I’m starting think my English degree is doing more harm than good to my writing.
I spent so many years studying classic literature and contemporary masterpieces, I know good quality writing when I see it. The problem is, when I read through some of my draft work (and some of my finished work), I don’t see classic. I don’t see masterpiece.
I see, well, mediocrity.
Then again, when I read a lot of contemporary books, I see the same thing. Yet, instead of saying, “Hey, maybe my writing is getting close to publishable quality,” I say “I’m terrible, horrible, awful. I’ll never be published because I don’t write as well as all those authors I studied in English lit.”
Now, intellectually I know that if anyone said my fiction rivals Jane Austen or Charles Dickens, they would either be lying or deluded. So why do I expect myself to write as well as the masters?
I know I’m not the only one out there who’s too hard on myself. Do the following statements describe your own mindset when it comes to your writing?
You expect perfection–the first time.
You and your first drafts enjoy an ever-present struggle. You realize there’s a time to write and a time to revise, but looking at your rough work discourages you to no end. Why can’t the prose just come out perfectly?
You refuse to let anyone read your work until it’s complete.
You may be on your third draft already, but no one is going near it until you’ve edited out every last grammatical error, cliche, and logic hole. You’re afraid anyone who reads your work prematurely will think you can’t write, so you find excuses to keep it under lock and key.
You think everyone else’s writing is better than yours.
You read other unpublished people’s stories and immediately want to crawl in a hole. It doesn’t matter whether their work is truly superior to yours or not–you’re insecure enough to find a reason why your writing stinks by comparison.
These thoughts are probably universal amongst writers, at least at some point in their careers. But how can you lighten up and keep yourself moving forward?
- Remember, not even seasoned authors get it right the first time. Everyone has to revise their work, usually many times over. Try not to pass too much judgment on your writing until you’ve finished a later draft.
- You don’t have to show your rough drafts to anyone, but why not show a second (less-than-perfect) draft to a trusted friend or critique partner? Put yourself in control of the situation by specifically requesting feedback on strengths and weaknesses, but feel free to explain that your work is still incomplete.
- Instead of being envious of other people’s writing, try to identify what you think they are doing better than you. Is it plot? Dialogue? Characterization? Perhaps the thing that bothers you most is something that’s missing from your own manuscript.
Every writer has doubts. Everyone has days the mountains just seem too high to climb. If you follow literary agent Nathan Bransford‘s blog, you may already have seen this fascinating post on why lack of confidence can actually be a good thing for writers.
Personally, I need to remind myself that my books don’t have to be classics. They don’t have to win Pulitzers or Booker Prizes to be good, to be published, or to be well-loved by readers.
How do you refrain from being too hard on yourself? Do you have strategies that work particularly well to help reprogram your thinking?
Join the discussion
Christopher Jackson says
I’m am REALLY too hard on myself. The first one is my big problem – I expect my writing to be perfect as I write it down the first time, and when it isn’t (all the time, of course) it discourages me from writing more, or even from trying to make it better.
I think your technique of reminding yourself that your stories don’t have to be in the same caliber as the classics is a really good one. There are plenty of great books published that aren’t masterpieces, yet I read and love them just as much. That’s where I’m aiming for.
Great post Suzannah!
Christopher, I think it’s good to be discerning, but being so hard on ourselves is counterproductive. I’m exactly the same as you–I know what I want to put down, and I’m discouraged by the disconnect between that and what actually gets written. Hopefully we’ll learn to let up a bit!
Christi Craig says
Great post, I especially love this,
“Personally, I need to remind myself that my books don’t have to be classics. They don’t have to win Pulitzers or Booker Prizes to be good, to be published, or to be well-loved by readers.”
How do I reprogram my thinking when self-doubt gets the best of me? I look back at a year ago and realize just how far I’ve come with my writing.
Thanks, Christi. We should all take a hint from you and look at how far we’ve already come in the writing process. I know I’ve progressed a lot in the last couple of years, so that’s something to be proud of.
I suffer from all of the above. But I remind myself that it is a long road I am travelling on. Patience, practice and learning are in backpack to get me through. Oh, that and my trusty old journal and pen.
It IS a long road, and we certainly need patience and a whole lot of practice!
How did you describe me so well? LOL! I’m a terrible perfectionist and struggle to remember that no story is perfect, every author thinks of things to change when they re-read one of their books. It’s moving forward and learning the craft of writing that’s important.
How did I describe you? Because we writers are all the same!! I’m sure there’s a “writer’s gene” that makes us predisposed to discouragement, lack of confidence and pessimism.
Jason Black says
I dunno. I think it’s GOOD to be hard on yourself. If you “see, well, mediocrity,” that’s a good thing. It means you can see what’s bad, and understand that it needs to improve.
Without that, you’ll never improve.
