Monday, April 8, 2019

Why Copying Other Successful Authors Won’t Make You Successful

Have you ever looked up to another writer, admired her success, and said to yourself, “That’s what I need to do. I’ll just follow what she did.”

We naturally learn from observing others, and it’s always helpful to study those who have reached the level of success we aspire to. The problem comes from expecting if you do exactly what this other person did, you’ll accomplish the same level of success.

In fact, trying to follow in the footsteps of successful authors often leads to discouragement and despair rather than triumph. When you do (or think you did) everything the successful author did, and the same rewards refuse to come your way, you may feel like a failure.

But in truth, you didn’t fail. You just followed a path that wasn’t meant for you.

Why Copying Successful Writers is a Losing Strategy
Successful authors have been there and done that, so they know what they’re talking about. Many make it a point to condense what they’ve learned into easy-to-follow instructions for other writers, in the sincere hopes of helping them out.

Can we learn from them? Absolutely, particularly when it comes to gaining ideas for marketing techniques, productivity hacks, plot developments, and that sort of thing. The danger comes when we fall into the trap of thinking if we do what another successful author did, we’ll automatically experience the same level of success.

“The daily habits and thought processes of your idols are certainly a contributing factor to the quality of their lives,” writes comedian and writer Jon Westenberg in Business Insider, “but only because they have realized that those things work for them . . . . Those things are deeply personal, and they're not something that can be copy-pasted into your own life with any guarantee of impact or effectiveness.”

It seems logical to imagine that once a person figures out how to succeed as a writer, his or her experience should translate into an easy step-by-step process that other writers can follow. The problem is that the successful writer in question came by her process through a typically long period of experimentation in finding out what works for her.

That means her process is extremely personal, just like her fashion style and preferred brand of toothpaste. You wouldn’t expect that buying the same clothes and brushing with the same product would help you emulate her success, and similarly, following her process to success likely won’t, either.

Yet many writers fall into the trap of thinking this is the way to build their careers. It’s an innocent mistake, but one that can be dangerous, as when you don’t achieve the success you hoped for when you thought you should, you may start to doubt yourself as a writer.

Writers Have to Climb Their Own Mountains
Consider how many variables there are in life. To start, no two people are the same. You don’t have the same talents, gifts, or personality as someone else. You are you, and that means you must forge your own path to success.

Yes, you can absolutely pick up tips from others, learn important skills from them, study as an apprentice, and use your newly acquired knowledge to take giant steps forward in your career . . . as long as you go about it with the right mindset, understanding that all you’re doing is picking up tools to make your journey a little easier.

But if you think that following in another’s steps will take you to the top of that same mountain of success, you’re making a huge mistake. We all have our own mountains to climb. You have to find yours.

This can be really bad news if you have no idea how to go about finding your own path. After all, if you get instructions from another writer on how to succeed, you can follow those instructions, but if you’re left standing on the open road with no instructions at all, you can feel lost, frustrated, and worst of all, hopeless.

The Secret to Writing Success: Find Your Own Path
There’s no doubt that forging your own path as a writer is difficult—probably one of the most difficult challenges you’ll face as a creative individual. But it’s the only way to fulfill your potential and find a career that’s right for you.

“I can tell you from my own experience that I spent a lot of time in my early months as a blogger mimicking some of my unknowing mentors,” writes blogger, podcaster, and entrepreneur Corbett Barr on “My sites didn’t really start to grow until I stopped mimicking and started becoming myself.”

But there is the question—just how do you become yourself?

I’ve found that one of the best ways is to take some time to determine exactly what your strengths are, both as a writer and a creative individual. Too often writers focus on their flaws. We get writing critiques and send our stories out to beta readers to discover what’s wrong with our stories.

Even if we receive some praise, we’re likely to overlook it and focus on the critical statements. Humans are wired to focus on the negative. Even from an early age, we pay more attention to bad news. That means it’s natural for you to focus more on those critical comments and negative reviews than the positive ones, but by doing so, you’re ignoring what you need to determine your unique path.

