January 26, 2016

The “Secret” to Success Can’t Be Bought

Wax seal on an envelope with text: Psst... Want to Buy the Secret to Success?

Last week, I kicked off a giveaway of James Patterson’s Writing Masterclass. (If you hurry, there’s still time to enter!)

Giveaways like this always create love/hate feelings in me. I love the opportunity to help one of my readers, but I hate the fact that I’ll be disappointing so many, as I can choose only one name.

Many of my readers have been including in their entries their reason for wanting to win the giveaway (which won’t affect the random selection of the winner), and their heartfelt desire to improve their writing is inspiring. But at the same time, I’m disheartened by the belief some writers have that a workshop, class, or conference is necessary to succeed.

A sales email I received this weekend was the last straw. The sales pitch in this email—which was for a writing class—stated (emphasis added):

“Ask any successful author, and they’ll tell you that you need to invest money in writing classes to learn the craft at the professional level.”

No, no, no. That’s a dangerous and discouraging idea that’s designed to scare money out of new and upcoming writers.

Can well-designed classes, workshops, or conferences—that are appropriate for our current level of development—help us as writers? Absolutely. Are they required to succeed? No.

Recommendations Aren’t Always What They Seem

If we’ve signed up to receive email from some of the big players in the writing world, chances are we’ve seen email from them touting the awesomeness of this class or that software. Many times, those recommendations are genuine.

However, we should always give a side-eye to recommendations from others because they can go wrong in so many ways—even if the person giving the recommendation is 100% truthful with their praise:

  • Limited Experience:
    An author who’s been with only one publisher and/or one editor might think their editor is fantastic and recommend them to others. But they might not realize how shallow their edits have been because they’ve never seen how a different editor might dig deeper or challenge them to improve.
  • Affiliate Programs:
    Many service companies (such as some website hosting companies), and even some writing courses, offer affiliate programs. So an author might recommend a company and subconsciously think about the affiliate bonus they’ll receive. (The hosting company I use doesn’t offer an affiliate program specifically because they don’t want to “taint” recommendations.)
  • Joint-Venture Partnerships:
    Many of the big writing bloggers set up JV (joint venture) partnerships with class and software providers. JV partnerships are like affiliate codes on steroids. Virtually all of those sales pitch emails we receive from big writing blogs include links to a special landing page or use a special code to register a sale (and commission) for that JV partner.

None of those examples mean that we shouldn’t trust any recommendations in the writing world. *smile* As I said, every one of those recommendations can be valid—and helpful to us.

I just bring up these aspects because they could be a sign that the recommendation isn’t genuine. They’re a reminder to keep our eyes open to the circumstances behind a recommendation and to question whether or not the reality will be good for our situation.

Avoid Sales Pitches That Play on Fear

Those examples above were all giving the benefit of the doubt to the person giving the recommendation. But the example I gave in the introduction doesn’t deserve that benefit.

Any sales pitch that tries to induce fear should be avoided, or at the very least, should be taken with a car-sized grain of salt:

  • “The secret to improving your writing other authors won’t tell you.”
  • “If you want to be successful, you need this (class/software/etc.).”
  • “The trick to becoming a bestselling author starts here.”

Each of those pitches (and countless more like them) play on our fears:

There’s a secret to success,
and I won’t learn what it is unless I buy this.


There’s no secret path to success lurking behind a hidden door that we’ll only be able to find if we pay money for the treasure map from that shady-looking character on the corner.

There’s no secret at all. The information we need is freely available. We just have to search it out, learn it, and apply it.

There’s No Secret to Writing Success

In the writing community, we’re blessed with many generous writers who create blogs and websites filled with advice on everything from grammar rules and character-creation tips to instructions on ebook formatting and marketing tips.

In short, if we’re tuned in to the writing community, there’s almost nothing a class or workshop or conference could tell us that would be impossible to discover on our own from free, online resources.

How can we get tuned in to that community? We can connect with other writers in places where everyone shares links to these valuable sources of information, such as Twitter, writing-focused Facebook groups, or writing forums (like NaNoWriMo, Kboards, etc.).

