Ask any established writer how old you should be when you start “taking your writing seriously” and they’ll probably spout off something moderately inspirational and semi-arrogant.
“Well if you just start today, then this is the correct age.”
“There is no ‘right’ age to begin writing.”
“I was [obnoxiously young age for taking something so seriously] when I started, but that’s the exception.”
While none of these answers are wrong. And most of them make a relative point. I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel all that comforted by the ambiguous expectation for when you should start your writing career.
Presumably you’ve laid some groundwork. Maybe you’ve majored in English, started a blog, and interned with a literary journal, but none of these make you feel like a real writer. Not when your end goal is publishing a book or writing a feature for the New York Times.
Loads of professionals – gymnasts, doctors, pilots, actors, lawyers – have average standards for what age they should be when they achieve certain career goals. These aren’t set in stone, but it’s a nice thermometer for measuring where you stand. For artists, such a standard just simply doesn’t exist. In truth, it doesn’t have to exist, but lacking this “success gauge” can do more harm than good.
How are you supposed to know if you’re ahead of schedule or behind the power curve if the industry standard is “you are a writer when you decide to be one?”
That ideal is a procrastinator’s paradise.
Putting an Age on Writing Matters
While you may be curious to know what age is best to kick off your writing career, it’s fair to wonder if it really matters to have that answer. There is plenty of validity to what the experts say. Writers do come in all shapes, sizes and ages.
So what does having an average age standard do for you?
Beyond simply fulfilling the Type A need to be organized and have a deadline, it’s vital for your writing psyche.
A Relentless Writer reader (say that three times fast) expressed an incredibly common concern in the comments of a previous post. She feels like she isn’t far enough along with writing her book and gets intimidated by those around her that are achieving more.
If at 15 she feels behind and like she’s neglecting her work, how do aspiring writers feel that are post-college? Mid-thirties? Entering retirement?
It takes only a couple English classes before you begin to feel like an utter failure for having not been published twice already. Young writers were apparently growing on trees in the 18th and 19th century. But is that the customary trend for the best-selling authors of our time? Is the write-young/die-young model a fair ruler for 21st century writers?
Let’s do a little dissecting.
Real Ages of Real Authors
In an effort to get to the bottom of this writing age identity crisis, I decided to do some digging. I took the top 50 best-selling authors of all time and tried to pinpoint their age when they published their first major work.
This was somewhat challenging because the “first major work” can be difficult to determine. In general though, I looked for the first date that appears on the authors full bibliography.
*Moving on from boring research details.*
As I went through each author’s history I found myself gritting my teeth at any author who was younger when they first published than I am now. Then smiling adoringly when I found someone who didn’t succeed until they were five years or more my senior.
That roller coaster alone made me realize even more that a standard can help motivate or reassure you; depending on what side of the fence you’re on.
The list of best-selling authors spans all centuries, but is largely comprised of recognizable authors from the 20th and 21st century. Topping the list is, of course, Shakespeare who made his major debut around the age of 25. But here are few more examples of ages from authors you probably know well:
#4 – Danielle Steel – 25
#9 – Dr. Seuss – 23
#11 – J.K. Rowling – 32
#15 – R.L. Stine – 32
#19 – Stephen King – 18
#38 – C.S. Lewis – 38
Authors who are back-to-back on the list – based on estimated sales – could have as much as 20 years separating their debut ages so there wasn’t necessarily a direct correlation between age and ranking.
Writing Age Statistics: Finding Where You Fit
As it turns out, the average debut age of the top 50 best-selling authors of all time was a wonderfully round: 30.
Finally, something to wrap our heads around!
It may not speak to every experience or circumstance, but it’s a fair place to start gauging where you stand in comparison to our industry’s very best.
The average age amongst the top ten was 24.5, which gives us a little bit more insight. You want to be a RAGING success, you better get started yesterday
As you can see the number of pre-twenty prodigies is comparable to the number of late-in-life megastars. The good news there being that the average debut age more or less corresponds with the age we all (really) start becoming adults. Your thirties appears to be a great decade in life to really get the ball rolling on your writing career.
Another element to consider as we measure age and success is sheer volume. Many of these authors made the best-seller list because they churned out a massive number of books.
High-volume authors like Dean Koontz (91 published books) and Barbara Cartland (723 published books) started much younger than the Dan Brown’s (6 published books) and Josh Grisham’s (22 published books) of the world.
So if your end goal is to see hundreds of books stamped with your name, you got to get a move on early.
Make Age Work for Your Writing
When it comes to you and your writing the desire is clearly there. The education and experience are obtainable if not already achieved. What we all struggle with though is motivation and dedication.
We live busy and distracted lives. If writing doesn’t support your livelihood, making time for it can fall really low on your priority list.
So you need a set standard.
Set some measurement of success that you can either achieve with pride or use as a marker for failure (the best kind of inspiration). Whether you use the average debut age of best-sellers or simply find a mentor author to parallel, take the plunge. Find a reasonable age and demand that you reach a specific goal by then.
Here’s a few goals you can adlib to get started:
- I will complete my first [writing project] by age _____.
- I will be published by [publishing company/news publication] by age _____.
- Writing will be my primary source of income by age _____.
Write down your writing age goal. Put it somewhere that forces you to look at it. Tell it to people who will hold you accountable. When you’re on a timeline for completion, you find a way to make time and complete it. And if you fail, you actually have to face it instead of pretending like you never had a goal to begin with.
In an effort to hold myself to the same standards, here are my age goals:
- I will complete my first fiction novel manuscript by age 27 (That gives me a little more than a year.)
- I will publish my first non-fiction eBook while I am 26.
- I will be a published fiction novelist by the time I am 30.
Even as I wrote those I felt myself twitching a bit because I knew I was forcing myself to take a hold of success or embrace failure in the near future. It’s as exciting as it is horrifying, but without those, there is a good chance I’d let the next few years roll by without blinking and lie to myself about how “next year is the year.”
Turn the table on your writing career and put down some numbers.
What’s your writing age goal?