How to Succeed (or Not Succeed) as a Writer

Believe it or not, I didn’t always want to be a technical writer–I wanted to be a science fiction writer. I accidentally picked up the tech writing habit; then learned to love it, and then I did something about it. This will be a meditation on what it takes to succeed. 


There’s no two ways around it: writing, like mechanical or computational skill, requires a bit (or a lot) of natural ability. I have in my files stories I wrote back when I was eight years old. The quality is not great, but there’s a flow of a sort to it, and the vocabulary was somewhat advanced for a kid of that age. I read a great deal as well, having acquired early on a passion for reading, as a leisure activity, a preferred method of learning, and a way to expand my understanding of the world. It’s possible to become a writer without enjoying reading, I suppose, but I’m dubious. You read to learn how to put words together artfully. And yes, it helps if you get some encouragement from family, friends, or teachers.

Work Ethic/Discipline

In the last 40+ years, I’ve written over 150 complete short stories, most of them before age 40, and there were years when I cranked out stories (usually 10+ pages) at the rate of two per month. At age 40 I took the occasion of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) to start writing novels. That required a different form of discipline, as I needed to research my content for accuracy. I also needed to sit down in front of the keyboard to crank out ~1,700 words per day to get a first draft written in 30 days. To date, I’ve written four novels for myself. Sounds like a lot of work, and yet my stuff remains unpublished.

Contrast that with my nonfiction efforts:

  • I went back to grad school to get a degree that might give me the gravitas to be accepted by an aerospace company.
  • I learned to accept revisions to improve my work.
  • I kept educating myself about the space business so I would know more about what I was doing.
  • I kept hustling to find volunteer, then low-paying, than full-time jobs writing about space–then I delivered.

The results speak for themselves: I’ve worked for the human spaceflight and science sides of NASA; done work for the commercial space sector (Virgin Galactic, the Golden Spike Company, and others), and the space-related media (,, and Ad Astra, among others); and covered topics ranging from settlements on Mars to life on other worlds to the potential for traveling to other stars. I’ve had my work published at technical and advocacy conferences. Space people seek me out to do work for them. So what happened with the fiction writing?

Belief in Yourself

In the end, I believed in my ability to make a contribution to the space business. I was on a mission. If there wasn’t a concrete career path I could follow, I was willing to put in the work to get where I wanted to go, often without much help or guidance. I was driven to pursue the dream of writing for space projects in the real world. Even when I was sinking under a ton of work in grad school and little prospect for full-time in the industry of my choice, I didn’t worry about it because I had faith that I would, I sought out the opportunities to make myself better and more useful to space-related organizations, and I persisted in making myself and my work better.

I never had a similar faith in my fiction (or poetry, for that matter), and so those 100+ stories and four novels remain in a storage box or in my hard drive, collecting dust.

In the end, attitude, drive, and effort make the difference. Maybe one day I’ll put the same efforts into my fiction that I put into my tech writing career. I have enough proof of what works…and a model of how to do it.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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