Trust me. I’m a freelance editor (“book doctor”) and I see manuscripts all the time from writers who are mediocre or worse, but obviously do not see mediocrity when they look at their own work.
If you can, count your blessings. You’re better off than those who can’t.
Jason, I totally agree with what you’re saying. All I propose is that we don’t be SO hard on ourselves that we never end up finishing anything. You’re right though–it’s a good quality to be able to recognize your own weaknesses.
Great writers didn’t start with great writing, they had to work for it. The “classics” had hundreds of years to filter out the mediocrity! Also, many great writers only received that status posthumously. If you are at the top of you class academically, and you think that you are improving, that’s enough for the time being. Just like anything else, deliberate practice will make you the best writer you can be.
You’re so right, Brian–even the masters had to work hard. Not sure if I was “at the top of my class” (that was about 10 years ago now…), but I know I’m improving a lot with time.
Lisa M. Stiles says
The part about not showing it to others is a big one for me. I feel like it needs to be perfect before anyone sets eyes on it.
Lisa, it’s so hard to let others into our own personal writing worlds, but I think it’s good to get a fresh perspective. You can do it! 🙂
Sharon Mayhew says
It is easy to compare yourself to your critique group and fill yourself with self-doubt. My critique group (one of them) has two amazing fantasy writers in it. When I first began reading their work I thought I was doomed to never be published because their work is so good, but after a few years of working together I’ve realized that my style is different than theirs and that’s okay. I don’t want to be the next JK Rowlings or Stephanie Meyers. I want to be the next Enid Blyton or Lois Lenski and I’m good with that. 🙂
That’s right, Sharon–we all have different styles, and what makes great prose to one person might not be the next person’s cup of tea! We have to be able to celebrate our uniqueness 🙂
Sorrento Aishikami says
Oh no. This is me, this is soo me.
It is always a struggle when I am to show my work to other people, let alone to post it on my blog.
I am afraid that they won’t like it, that they will think I cannot or should not write.
Additional stress for me is the fact that my blog is in English, therefore I post my work in English without someone beta-reading it for me and I am Polish.
I tend to pat myself on the back and congratulate myself on the courage every time I post a piece of my story.
And yet, I’d give a lot for a lesser ‘perfection streak’.
I wish to enjoy people reading my stuff.
After all that is why I write. 🙂
That’s a tough one, the language barrier. I think when English is your second language, people can generally tell by the way you interpret sentence structure and certain words, and they’re more forgiving because of it. You’re doing very well!
I am SUPER hard on myself. Even though I do a million things–work full time, write, take care of my family, run a blog, write a twice-weekly column, freelance, cook, clean, walk the dog, going to school, launching a new business–I still tell myself I’m lazy and not productive enough. I still end every week feeling like I should’ve gotten more done.
And it’s just like you said in your post–I feel like my fiction writing has to be perfect the first time around. My non-fiction writing I have all the confidence in the world in and rarely ever pass judgment on. But my fiction writing? It’s lucky if it sees the light of day more than once a year. Most of the time I keep my fiction buried in a pile of folders or on my desktop and never look at it or even make the time to write or work on it.
I’m aiming to combat how hard on am on myself in the following ways:
1) I’m going to take time at the end of each week to reflect on all that I accomplished. (I used to try and do this every day, but I find I run out of time at the end of the day.) I think doing this will help me realize that I’m taking steps toward my writing goals, even if they are small steps.
2) I’m writing a letter to my inner editor/critic whenever it pops up and refuses to leave me alone. (I wrote about this technique on my blog this week.)
3) I’m going to start showing my fiction to people more often. I did this recently for a class I was taking, and I got an overwhelmingly positive response. Although the story isn’t perfect, people responded that I kept them interested the entire time and they were really rooting for my characters. So that tells me I’m on the right track.
I’m exactly the same–fairly confident in my non-fiction but terrified of sharing my fiction with others.I love your idea of regularly reflecting on all you’ve accomplished! I’m planning on finding beta readers for my WIP once it’s further along, but I think I’ll start with a few close people first to get any major issues out of the way, then send it out to a few more objective readers!
Gina Magini says
Yes, I can relate to what you are saying.
Whenever I read someone’s fiction my self confidence caves…when I edit and return to my work, it rebounds. Illogical, but it is what it is. Great post.
Thanks! Maybe you just forget how great your writing is until you have a fresh look 🙂
Diana Schneidman says
From the glass-half-full perspective, you are able to blog. You get it written and send it out to the world. Not only do you share your writing with acquaintances, but also with untold numbers of strangers.
Maybe blogging is your chosen art form.
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Well, that’s one way to look at it 🙂 I do enjoy writing short form articles more than I thought I would, but I need to start monetizing this hobby in the near future. Perhaps I can turn my love of blogging into a love of writing for magazines or journals. Thanks!