12 Pieces of Advice for College Writers: How I Wrote 2 Books in 2 Years as a Full-Time Student

Life Updates

Graduation

I’m incredibly excited to announce that, after 4 years, I’ve finally graduated from Carnegie Mellon University, with a double-major in Statistics and Decision Science, and a minor in Innovation and Entrepreneurship! While I’m super excited for the journey ahead, it is bittersweet as I’ve had a lot of wonderful memories in Pittsburgh and met some wonderful people – I’m incredibly grateful for the rigorous education, the networking opportunities I’ve gotten, and the people I’ve met who have expanded my perspective and that I’ve learned a lot about. But at the same time, I’m even more excited to be taking the next step in my life.

What’s Next

While this is a huge in-between phase of my life with moving out of one place and making plans to move into another, I’ve been taking the time to spend with loved ones, read more in my spare time, and continue planning for the months ahead. I definitely do plan to start writing book #3 of the A Return to the Ashes series (Book 1 and Book 2 available on Amazon now!) and hope to attempt a similar timeline. I’m also blessed to say that later this summer, I will be starting as a Business Analyst at a phenomenal company that will allow me to balance my passions for writing and statistics.

12 Pieces of Advice

Now let’s get to the actual reason you clicked on this article. It’s not clickbait – I actually did write my first book during my junior year of college (publishing it in April 2021), and wrote the second book in my senior year of college, which was released earlier this month.

Yes, it was stressful. Yes, it took sacrifice. Nothing worthwhile is without its ups and downs. But this post is for those students who are like I was – thinking that you need to give up your love for writing in favor of classes. I want to let you know that it’s possible to pursue both, as a wonderful mentor of mine, Professor Eric Koester, helped me realize. It just takes the time and effort. And honestly, you have more time to spare than you think, if you become aware of your distractions and take control over them (for me, deleting Instagram and Facebook off my phone from time to time, and deleting my Snapchat account altogether, proved to be massive time-savers, but that’s for a later discussion).

So here’s my advice for what has helped me a lot, and I hope it helps you too!

1. Know what classes you don’t need to put 100% into

The unfortunate reality is that there are a lot of filler classes that we get thrown into for graduation requirements – “gen ed” classes that we know we don’t need or want to put much effort into.

This may sound anathema to many people (as it would to my past self). “What do you mean? Why are you saying that we should neglect our academic responsibilities?

Of course I’m not going to advocate for that, and to quote me as saying that would be a deliberate misread. After all, especially in the United States, you’re paying a pretty penny for the privilege of higher education. But as any student would recognize, not all classes are equal, and different classes and professors require different levels of commitment.

For CMU students especially, I used a lifesaving Google Chrome extension called “CMUnits” when signing up for classes. It shows, based on the compilation of past faculty course evaluations, how many hours per week each class took in the past on average, and I adjusted my expectations accordingly. For example, some classes that were labeled as “9-unit” (which, in theory, would be expected to take 9 hours of commitment per week) would take less than that on average, while other courses labeled as such or with 12 units would take more than twice as long.

(Again, this is not an indictment of classes and professors, but some material is harder than others, partly because of workload, and partly because we all have our strengths and weaknesses in what we intuitively understand better. For example, I always loved statistics, psychology, and philosophy, and found those subjects more appealing and easier to intuit, while I could not say the same for engineering and microbiology.)

Again, DO NOT just “BS” your way through classes – you’re paying to be there, and should take your education seriously. But you should know ahead of time what your strengths and weaknesses are, and ask other students who have taken your courses before what to expect, so you can have realistic expectations.

2. Plan out your busy weeks ahead of time

One of the beautiful things about college is the fact that you get syllabi, devoting the first day of classes (and sometimes the first week) with the setup expectations for what the class will be like for the rest of the semester.

I’ll repeat the advice that students get all the time, because it’s important: READ THE SYLLABUS. Take the time to highlight important dates and times for exams, quizzes, and project deadlines.

Personally, I found it easier to have a small index card on my wall with visualizations of what I would have to expect for each class, so I knew ahead of time when I would have my busiest weeks of school. Since I worked with a publisher, I knew my deadlines for that ahead of time as well, and could plan ahead when I would have more time for writing.

To the left you can see an example from the fall semester of my junior year – as mentioned, it’s a picture of the entire semester laid out on a tiny index card. I also color-coded based on class, and used different symbols based on the type of assignment (exam, project, homework) before placing it on the wall above my desk to see at-a-glance.

3. Have someone holding you accountable

I was fortunate enough to work with a hybrid publisher (which provides the best of both worlds in giving the structure of a traditional publisher, with the improved royalties and creative rights of a self-publisher – comment below if you want me to go more in-depth on what it’s like!).

This meant that I worked with a team of editors that held me accountable to deadlines. I also set up weekly meetings with my editors (shout-out to my developmental editor Ilia Epifanov and Marketing & Revising Editor Faiqa Zafar for their patience, encouragement and amazing work!) to keep me on track. Even if I had my busy periods that didn’t always allow me to stay perfectly consistent (see #2 above), they still kept me grounded and accountable.

