Stop Worrying About Being Good at Writing. (Be Committed)

JordanA Writer's Guide to Persistence, Craft, Writing. Practice.21 Comments

In my early days as an editor a new client came to me, signed my contract, paid my fee and, after several weeks, I sent my constructive critique of his work. I thought his novel had lots of potential, and lots of room for improvement—in short, what I typically see in a first draft. He’d admitted he was a “newbie” who, after a lifetime working, was now, in his retirement, pursuing his dream of writing.

He emailed me about a week after he received my comments, very unhappy. “I didn’t need to know all of this stuff,” he wrote. “I just wanted you to tell me if I am any good.”

After scratching my head for a while (really? You paid me money to tell you that?), I came to this answer: “Whether or not you’re “any good” is really beside the point. Is this particular work where you’d like it to be? Does it meet the criteria for whatever goals you have for it? Writing is a craft, not a science, which means it can continually be improved upon. Does your work need improving? Most likely. Is that because you aren’t good enough? Not likely. Many writers suffer from the myth of talent—that you either have it, or you don’t. But the fact is, just like cabinet-makers, teachers, pilots and so on, you get better at your craft with practice and attention. Besides, “good” is arbitrary; you’ll be good enough for some, while others will reject you. It’s a standard you’ll never live up to because it’s subjective and always changing.

Beating yourself up over being “not good enough” is a form of stopping up the free flow of creative energy. It can even be a form of self-sabotage. In the worst case scenario, it’s an excuse to not have to get any better at it; a statement of “This is just the way I write.”

False! This is how you write at this time, in this moment, with whatever resources are at your disposal. Every time you read a fantastic book, your writing has a chance to crack open. Every time you hear a lecture, attend a class, or pick up a writing guide, you can learn or see something in a new light, and your writing changes. Time and distance also change how you see your writing.

What you can be is committed to continually probing the depths of your work, or taking time to learn something you struggle with, or just stepping back completely and reading when your own work feels too unwieldy.

These voices of doubt and uncertainty are gremlins sent to test our creative mettle, to strengthen us up. The more we fend them off by patching the leaks they tear open inside us with further work, the more power we have to overcome them. Like the “dark side” that calls to us with its illusion of power, its promise of the familiar, which is cozy in a bleak sort of way.

Shine some serious, badass light on those demons when they come, instead. Write them into a new narrative.

Don’t worry about being good. Be enough. Be committed.

 

JordanStop Worrying About Being Good at Writing. (Be Committed)

21 Comments on “Stop Worrying About Being Good at Writing. (Be Committed)”

  1. Sally Ember, Ed.D.

    Hi, Jordan,

    I have to disagree. I am not of the opinion (as many are, seemingly, you) that anyone who wants to “share” should be honored for doing so regardless of the quality of their content and writing. There are a lot of inadequate writers who self-publish and some who get published by trad publishers who never should have had their writing seen by others.

    Some people can’t write. What they do write is unclear, repetitious, uninteresting, banal, riddled with cliches and lapses in logic or sense. I’m not just talking about too many typos or grammatical problems. I’m talking about bad writing. It exists. It needs to be called out.

    About thirty years ago, in an effort to combat overly critical adults’ impact on children and imitating the Special Olympics’ methods, most parents, recreation and education people began to make huge mistakes: participation became the same as surpassing. Everyone in the Pre-K “graduated” to Kindergarten. Everyone at a camp or club got a ribbon for attending.

    Result? People who are now 45 and younger have the mistaken belief that everyone is “great”; it’s other people who make them “feel bad.” Self-esteem-building was taken to such an extreme as to make actual achievement or superiority meaningless. An overly developed sense of entitlement goes hand-in-hand with an inability to discern good from bad. I’m sorry to point it out, but your post is a prime example of this faulty thinking.

    Real life: not everyone wins, nor should they. Ask Brazil this morning! Poor performance should NOT get a medal, and not all performances are equal.

    Not everyone is talented, skilled, or worthwhile in every area. It’s fine to acknowledge this and not in any way demeaning. In fact, applauding mediocrity, making it indistinguishable from excellence, or worse, allows everyone who can put words on paper to call themselves a “writer.” That makes excellent or even passably good writing impossible for most people to recognize or value.