The “secret” to success? The basics are widely known:

  • Learn the craft of writing.
  • Make our storytelling (plot, characters, themes, etc.) stronger.
  • Keep writing and keep reading.
  • Decide on our publishing goals and figure out how to get to our Point B along our path.
  • Study the market to see how to appeal to our audience.
  • Etc., etc.

The problem is that there’s a lot to learn, and it’s not easy. It takes time to research and learn what we need. So it’s natural to look for a secret shortcut that will make our path easier and shorter.

The desire for that secret shortcut on our writing journey is what can make us vulnerable to those sales pitches. There’s a reason they use that wording—too often, it works.

Can Classes Offer a Shortcut for Our Journey?

Yes and no…

Yes, classes, workshops, and conferences can gather lots of information for us in one place that would otherwise require us to dig around several different blog posts. So they can be a “shortcut” as far as saving us time researching and gathering information.

At the same time, workshops can be a waste of time (and money) if they’re too basic for us or if they’re too advanced, and we don’t understand the material (which can make us even more confused). And that doesn’t even consider whether the instructor is a good teacher.

No, they can’t eliminate the need for us to actually learn the material and develop the skills to be able to apply it. And those two elements are the trickier aspects that can cause frustration, as we struggle to understand or to fix what we know is broken.

There’s no “secret” that can help us with those steps because we each have different holes in our knowledge, different learning processes and styles, and different problems to address in our work. One writer’s process to fix their story might not help anyone else, and we’re the only person with access to our brains to make a lesson make sense to us. *smile*

In other words, classes, workshops, and conferences can be an efficiency shortcut, but not a “here’s the secret guaranteed to instantly solve our problems” shortcut. Even as far back as three-and-a-half years ago, I had a hard time learning anything new at conference workshops because I read so many writing-related free blog posts.

Absolutely, it can be nice to attend those educational sessions, but they are by no means necessary. (And yes, I include my own workshops in that nice-to-have-but-not-required category. *grin*)

Classes, workshops, and conferences can provide benefits. They can even be life- or career-changing, as we learn something new or make new connections. But those benefits can often be found elsewhere—for free—if we search, so we shouldn’t sacrifice to the point of pain to afford the paid version.

For example, some classes provide opportunities to ask questions, but I take questions from my readers to turn into blog posts here. In-person conferences can provide networking opportunities, but so can social media and writing forums. Free resources are available to us if we learn where to look.

So if your name isn’t announced in Thursday’s post as the winner of my giveaway, please don’t think for a minute that the loss will impede your ability to find success as an author. We can all do our part to share helpful information for other writers and reach success—even if we never attend a single class. *smile*

Were you aware of sales techniques, like joint-venture partnerships, that might affect the sincerity of recommendations? Have you seen writing-related sales pitches based on fear? Have you ever worried that you needed to pay to reach the next level in your writing career? Do you agree that there’s no secret to success? If you’ve taken writing classes or attended writing conferences, what benefits helped you the most?

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Comments — What do you think?

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So true, though it’s worth noting that there are affiliate/JV programs that outright require anybody in them to have actually used the product they’re promoting.

I’ll also add the caveat that there are things folks won’t tell you—but it’s because they don’t think to, not because it’s some “secret”. Everyone, every topic, and every field of study has details that are so basic that they’re subconscious or considered “self-evident” to the experts, though they really aren’t.

(Anyone who doesn’t believe me can ask a tech geek how to set a header row in Excel. The answer will most likely be a case in point.)