Instead, pay more attention to the positive comments. I recommend you keep a file of all the positive comments you receive on your writing (and other creative endeavors). As your file expands, start identifying categories. What do readers respond to? Your unique settings? Your humorous dialogue? Your quirky characters? The fact that your stories are fast-paced and exciting?

Investigate your comments and determine what they’re saying about your strengths. What do you do well as a writer? The more you can figure that out, the easier it will be to chart your own path.

You can apply the same process to your author platform. What is working for you? What blogs or podcasts that you’ve produced get the most attention? What else do you do creatively that people respond to?

Pretend you’re a scientist and your subject is you. What makes this person special? What does she have to offer readers that no one else has? How can she package that information in such a way that she attracts more readers to her work?

As you answer these questions, you’ll find your options gradually narrowing until there’s only one road left ahead of you—the one that leads to your unique brand of success. And that’s much more satisfying than someone else’s, anyway.

For more help determining your unique strengths and building an author platform that attracts readers, see Colleen’s new book, Writer Get Noticed! Get your free chapter here.

Barr, C. (2010, December 15). The Difference: Copying Your Mentors vs. Becoming Your Best Self. Retrieved from
Hanson, R. (2010, October 26). Confronting the Negativity Bias. Retrieved from
Vaish, A., Grossmann, T., & Woodward, A. (2008). Not All Emotions Are Created Equal: The Negativity Bias in Social-Emotional Development. Psychological Bulletin, 134(3), 383–403. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.134.3.383
Westenberg, J. (2016, January 12). Imitating the habits of successful people is ultimately pointless. Retrieved from

Colleen M. Story inspires writers to overcome modern-day challenges and find creative fulfillment in their work. Her latest release, Writer Get Noticed!, is a strengths-based guide to help writers break the spell of invisibility and discover unique author platforms that will draw readers their way. With over 20 years in the creative industry, Colleen is the founder of Writing and Wellness and Writer CEO. Please see her author website or follow her on Twitter.

For more help determining your unique strengths and building an author platform that attracts readers, see Colleen’s new book, Writer Get Noticed! Get your free chapter here.


We are partnering with DIY MFA this spring to bring you a great program for writers.

Before we announce details, we’ll be sharing several of their learning podcasts each week.

The next one is Episode 242: Challenging the Status Quo — Interview with Anita Sarkeesian and Ebony Adams.

Check it out and be watching next month for details about the program.


Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Alex - we need to be unique in our style and writing ... so our voice can be recognised. Colleen has said as it should be ... we are who we are, not someone else. It's great that IWSG is partnering with DIY MFA and also with WEP ... it's practice, practice, practice ... so keep writing one and all -however slowly ... just write. Cheers Hilary

Natalie Aguirre said...

You're right that we can learn from what other successful authors do but each book and author is different. We have to do what's right for us.

James Pailly said...

"Pretend you're a scientist and your subject is you." Those words definitely resonate with me! In science, the evidence is all that really matters. If the evidence shows that something doesn't work for me, then it doesn't matter if it worked for Stephen King or J.K. Rowling or anybody else--it doesn't work for me, end of story.

KJ Scrim, Writer said...

I read ferociously and when I finished a particularly good book I'd think, "I'm going to write like that." I learned after many years of trying to imitate others, a ton of frustration, and a few bald spots, that I really do have to find my own mountain to climb.

Fundy Blue said...

Thanks for the spot on post, Colleen and Alex. I read widely and voraciously, all kinds of books, for inspiration and enjoyment; but when it comes to writing I have to follow my own heart and voice, for better or for worse.

Lynda Dietz said...

There really is no one-size-fits-all path to being a successful writer (or a successful anything, for that matter). I like the idea of looking at your strengths and working with those. A coworker at my day job once told me it was great that I was learning such a variety of things (as was temporarily necessary while I filled an employee gap), but not to forget what I do best and why I do it. He said he's observed so many people over the years who feel they have to do everything equally well, and they all forget that their strengths should be the focus, with other things as filler.

Jemi Fraser said...

Great advice - picking and choosing and trying and failing and trying again is about the only way I've seen work!

Juneta key said...

Great article and points to think about.