Should You Quit Writing?
June 21, 2018 § 31 Comments
A writer asked me:
Have you ever in your work as the Unkind Editor told someone they should quit writing? Which may be another way of asking if you believe there may be those without the necessary abilities to write, to be published, or to be successful as an author; someone with delusional thinking who needs an unkind, direct encounter with this difficult truth.
I’ve heard versions of this question from writers at all skill levels and career stages, but especially from beginning writers who don’t yet have much outside validation and may not know enough other writers to trade work, get honest feedback, and gain a sense of their own writing level.
I feel like I suck at writing, like I’m never going to get better.
All I have are rejections. Should I stop trying to get published?
Nobody I know wants to read my work. Should I quit writing?
The short answer is no.
Writing is a skill. Anyone who puts the time in can learn to write, the same way anyone can learn to draw from life or play the cello. We won’t all become Picasso or Yo-Yo Ma, but anyone can be taught to make a recognizable portrait that’s pleasant to look at, or competently execute a sonata and bring enjoyment to an audience.
What about talent? Aren’t some people naturally better at writing than others?
Yes. Some writers start out better at making sentences or telling stories. Some writers discover their unique voice earlier in their work. But “talent” isn’t what makes a writer good—talent just makes practicing and learning more pleasant. A tennis player who can already consistently hit the ball and instinctively see where it’s going will have more fun practicing, and learn more subtle techniques faster, than the player who is still learning about trajectories and having to process each bounce anew. But if the less-talented person puts the time in, they’ll learn to see the angles too. They may have to practice more, and that time may be more arduous, than the person with a head start. They may be headed for a coaching job or 106th seed rather than Wimbledon’s Centre Court. They may work a 9-5 job to support their practice costs. But they’re still a tennis player.
As writers, we look for the magic triangle:
- Competence in sentence construction and dramatic structure
- A story to tell and the honesty and bravery to tell it
- A unique, genuine voice
Writing competence and a solid story make compelling work on the page, whether or not the writing is “great” by some subjective literary analysis. Strong voice can compensate for messy syntax or a less-intriguing story. All three of these elements can be honed and improved with practice, careful reading, writing workshops, and seeking out and accepting quality feedback.
It’s a lot of work to be good in all three areas. I’ve let go of editing clients who weren’t putting in the work—they were plenty capable of improving, but they felt they’d already done enough and wanted me to pick up the slack. Another writer commented about my Seven Drafts process, “Seven drafts? Just kill me now, save me the agony.” But part of being a “good” writer is accepting the enormous amount of work, including the 40-50% of the work that happens after we think we’re “done.” Part of writing is overcoming constant discouragement, and that’s a learned skill, too. Part of writing is our own idea of “success”—we’re not all going to be New York Times-bestsellers and have our books made into movies, but there are lots of happy working writers whom most people will never read or hear of. What’s your own realistic path? Writing a thriller? Sure, a NYT list might be in the future. Writing a quiet memoir? A more-achievable dream would be to influence people’s lives and connect with readers having similar experiences.
It’s not the writers who question their abilities who are in trouble. Dunning-Kruger Effect is a cognitive bias where people with less skill are unable to recognize their lack of ability, like reality talent-show contestants unaware they’ve been made finalists to be mocked. It’s frustrating to advise changes and have an author dig in their heels in the belief their work is perfect and all the readers “just don’t get what I’m saying.” Generally, the more sophisticated work we’re capable of, the more we’re also able to recognize our own shortcomings. It’s a good sign when we see the flaws in our writing, because problems can’t be worked on without knowing they’re problems.
I’ve never told anyone to quit writing. I’ve never read anyone’s work who I didn’t think could improve with practice and time. Yes, writing well is hard and frustrating and discouraging and probably a lot more work than most of us originally expected.
No, you shouldn’t quit.
I must be among “beginning writers who don’t yet have much outside validation and may not know enough other writers to trade work, get honest feedback, and gain a sense of their own writing level.” I ask myself whether I should quit periodically. I just finished reading a book so good that I wondered why I bother to try. Thirteen drafts of my novel, some publications, and MFA, and some kind comments. I still have no sense of where I am as a writer.
Well, your blog yesterday was excellent 🙂
“No, you shouldn’t quit.”
