Write It Sideways

Writers: Are You Too Hard On Yourself?

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You read other unpublished people’s stories and immediately want to crawl in a hole.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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?