What Does Success Look Like To You?

by Leanne Sowul
published in Community

Chances are, you’re part of the DIY MFA community because you want something more from your writing life. But do you know what that something is? What, exactly, are you looking for?

Everyone has a different definition of success. For some, it’s the act of going from being a writer to being a published writer. For others, it’s landing an agent or a book deal. And some writers wouldn’t consider themselves a success unless they reached J.K. Rowling-levels of fame and financial security.

Where do you land on that spectrum? If you’re not sure, here are some questions to ask yourself:

What feels like a major victory to you?

What’s the “great news” that would prompt you to call all your friends and family, plan a celebration, bring home a bottle of champagne? Think of a few examples. When I was first starting out, I desperately wanted to get a short story published. I suffered through many, many rejections. The day I got my acceptance email from a legit literary magazine, I did a happy dance around my house and immediately called my husband, then my parents. A couple of years later, I celebrated my agent’s offer with chocolate cake. What would make you break out “the good stuff?” What would make you feel like bursting with pride?

What’s your publication priority?

Over the summer, I attended a workshop given by editor Allison K. Williams, who distilled a writer’s priorities down to “payment, prestige or publication.” If you know which of these elements is most important to you, you can target your submissions to the appropriate place. Which is the highest priority for you? If you’re a freelancer trying to make a real living as a writer, then payment might be the most important factor. If you want prestige, then go ahead and query the New Yorker! And if publication credits are what you’re after, then you can feel free to query widely (but still look for quality).

If you were to die unexpectedly, what legacy do you want to leave behind?

Let’s say you were unable to meet your full definition of success. What would still make you feel pride at the end of your life? A full portfolio of short stories? A list of rejections, proving that you’d tried hard to get published? A note of praise from a respected writing teacher? We may not be able to control the publishing world, but we can control our work, both the quality and the quantity. That can be your legacy, no matter what other successes come of it.

What personal attributes do you want to highlight or strengthen?

Success isn’t just about outer accomplishments; true success comes from within. I’m often reminded of a quote from the movie Cool Runnings that refers to a potential victory: “If you’re not enough without it, you’ll never be enough with it.” What do you need to strengthen inside yourself so that you’ll feel like ‘enough’ whether or not the outer goals are achieved? Is it perseverance? Faith? A full understanding of yourself?

Do you have a better picture of what success looks like to you? Then let’s continue with some deeper probing into how you can make it happen:

How do you prefer to measure your everyday successes?

Is it a month of daily writing? A certain word count at the end of the week? Finishing a novel? Maintaining a blog? Deciding on your best practice of daily measurement will take you closer toward that ultimate success.

What’s a small step you can take toward your success right now? And the next step after that?

What can you do today, right now, that will become a building block toward the next step? Use your method of daily, weekly or monthly measurement as your guide.

How will you “keep the faith” in your ultimate success while you’re taking small steps?

Do you have a mantra, a touchstone, or a symbol of your faith in yourself? Do you have people in your life who are encouraging and supporting you on the road to your success? If not, now is the time to set up those systems, before you reach a stage where you feel discouraged or afraid.

Every once in awhile, check in with yourself about your definition of success. It may change and grow over time, based on what you’re working on, what you’ve learned about yourself and your writing process, and the success you’ve already attained.

After pondering these questions, I’ve decided that my current definition of success means seeking publication for my short stories and personal essays with the desire for more writing credits (time to collect rejections!); getting a book deal for my first novel; and continuing work on the larger fiction and creative nonfiction projects I’m already passionate about.

Share your own definition of success in the comments below, or get in touch via email or twitter. One of the best ways to ensure success is to tell someone else what it means to you!

lrs-headshot-square-300x300Leanne Sowul is a writer and teacher from the Hudson Valley region of New York. She’s the curator of the website Words From The Sowul and writes the “Be Well, Write Well” column for DIY MFA. Her current projects include a YA novel for NaNoWriMo, a historical fiction project, and caring for her newborn daughter. Connect with her at leannesowul(at)gmail(dot)com, or on Twitter @sowulwords.


  • I measure my writing success in a variety of ways. Write a certain number of words this month, finish a certain short story, write a certain number of blog posts this week, etc. I set daily, weekly, and monthly writing goals, and if I reach them, I consider it a writing success.

    But aside from all of the short-term goals, I have one major long-term writing goal and that is to make enough money writing (either fiction or blogging) to do it full time.

    I try to keep that goal in focus as I work out the smaller ones.

    • Leanne Sowul

      Jason, it sounds like you’ve already given this topic a lot of thought! You’ve set yourself up for your personal definition of success.
      It can be difficult to balance the big-picture goals with the everyday ones, so I’m glad you’re finding a system that works for you.

  • KristenFalsoCapaldi

    I find that “living as if” really helps me. I seek out opportunities that will provide me with deadlines: contests, open submissions, nanowrimo, classes. This practice helps me to continue to tackle my writing as a professional endeavor. With each deadline I meet, I can reflect on the projects completed and celebrate the new skills I’ve developed. I am hoping to get an agent for my novel, but in the meantime, I am writing daily, continuing to put my work out into the world.

  • Leah Berkowitz

    I would love to develop a more regular writing practice, though I am starting to think weekly rather than daily, since I work more than full time. As far as publication, when I was sending out my first children’s book, a friend asked me what my goal was (since, if it was just to get it out there, I could do that online). I said, “I’d like something I’ve written to have covers on it.” That helped put choosing a publisher and negotiating a contract in perspective.

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