    Not everyone should be encouraged to be a writer. Really. You did that person a serious disservice by not evaluating his work objectively.

    We have no trouble saying that people who are “tone-deaf” or clumsy should’t be professional singers or dancers. Sing in the shower; dance in a club or at home. But, we don’t encourage them to call themselves artists. Why can’t we use the same discernment about untalented authors?

    What does “be enough” mean when we should be talking about quality, not quantity? It’s fine to be “committed” to self-expression; commitment doesn’t make a person a good writer.

    Some people really AREN’T “any good” and should not be encouraged to write for the public. Tell them: journal all you want. Or, get a ghostwriter if your story is compelling and you can’t write it well.

    Please stop encouraging everyone equally. You aren’t being an editor, then; you’re being a cheerleader for the entire world.

    Don’t encourage inadequate writers that no amount of coaching can improve to share their drivel. Not every story should be told by every storyteller.

    Some people really can’t tell jokes, either, and should not. I’m one of those.

    Good to see your posts, again, though. For some reason yours disappeared from my feed for many weeks and just reappeared!

    Best to you,

    Sally

    1. Jordan

      I think you missed you the entire point of the article, Sally. It says don’t WORRY about being good enough; instead, work on perfecting your craft. The entire article is about how you should keep working at your craft and get better. I wish you’d stopped to read it before commenting.

    2. Greg

      I’m sorry, Sally, but who are you to tell anyone they should not follow their passion or should not be encouraged, whether or not they are any good at it. And who is to say they aren’t any good at it? You? Me? No. It is true that not everyone can write well, but it is also equally as true that their voice should not be stifled. Anyone who has a story in their head and heart, if they feel the need to release it should do so. Encouraging people to create the art they want to create is not the same thing as telling them they are all fantastic and will change the world with what they offer up. It also does not mean they won’t change the world.

      If you don’t like what someone has written, if you think it’s drivel, you know what you can do? Ignore it. If you prefer Chagall to Degas, that doesn’t mean everything Degas created should be thrown on a fire. Walk past the Degas section. If you think TV is a waste of time, don’t scream at everyone that televisions should be destroyed. Simply don’t turn yours on.

      I see that, among other things, you are a self-published author. Within thirty seconds of reading the front page of your website, I noticed a typo. If I were looking for a new author to read and saw that, I would immediately rule you out. Why? Because a person who creates their own web page to promote their works yet doesn’t take the time (or have the skill) to make sure it is completely correct doesn’t deserve my precious reading time. See what I did there? I just took your elitist stance that not everyone’s poor writing skill should be encouraged. But it’s just a typo, you say. Sorry, can’t encourage you on your path of being a better, well-read person who writes. Had to make sure I didn’t call you a writer, per your own standards.

      I suppose in the grand world of Sally, you could be the one to decide who can continue writing, painting, creating, but here on Earth, everyone should be allowed and encouraged to create. You know what, scratch the first two words of this comment: I’m not sorry.

    3. Richard

      Sally, I find it ironic that a self-published author — whom I am going to guess was encouraged at some point to write — would pen so harsh a post… and then allow it to be filled with typos. By doing so, you not only missed the point of Jordan’s blog, but then went on to prove that, if we judge by the skills on display here, you should not be writing. You say that Jordan “isn’t an editor, she’s a cheerleader.” Perhaps you should be less of a negative Nancy and more of an editor.

    4. tomi l wiley

      Dearest Sally,

      I believe everyone should be encouraged, whether a writer or not. Who are you to say who should and should not be encouraged, or who is or is not a good writer? Anyone who wants to express herself should be able to do that, whether for publication or not. Everyone has the right to fling their feelings, thoughts and opinions out into the world, whether or not someone else thinks they are “good.” You’re a prime example of that.

      Best,

      ~ tomi

  2. Diane

    Oh Jordan, you have no idea how much I needed to read this. My first draft has been gathering dust for a while now, as I fight the demons. I have printed your words so I can read them again (and again) until I find my footing and can untangle myself from the doubt/insecurity that has been smothering my creative muse. My first wobbly step will be to banish the “am I good enough?” from my thoughts so I can explore my writing at the point where it is right now…until the next now and the next now after that. A heart-felt thank you, Jordan.