I admittedly have a habit of spotting the assumptions that aren’t actually stated, though, so I might be more sensitive to this than most. [wry smile]

Taurean J. Watkins (@Taurean_Watkins)

I think for me, while I agree we don’t need to pay to get much of what we need to learn, there are times when we need help to get started. Sometimes that help costs money. That’s another reason I think classes are sometimes needed to get you started. Not all of us are naturally our own best teachers ALL THE TIME. I wouldn’t be as good at video as I am now if I didn’t take a course to get me started. We also shouldn’t confuse conveniences for shortcuts. Sometimes the only “Shortcut” we need is keeping what we need to do and learn in an easy to remember location, that’s why Scrivener is so popular, right? I’ve tried to use it but find it overwhelming, and I’m not up to learning how given recent events, as you know, Jami. So in your defense, sometimes the “You get what you pay for” truism we often hear isn’t always true. While some comments in your recent posts go on about how people don’t value what they get for free, I take issue with that, because for those who live on tight budgets like me, we DO value whatever edge we can get that won’t drain our meager savings. As I’ve said before, we can’t confuse necessary frugality with being unwilling to pay what IS WORTH PAYING FOR, such as freelance editing services Jami and others provide for writers, since we can only be “Our own best editor” to an extent.…  — Read More »

Aura Eadon

Oh, you are so spot-on on this. It’s easy to confuse what a class offers (education) with mastery. I was there some years ago thinking that the more money I spent, the more of a writer I’d be. Of course, I had missed the most crucial point: a writer is someone who writes all the time, assignments or not. Back then I was an “aspiring writer” who wrote assignments and a little bit outside assignment but being a writer was a fantasy. It’s funny to remember that Aura and compare her to who I am now. I stopped being an “aspiring” author, and I now write with the intent of becoming an author, while plugging the knowledge holes I discover. Writing is work (I won’t call it a job). Hard work, beautiful, fulfilling work, but I treat it with the same respect people treat their work.

Anne R. Allen

I agree 100%. These days more people are making money from writers than for writers, so writers need to be very wary of hype. And there is soooo much hype. Thanks for a down-to-earth post.

Christina Hawthorne

Thanks for a great post, Jami. You could write a book on this. Sadly, what you describe parallels the entire, heavy-handed internet these days. Those who are legitimate (like you, of course 🙂 ) are beginning to disappear beneath an avalanche of unethical, cutthroat, or, at the least, desperate hucksters.

I did a follow-back on Twitter (supposedly, a fellow writer). That same day I received a message thanking me for “joining.” H’m, well, I didn’t join anything and now will never buy anything from the person. In a similar instance I followed someone on WordPress to get their newsletter and they, too, acted like I’d joined their teaching system. Nope. Makes me wonder what sales course these people took.

What’s tragic is how these fools ruin it for those who have a voice worth hearing. And there are many worth hearing. I even welcome the same topics repeated because you never know when different phrasing will cause the information to click in your brain. Thanks again.

Lucy Lit

Thank you for the gentle reminder, Jami. My inbox has been inundated of late with offers and promises to “help” me become a better writer. While I appreciate many of the efforts, I reached a breaking point with the one that “guaranteed” my next book would be a bestseller. Scary to think of how many new writers will reach for that bright shiny object.

Taurean J. Watkins (@Taurean_Watkins)

Or not so new writers on the verge of desperation, Lucy, I was there some time back, but I’m far more cautious about what I buy now. in general. That said, I don’t always think it’s “Shiny Object Syndrome” that causes this. Sometimes we just get stuck and don’t want to stand around spinning our proverbial wheels, and sometimes buy “shortcuts” on an impulse and later regret it. This is probably why most writers cringe at marketing because we think of overreaching, if not outright sleazy, tactics mentioned above. I know that was true for me. But now I know good marketing isn’t about pressuring people like they’re a patient on E.R., but building a connection with prospective customers of our work, like building one’s e-mail list, and that takes time, so any selling opportunities won’t feel forced or shady, Still, know what works and being able to do it for yourself isn’t always immediately one-to-one as it’s implied to be. Just because I know what good query letters look like doesn’t mean I can write one myself with the same ease as reading one that worked. Yes, they’re a guide, but every book is different, and there are so many other variables involved that there is a limit to what we can learn/take away for our own experience in this specific instance. Some people frankly THRIVE on being self-taught. Some of us, myself included, need a guide to start off with, in the form a workshop or course where…  — Read More »


Next the ads will be saying the only way to publish professionally is to pay someone to do it for you.

