree, Laura!

  5. It's a bit of a comfort to know that the secret was elusive then as it is now. This is excellent advice, tried and true!