  3. Julia Park Tracey

    I think you really hit the mark, Jordan. I wasted a full two years in my twenties not writing because someone condescended/criticized my work. I was so worried about what that person thought that I missed out on two years of perfecting the craft. I wish I’d known you then, and wish I’d had your sane, solid voice encouraging me along. And maybe not everyone “should” write, but the above comment’s judgmental tone is off-putting. Who are you to say who should write? With practice, people improve. Maybe with practice, you can become more empathetic.

  4. Christina Mercer

    Thank you for this inspiring post! One of them most beautiful things about any form of art is the endless creative power at play. We all harbor that power inside us, and honing our craft is really about finding that perfect balance between creative freedom and learned skills. You were spot on to advise against wasting our precious (and creative!) energy with doubts, and instead aim it toward forming, sculpting, and refining our craft, so that our creations can shine.

  5. Nanea Hoffman

    I think this is a really important message. In this culture of instant gratification and entitlement, it is GOOD to remember that you might suck at something but if you love it, you should keep working at it. Don’t disqualify yourself because you don’t hit a homerun your first time at bat. “Any good or not” isn’t always something that can be determined at first glance and anyone who tells you it is is suspect in my book. I love that you are encouraging people to persevere. To not worry about being good enough, but rather to focus on getting better.

    Sally Ember’s comment made many points, but almost none of them apply to this post. She seems to be countering arguments you haven’t made. “Don’t encourage inadequate writers that no amount of coaching can improve to share their drivel. Not every story should be told by every storyteller.” Who decides what an inadequate writer is? Is there some MLA standard for which stories should be told? This is an incredibly elitist idea, and it’s the kind of gatekeeping that actually led people to seek independent publishing alternatives (which she’s taken advantage of herself, interestingly). I see that Sally has a doctorate in education. I am thankful that most educators I know do not share her attitude.

    Encouraging writers to find their voice and to improve their craft is a worthy pursuit. Tellers and receivers alike benefit when stories are shared. This is how we become better, more compassionate humans. Thank you for being a positive voice.

  6. Victoria Alday

    This is a beautiful article – a much needed shot of inspiration. Its unfortunate some people didn’t read the whole thing, its really about aspiring to grow and improve, regardless of skill level. Loved it!

  7. Stephanie Naman

    Loved this, Jordan. Self-doubt can be crippling for creative types, but by working on our craft, we become more confident. We close the gap, as Ira Glass said, between our good taste and our ability. If everyone stopped when they “weren’t good enough” (even by their own measure), there would be no artists at all, because wanting to improve is in our DNA, it’s what drives us. So, while I love a “not everyone deserves a trophy” rant as much as the next person, I have to say that my takeaway from your post was that everyone deserves a chance to get better. And the one person who can give you that chance is yourself.

  8. Gayla Crosby

    Your encouraging words were just what I needed to here. Thanks. I just found your blog. It rocks!

  9. Amy

    we live in a wonderful world where people learn from doing, and other people have the ability to choose what they want to read, watch, experience. So….if anyone wants to write a book, or a blog or a paragraph, they are welcome to do so, and share. The rest of us can choose to read or not read what other people write…and especially in these days of self publishing, what they want to PAY to read.

    I currently operate in the world of hip hop music, and I like to believe that my artists are amazingly talented and create great music. There are plenty of people who hate rap, don’t get it and choose not to listen to it…does that mean that they should stop making the music that they love? There are a lot of rappers who I happen to think are dreadful, and yet they sell records and make money…just because I don’t like them, does that mean they should be banned from making music?

    Yes, there are ” rules” and standards for literature, and proper English and grammar…but just like there is a difference between Films and Movies, some things are written simply to entertain, not to impress.

    I thank you Jordan, because there are people who have stories to share, they may not know all the “right” ways to tell them, but their voices have a right to be heard, and people like Sally shit all over them for no other reason that to try to elevate themselves as being “better”….its ugly, pitiful and hateful…especially when no one has them tired to a chair forcing them to read what they don’t want to read.

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