Only Hindsight Shows You The Progress You’re Making by Anne-Mhairi Simpson

I’ve been getting really frustrated lately. In all honesty, I’ve been frustrated almost since I started writing. Writing, indeed, seems like one long exercise in frustration. When you think everything is going swimmingly, it seems to be an almost sure-fire sign that you haven’t the first clue about what you’re doing. The minute you get said clue, everything becomes so freaking hard. Every little thing becomes a struggle and every time you look up thinking, oh thank god, at least that’s that sorted, you see someone in front of you who was apparently born knowing all of this and just published their thirteenth book to rave reviews.

Sound familiar?

Or am I the only one who feels that way?


Oh well, I’ll assume you recognise this feeling (otherwise this would be a very short blog post – “Oh, you don’t feel that? Excellent. Carry on.”) and continue.

The thing is, with maths you know when you’re improving. You get addition and subtraction, multiplication and division. Long multiplication and long division take a little longer (I was about 25 when I finally mastered long division – please don’t ask why I was still trying at that age) and then you hit things like quadratic equations. Geometry. CALCULUS. There is an order of progression. If you can do calculus, it’s pretty safe to say you’ve mastered 1+1.

But the arts aren’t like that. There are people out there who, having not just written but released books, appear to have only the skimpiest awareness of spelling rules, but we’ll gloss over that for the moment.

My point is, with the arts you often don’t realise you’ve achieved what you’d set out to until someone comes up to you in tears, goes down on their knees and begs you to kill them because they just finished your book and they’ll never read anything better so they might as well end it now and by your hand would be the most fitting way.

(No, this has never happened to me. But I have high hopes.)

Okay, seriously. You have goals. You want to be published. Read. Appreciated. Admired? Maybe. Loved? Maybe. So you work at it. You blog. You write. You go on social media. You attend cons. You talk to people. Or slur to people, depending on how much time you’ve been spending in the bar at the aforementioned cons. And you keep writing. And from time to time (or every ten minutes if you’re me) you look around and think…


And then you get invited to submit to an anthology because one of the friends you made via social media or a con knows someone who’s putting one together. Or one of the friends you made via social media or a con is putting an anthology together and asks if you’d like to submit. Or you get introduced to someone’s agent and someone else’s editor (this happens a LOT at cons) and suddenly you look around and realise you’re going to be published. Or that you have someone waiting to look at your work because someone else told them you were good and worth looking at.

Maybe these things haven’t happened to you yet, but they will.

If you keep working.

I don’t know if there’s a mathematical model of it (there probably is) but it seems if you put a consistently high level of effort into something, eventually you will see returns. This is probably the origin of the saying “Practice makes perfect”. It doesn’t just apply to tying your shoelaces. It applies to everything, particularly artistic endeavours. If you keep writing, and working at your craft, your writing will get better. If you keep putting yourself out there and talking to people and meeting people, you will get known. People will know you because, apart from anything else, you’re there to know. You’re visible.

And one day you’ll look around and realise, you are the person getting published. You are the person with an agent and an editor.

And if you’re me you’ll then bitch that you obviously aren’t working hard enough because THAT WOMAN HAS EIGHTEEN BOOKS OUT WHY DIDN’T I START WRITING SOONER? But in general you’ll realise all your hard work up to that point has finally paid off. You can’t see it building up. You only see the result. So keep on working, because those results are building right now. You just can’t see them yet.


Anne-Mhairi Simpson



  1. I’m right with you on that one. (And I agree on the math bits – I didn’t take Calculus until last semester. I’m 52. And I got an A.)

    But as far as my writing goes: lately I haven’t been able to write a thing. My head feels like a piece of cotton wool weighed down with a huge pile of overcooked cappelini. I’ve been too ashamed to post on ROW80.

    Creativity? Not a bit.

    But, because I’m back at work today and I don’t have anything active to do, I’m going to give it another go, drilling down into some characterization and hammering out some portion of a plot. Hoepfully.

    1. Before you feel too ashamed, I’ve been in exactly the same position and I’m a sponsor. Make of that what you will 🙂 And blimey, congrats on your A in Calculus. I’ve never studied it at all. Thank god.

      1. Mhairi, after saying I haven’t been able to write a thing, I’ve been cranking along for most of the day today. I’ve done a lot of deep characterization for my protagonist. Right now I’m in the backstory about how her parents met (they’re both witches) but her mom was a solitary witch. That helped with her career as an opera singer. And it goes on and on…

        You know, Mhairi, I could teach you Calculus. That’s the easy bit. The algebra is what makes you crazy.

        Hope you’re having a good writing day too!

  2. I’m just going to have to take your word for it on the “suddenly everything happens and you’re published” part of your essay. So, I’ll keep working at it, and hope that day shows up for me as well.


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