Wait. They already say that.

Thanks for this post. It’s going to make it easier to hit delete and unsubscribe on those emails . . .

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Hey Jami, Yeah recently I was a bit outraged that I kept getting emails from a high profile blogger giving videos on the secrets to becoming a best-selling author. (Again, they only know my email because I gave it to sign up for a free writing resource…) Normally I wouldn’t be bothered by it, because lots of writers, writing companies and organizations tout the “secret to becoming a successful writer” thing anyway, nothing new about that, even if I don’t agree that there is any magical recipe for great writing. But what did bother me, was that the blogger said, “(paraphrased) We know it takes many hours (e.g. 10,000) to reach the master level of writing; however, did you know that you don’t need to spend that many hours training yourself to become a bestseller? In fact, you can become a bestseller in just a year by following these steps.” Argh, I was rather outraged because it seemed to imply that learning about and constantly improving our writing (and story telling) skills aren’t important, that only becoming rich and famous is important. 🙁 You know I care much more about actual writing ability than about fame and riches, and I’m an “artist-author”, you could say, so that sounded like a sacrilege to me, lol. Perhaps they didn’t actually imply that learning and ceaselessly improving our craft aren’t necessary, but if they really did mean that, argh, how can they even call themselves writers? 🙁 Okay, I know everyone has their…  — Read More »


Serena, a lot of people want to HAVE WRITTEN a novel, short story, whatever rather than to actually WRITE it. If you’re one of those who actually WANT to go through the process of writing and doing it well, it’s understandable why you’re frustrated with those people. As far as sales pitches go, I think the ones that claim they have the secret to “Make Six Figures with Your Writing” would fit in that category. It’s an ad for copy writing that may or may not enable you to make $100,000+ writing copy. Mostly what you’d do is write letters to get people to part with their money like the one that got you to part with yours. I always view ads like this with a great deal of suspicion. I think justifiably so. I learned a lot about the craft of writing by reading craft books, some I bought and some I checked out of the library. If your library doesn’t have a book you want to read, there’s the inter-library loan that will get the book for you. A lot of libraries have book sales where you can pick up good used books at a fraction of the cost of new ones. Another way to learn the craft is to pick a book you especially liked and dissect it–study it and see how the author did it. Don’t imitate the author, but figure out the techniques he/she used to create the book you loved to read. As far…  — Read More »

Davonne Burns

I fell hard for this when I was first getting serious about writing. I did find a *few* classes that helped me improve my writing. On the whole I’ve done best by reading books on the craft, writing, beta reading, writing, accepting constructive criticism, and more writing.

My biggest issue with accepting advice from certain people is they have no publishing experience to back up anything they are saying. If you’ve never written a best seller (or any book period) or are not an agent, editor or publisher then why am I listening to you about how to make my book a best seller?

Glynis Jolly

I would think that the craft of writing is like any other art. There isn’t a guarantee for success anyplace within the journey, which is sometime that is continuous. I think of my writing as a way of life. The last thing I want to be is that snake oil salesman with his mule and wagon. All those so-called secrets and quick fixes will give a person nothing but the snake.

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

Hi Jami!
I was aware of scare tactics in helping authors reach their goals, it happened to a friend of mine. We, her critique partners, had to talk her off the ledge. She received an email, and like yours, it was misleading and heavy-handed.
She ended up deleting the message and moving past the scare tactic the author had hoped would earn a sale.
I go to conferences every year and take classes online periodically, but I’m very picky about whom I hand out my hard-earned money to. And I don’t like to be bullied, so scare tactics don’t sway me…they make me press delete 🙂
Great post !
Have a wonderful evening,

Laurie Evans

I agree, I seem to be getting a lot of heavy-handed emails and “offers” like this lately. I’ve learned so much from reading fiction and reading inexpensive craft books, going to meetings and sharing with other writers.

Other dislikes: classes that claim they know the “secret” to writing a bestseller, but won’t give any info on what the class actually covers. Or, classes that cost hundreds of dollars. Nope!


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