I once asked Lisa Romeo early on in my mentorship with her if I was ” any good” and she answered, “What does it matter? Do you like to write?” I told her I loved it, I had always my entire life loved to write. “So write then, and we will find out soon enough just how great you will be.”
Best non- direct answer that kept me going, EVER.
And P.S.Jan Priddy, someone will always be better than us. It’s like golf– you can never practice enough and you’ll never be perfect enough, but you have to love it to stay in the game.
I think I need a pair of ugly pants for writing…
[…] How do you know if you are good enough to be a writer? Do you need outside validation to know whether you are Write or Wrong (to write)? Read this informative piece and remember that you may not be right unless you re-write…via Should You Quit Writing? […]
A writer is a writer first and then something else. It is an addiction which spurs a writer to write on any subject that comes to mind. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
But part of being a “good” writer is accepting the enormous amount of work, including the 40-50% of the work that happens after we think we’re “done.” — This is so true. Thank you for the post. I recall when I published my first book, my reviewers and I made more than 250 changes in the final manuscript. The publisher brought in those changes, too. I am thankful to them for. Writing, like you said, requires A LOT of effort, some of which come in only after we are — like you said — “done”.
This was terrific. I haven’t had my coffee yet so I can’t string together too many words. But a nice way to start the day. Will revisit when awake.
Great input for one looking for directions…has to process within oneself and – provide and an output by keep writing.
The best rejection I ever had was from an editor (whose great reputation was unknown to me) who said.’Don’t publish this, even if you find someone who will. Because you are obviously a writer, you will regret it’
How right she was! Reading it now brings out bottom-clenching embarrassment! Was there ever a kinder put-down?
After her death I discovered the others that she mentored. They included William Burroughs and John Updike and translation awards of her own.
Wow! I totally believe that quality criticism is a sign of respect.
Thank you for this 🙂
Thank you from an individual that has struggled for many years.
The good advice is always hard to hear. : )
I’ve heard similar questions and comments from the older writers in the memoir classes I lead. I usually answer with a shrug. “Plenty of people take watercolor classes without people asking them if they’ll have an art show some day.” Ditto people who take piano lessons: they don’t have to play on stage to make playing piano worthwhile . When people enjoy writing, I encourage them to keep at it.
Reblogged this on Write Through It and commented:
Maybe it’s because I’m closing in on the end of draft 3 of the novel in progress and my mind is already working on draft 4, or because I never stop wondering if writing is worth all the time I spend on it, but this blog post from Brevity has an awful lot of wisdom and encouragement packed into not very many words. Like this: “It’s not the writers who question their abilities who are in trouble.”
[…] I enjoyed the blog post titled “Should You Quit Writing?” by Allison K. Williams over at Brevity. […]
I worry most when I have a desire to be a ‘successful’ writer. I have no argument with those who want to be successful entertainers with their writing, but being a serious writer is another thing entirely.
Writers never quit, and not out of misplaced arrogance…but because they CAN’T quit: it is who they are, good nor not.
To me it is not rejection by editors (which has so, so many other explanations than bad writing), but the constant struggle against time, bad jobs, insufficient paychecks, and guilt around the support of family that forces that question to the surface like poison. But poison it is.
ALL early writers now famous and beloved once struggled. Writing is not a privilege of the upper class, but an elixir for the other classes. So YES! KEEP WRITING. Always keep writing. You cannot be discovered if you never set sail…
[…] via Should You Quit Writing? […]
I feel like every author has that feeling like their writing is garbage, regardless of how good they actually are. It’s simply part of the process.
Incredible indeed Allison! Speaking of writing, it is a process, entails passion plus reading a lot from different authors. You know, you remind me of something special, learning a different language. It’s just the same concept.
Nice one ,indeed writing makes a perfect man.
Actually if a person is not a good writer I guest he or she should look for what they can do best, under the other hand to be a good writer is not a day job,you gotta make many mistakes and you have to look for a good Editor to correct your mistakes, never the less the struggle continues
I don’t think everyone should be the best because the word itself will have no value. I think writing is the best way to take your negative thoughts out of you mind. It do write or at least try to write in English knowing it is not my first language and I suck at it. I am struggling to write this comment too, but it does not matter.
[…] Absolutely. […]
[…] Should You Quit Writing? […]