June 21, 2018 § 30 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.