If you decide to go the self-publishing route, you will still need that accountability, so still consider either hiring an editor, or have a close loved one or professor who is willing to put in the time to look over your work, and to give you honest and critical feedback. Make sure it’s someone who you respect, set up deadlines, and boom – you’ve got a “fan” that you can’t let down!

4. Have a good support system

In my case, I was lucky to have my parents, boyfriend, and friends supporting me, in addition to my publishing company. I’m incredibly grateful for my parents for their continual support of my goals, helping me by reading and revising my work, and giving me further familial historical background to help. My boyfriend rivals my parents for my biggest fan, and he also spent a lot of late nights helping me find the best ways to carry out my scenes. My friends, especially those who beta-read my work, have also given me a lot of good, constructive feedback.

From Unsplash via Helena Lopes

Thanks to these people in my life, who would often tell me how excited they would be to read the full book once it’s out, I felt that motivational push on the more difficult days, and I’d say that having such a support system made a huge difference!

5. Outsource!

Like I’ve mentioned, sometimes you need a team. I found working with a hybrid publisher particularly helpful because most people who go the non-traditional route may still not have the graphic design skills to work on cover design and layout to a level that looks professional, and you can only catch so many mistakes editing by yourself.

From Unsplash via Elisa Ventur

Acknowledge that sometimes, you can’t do everything yourself. And that’s ok. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer, or that you’re less than capable. It just means you’re human. And sometimes that’ll require a bit of financial sacrifice, which is up to you, but when considering this, also consider how much you value your time and the professionalism of your book (a better-looking and better-formatted book makes a HUGE difference in sales). You want to make sure you put out not only a manuscript, but a better manuscript than you could have done by yourself, and a book that you’re proud of.

So, if you can afford it, outsource these things to people who have worked professionally in this field, who you know can do it best. Look into hybrid publishers or connect with designers and editors on LinkedIn – of course, vet their work and make sure it looks as professional as the books you have on your bookshelf. If it looks legit, then work with them (while respectfully not holding back on what you want in terms of your book). It’ll save you a ton of time, and often give you better results than if you attempted to do everything yourself.

6. Get sleep and exercise!

Yes, everyone says this, and the platitude of “self-care” has been repeated so much that it almost feels meaningless at this point. But if I’m repeating this, that means that it’s some darn good advice.

You cannot function well if you’re not taking care of yourself!

Even if you need to take naps or go to the gym only twice a week, even this bare minimum helps. You may be like many people (including my past self) in saying “But I really don’t have the time – I need to get [insert impending project] done!!!”

Of course you shouldn’t neglect your projects. But when you neglect basic things like sleep and exercise, your body grows more lethargic and less productive. You will wonder why it’s so much harder to focus (and why binging on coffee alone won’t help – sometimes it’ll just up your heart rate and make you more anxious, without helping at all with focus and productivity).

From Unsplash via Lux Graves

You have more time than you think. That extra hour of work might have diminishing returns, and might be better spent sleeping or hitting the gym.

Try it out and you’ll see the difference – when refreshed, you may be more productive in less than an hour than in several hours of a sleep-deprived, mopey state of mind.

7. Realize there will be late nights and early mornings

I realize that I just said you need to take care of yourself, and I’ll stand by that. But even with all of these steps in place, sometimes thing pile up. Life happens. You might have the final deadline for your book line up right with your midterm week, or you might have procrastinated too much on one project in favor of another. Either way, don’t expect everything to flow perfectly.

From Unsplash via Beth Jnr

You should know ahead of time there’ll be weeks where you have almost nothing going on, and others where you’ll be wondering whether you can get your projects done in time. Sometimes you’ll need a cup of joe to make it through the day, and that’s why a support system is so necessary to get you through these harder times. There have been times even in the past year where I’ve gone to bed at 2am and woken up to work more at 6am in order to get everything done in time. I don’t endorse making this a habit, but it’ll happen from time to time.

As much of a platitude as this has become, remember: “This too shall pass.” Have a reward (like a cleared-out evening to relax, or a night out with friends). An end goal in sight with a reward afterwards gives you something to look forward to, and makes things more bearable in the moment knowing that there’s a break coming up.

8. Say no to parties sometimes

Friends are important, and your support system is, like I’ve mentioned, one of the strongest ways to keep going when it’s hard. Your friends, at least the right ones, will push you forward.

But book-writing is an entrepreneurial endeavor in its own right – it requires a lot of work. And that requires social sacrifices sometimes.

From Unsplash via Max Harlynking

This does NOT mean to cut off your friends – if anything, their insights of those around you might be a help, provided you’re surrounded by the right people. Thre will also be events you shouldn’t miss, like your best friend’s wedding or your niece’s baptism – these are big deals and events that you want to invest your time in, for the sake of your relationships with your loved ones.

On the other hand, you might have friends who do the bare minimum in their work and spend their free time drinking and partying. Or even just a party for one of your school clubs right before your deadline, while you still have 10 chapters to edit. It’ll be ok. You don’t have to go to every party you’re invited to.

