In today’s Journal
* Topic: Writers Are the Worst
* Of Interest
Topic: Writers Are the Worst
Well, the worst judges of their own work. (grin) We’ve all heard that a zillion times, and most of us have said it at one time or another, usually to another writer. It’s one of those truisms we bat around to show our contemporaries how smart we are.
I’ve written on this topic recently, but it reared its head again yesterday in an email from a writer, Matt, who often inadvertently provides me with topics for this Journal with his emails. (Thanks, Matt.)
He asked, “Why do writers think they can tell how good a piece is when it is apparent [they] can’t?”
Here’s the thing. Re writers being the worst judges of their own work, of course they are.
But that doesn’t mean they can’t judge for themselves what they like or don’t like (or by extensiion, whether the work is any “good”). It only means they can’t judge for OTHERS what THEY like or don’t like. And frankly, to believe they can is the utmost in precious, haughty pretentiousness.
Right Here —————>>> is where one of those haughty, pretentious writers would drape one forearm over his or her forehead and say, “But I have standards for the stories and novels I produce. I want to only put out quality stories and novels.”
As if the rest of us are busting our hump to put out crap, eh? And how deliciously ironic is it that all the critical-mind revising and rewriting and polishing is actually destroying the quality—and the unique originality—of those very same stories and novels? But I digress.
The real problem lies in a duality. Writers believe the truth of the saying that writers are the worst judges of their own work, but only when they believe the work is good: “I think this is really good, but writers are the worst judges of their own work, so it probably isn’t good (or can’t possibly be).”
And of course that’s right in line with what they’ve always been taught: that to turn out a “quality” story, you must revise, rewrite, run it through a critique group, polish, etc.
But oddly, when a writer thinks his own work is bad, the wisdom of the old saying vanishes into thin air. Then it becomes, “Welp, I think this sucks, and I wrote it so I should know.” Which also follows what we’ve always been taught, that we can’t turn out a quality story by ourselves. To turn out a “quality” story, we have to revise, rewrite, run it through a critique group, polish, etc.
Sound familiar? Seeing a trend here? And isn’t that just a lovely coincidence? That’s my take on “Writers Are the Worst Judges of Their Own Work,” or as I call it, “The Mysterious Vanishing Mantra.”
Anyway, after I replied to Matt’s first email, the young screenwriter emailed me back to say “I know enough now to know that I don’t know whether a story is good or not.”
Okay, I already sort of responded to this above, but to round-out my thoughts on the matter, of course you know whether a story is good or not. But the story is good or not To You, meaning In Your Opinion. And so what?
“Knowing” whether a story is good or not isn’t really the point. The point is that you have no right to prejudge for someone else what they will or won’t like. Just put it out there and let your fellow humans make up their own mind.
But Matt also asked another question: “What do you think of writers who enjoy reading their own stories? I’ve seen a few posts on writing forums lately that say if you do, then they can’t possibly be good.”
Okay, wow. Even I hadn’t heard that one before, but neither does it surprise me. And frankly it’s ridiculous.
“If you enjoy reading your own work that somehow means it’s bad” sounds like a magical mantra. It makes absolutely no sense. The one thing isn’t related to the other in any way. It’s the same as a small child seeing a shooting star, closing her eyes tightly, and muttering, “Okay, that means I really will get a pony for Christmas.”
Yawn. Yeah. Don’t stock up on alfalfa just yet.
Finally, this morning my young friend talked briefly about social media and a critique group on there and how he mentioned to them that maybe they should trust themselves and their own work and—of course he was shouted down.
I told him not to worry about it. I stopped a long time ago trying to convince anyone on social media—least of all those safely wrapped in their ignorance—of anything at all. And what they believe or don’t believe really doesn’t matter.
What matters in life is the quality of it, and what matters in our writing endeavors are how much we enjoy them and the results we achieve.
Most writers immersed in social media groups keep themselves busy batting back and forth the same old bad advice, which is fine with me. Most also are rendering themselves non-competition by taking themselves out of the publishing game.
How? By spending the majority of their “writing” time outlining and researching and revising and rewriting and polishing and critiquing each other. (None of that is writing.)
They reassure each other, patting like-minded fellow travelers on the back as they plan their annual (or bi-annual or tri-annual) launch parties. Then many of them stop writing, voluntarily, and take the next year or two off to focus on promoting what they’ve launched.
And all the while, people like me are chuckling, probably a little smugly to be honest, as we look in on one set of characters or another and record their lives in short stories and novels and publish them.
Even last year, when I was able to write only from January 1 through August 6, I produced 13 novels, a novella, and 3 short stories. (I had to look that up, and I was pleasantly surprised. Especially given the abbreviated year, I thought I’d written only 8 or 9 novels in 2021. Ironically, I think 2021 was my best year.)
Anyway, my advice is to let other writers believe what they want and do what they want. Don’t let it matter to you, and don’t bother trying to convince them otherwise.
The ones who are ready eventually find their way to Dean Wesley Smith’s website or to this silly little Journal. Then they read back over Dean’s archives (when he was writing a lot more about writing) or the Journal archives, and they buy his or my nonfiction books, and they listen to his lectures and online workshops.
When they’re ready to trust themselves, they let go of the myths and Just Write. And the fortunate ones never look back.
Talk with you again soon.
See “Public Domain Day 2022” at https://www.thepassivevoice.com/public-domain-day-2022/.
See “Happy Public Domain Day!” at https://www.thepassivevoice.com/happy-public-domain-day/.
See “An 8-year-old slid his handwritten book onto a library shelf. It now has a years-long waitlist.” at https://www.thepassivevoice.com/an-8-year-old-slid-his-handwritten-book-onto-a-library-shelf-it-now-has-a-years-long-waitlist/. Let’s hope nobody ever “teaches” him to ignore his own voice, to revise and rewrite and polish.
Disclaimer: In this blog, I provide advice on writing fiction. I advocate a technique called Writing Into the Dark. To be crystal clear, WITD is not “the only way” to write, nor will I ever say it is. However, as I am the only writer who advocates WITD both publicly and regularly, I will continue to do so, among myriad other topics.