As mentioned, there’ll be busy times when you’ll have to focus on meeting your deadlines. That sometimes means saying no to that Friday-night house party and having to overcome the FOMO that comes with that.

Not everyone will agree with what you’re doing, and some might even take it personally. I’ve surely had friends that took offense when I essentially dropped off the face of the planet for a couple weeks to focus on getting everything together. It’ll happen, but it’s not the end of the world. And your real friends will understand.

9. Be flexible!

Sometimes, life happens. Like I said, you shouldn’t be using your work as an excuse to neglect those around you (like you may see many “sigma male” circles glorifying).

At the same time, you need to make sure you have your priorities set and that you balance things out. For example, I planned ahead when I knew of weddings and holidays that I would want to attend, and my boyfriend and I prioritized Sunday liturgy, so I knew to block off Sunday mornings.

Google Calendar is a lifesaver, but not an end-all-be-all. It’s good to block out events in your weeks like church, classes, and meetings. Color-coding has helped me a lot in letting me know at-a-glance whether time would be blocked off for school, clubs, religious services, or social events, but I didn’t schedule it down to the minute, and I wouldn’t recommend it for others either.

I repeat: don’t schedule everything in your day by 15-minute increments. It won’t work – sometimes things come up that you need to make room for, like a family emergency or an urgent publishing complication you need to handle (or even a migraine that will stop you from being as productive as you want). You need to allow room for that potential, so only pencil in the events you need to go to or be aware of so you know when you’re free.

10. Edit, edit, edit – but don’t over-edit!

Writer’s block is common mainly because you’re worried about whether or not your material is good, and what you need to know is that the first time around, it won’t be good enough. But I’ll repeat this point:

Good books aren’t written, they’re re-written.

Michael Crichton

You will not be perfect – sometimes you have to get something down even if it’s not as brilliant as you want it to be. You’re supposed to edit it many times over anyways, and when the revision process comes around, you will be. I’ve had about 8-10 rounds of editing for each book I’ve published, and I’ll share with you another piece of advice that helps ward off against overediting:

When you’re done editing a chapter, DO NOT look over it again until you’ve finished editing the rest of the manuscript.

This prevents you from obsessing over one chapter and never being happy with it. Once you’re done with the chapter, move on, finish your round of editing for the rest of the book, and then go back over it in the next round. (This is essentially my publishing company’s policy, and it’s helped me immensely, especially being the perfectionist that I am.)

You may ask, “But what if it’s never good enough?” (That, my friend, I have also asked myself many times over.) Editing, however, also has diminishing returns. If you see that you’ve gotten to the point where your edits are not content-related anymore but just nitpicky one-word changes, that’s a sign you should leave the rest up to your editor and that you’re close to ready to publish.

That means that yes, there may be a typo or two at some point in your final draft that no one’s caught. But that’s no excuse to be an unnecessary time sink, and if you’ve gone through 10 rounds of editing with several different editors and beta readers looking at it, you can be assured you’ve captured 99% of the errors.

11. Make peace with the fact that you won’t see results for a while

Like I said before, writing a book is an entrepreneurial endeavor. This isn’t to say you’re making a pitch in front of a Shark Tank-like board or talking to venture capital firms about your epic fantasy novel – of course that makes no sense. I have friends who have done that for their tech or healthcare companies and there are major differences between that and writing content, so I will not say it’s exactly the same.

What I do mean, however, is that it is a large creative undertaking that isn’t instantly-gratifying. You won’t get rich quick off writing books, unless you already have a huge following (which most of us, myself included, don’t have quite yet). It requires not only commitment but also consistent effort and hard work put in, often with years passing before you get any huge amount of recognition.

From Unsplash via Nathan Dumlao

Writing (and finishing!) a book is far easier said than done, but it is possible. Even now, I’m still starting out and not necessarily making money consistently enough to call it an income. Quite honestly, if you’re writing a book, especially in fiction, and you’re doing it only for the money, you might be doing it for the wrong reasons – there’s no shortage of fiction books on the market, or books in general, and many people won’t reach bestselling status.

This should be something you do because you love what you’re writing about, you want to work to improve your craft, and you want to put something out into the world that people can enjoy and draw inspiration from. If you’re doing it for the clout and/or the money, you may get some, but your writing won’t be as motivating to you, and might not come across as authentic to your target audience the same way that your love for the content will.

12. Learn from more experienced authors and get a mentor

Finally, it’s hard to do this all as a new author, especially if you have trouble navigating the ins and outs. Heck, even after putting out two books I’m still learning new things, and I will still be learning new things decades from now.

There will always be something to learn, and you’ll never know everything.

You need to go in with a certain level of humility. So for those areas that you know less about, I would recommend that you connect to other authors who seem to be doing better than you in a certain aspect (for example, social media promotion) and ask them for advice. You might be surprised at how little you know and how much even a 5-minute call can help you.


If you haven’t yet, check out my books, A Return to the Ashes and In the Frigid Ruins, available now on Amazon! I’m also on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. If you liked this content, follow me on there and keep up with my blog at nadinapopoviciu.com!

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