Eight common delusions of unknown writers

stack of books

There are lots of little lies we all tell ourselves regardless of our art, craft or career.  Sometimes we even share these little lies with others.  Over the past quarter of a century in the trenches of writing books, teaching writing and publishing, I’ve told myself any number of little lies – lies such as “the editor is wrong,” or “I could design a better cover than this one,” or “this first draft is pretty good.”  Sometimes all I need is a swift mental slap up the side of the head by someone whose literary opinion I trust to know that these truly are lies.  These days I notice that the more people who think of themselves as writers, the more the list of those little lies grows.

I belong to a number of very interesting online writers’ and authors’ groups, mainly on LinkedIn and a few on Facebook.  I had the misfortune the other day to read an excerpt posted by a young woman (at least she looks to be a young woman from her photo) of her new self-published book.  To say that it was abysmal would be an understatement.  Where do I begin?  Should I describe her sentence structure mistakes, her appalling lack of any grasp of writing transitions, her continual use of dangling participles to the point that I had no idea what many of her sentences were trying to say – or should I jump directly to the preposterous situation in which the heroine finds herself?  A modicum of research would have led this young writer to a more realistic and therefore more compelling story.  And this is the point at which I sigh and worry about the lack of quality control in self-published writing.  As I’ve said before…

the problem that faces writers and would- be writers in the 21st century is that it is actually possible to publish every bit of genius and garbage that we produce.  And it needs to be said that we all produce some garbage, but only a few produce works of genius.  Most of us inhabit that place somewhere between those two extremes in our usual writing

Maybe we’re not really lying to ourselves: perhaps many unknown wannabe writers are actually living in a dream world where certain delusions govern their behavior.  So, based on 25 years of experience and anecdotal observation, I offer you my eight common delusions of unknown writers:

  1. Talent is over rated. Anyone can be a successful writer. The sad truth is that although talent is not enough, it is necessary for success. And this is true of any field. However, along with that talent, you need to work hard, develop your craft and practice before you’re ready for prime time.
  2. grammar copyNo one cares about grammar. I beg to differ. Everyone cares about grammar; it’s just that some of them don’t know about it. First there are the grammar police readers who will think you a complete idiot if you demonstrate a lack of command of the language. The second group is those who note that you are making grammatical errors and will tell everyone who might otherwise read your book to stay away. Then there are those who wouldn’t know a grammatical error if it came up and bit them, but they do know when they don’t understand the meaning of something. It seems to me that you want to be able to convey a particular message or story and to do that accurately, we all need a shared understanding of the use of our language. Period. Get out the grammar book.
  3. I write better than most people. Can you hear me laughing? This is so untrue as to be hilarious. I have spent almost a quarter of a century teaching and marking university students’ writing – and these are students whose writing will form a very large part of their careers. I’ve seen many good writers who need just a bit of sharpening; but more often I’ve seen honor students who don’t know that their writing is a problem. As American writing guru William Zinsser says, “Most people have no idea how badly they write.” And if you don’t know who he is, stop reading and go immediately to Amazon and order his book On Writing Well. Then read it.
  4. Thousands of Twitter followers guarantee success. Now I’m grinding my teeth. If would-be writers spent as much time practicing their writing and having it edited by someone who knows what he or she is doing rather than amassing thousands of Twitter followers, success would be more likely. Most of our followers are not potential readers; rather they are other writers who are using Twitter for exactly the same reason you are.
  5. I don’t need an editor. Au contraire. Everyone needs an editor. My arguments over the years with editors notwithstanding, I am singularly unable to completely free my own work of errors, typographical and otherwise. I have never met a writer who didn’t need an editor.
  6. If my friends think my idea is great, so will everyone else. I just have one question for you: how did you get friends with such deep knowledge (backed up by data) about how your target readers will think at any given time? The rest of us would love to know. Your friends are your friends for a reason and if you hope that your book will garner more readers than your circle of friends, you’ll have to open your mind beyond that circle.
  7. I don’t need to plan my writing, I just need to write. Well, you do need to write, but this kind of unplanned writing is called “writing practice” or “journaling” and it isn’t for public consumption. If, however, you plan to publish, you need to think about the writing, as well as ‘do’ the writing. The amount of planning you need, however, is very variable. It depends on genre, process and your own writing style. For example, if you write non-fiction, it needs considerable research and a complete outline (fleshed out into a complete proposal if you’re planning a traditional publishing route) before you even write word. Even fiction can benefit – and especially genres like historical fiction that follow a time-line and need extensively researched background. Plotting for mysteries and thrillers also helps the writing process. That said, once the writing begins, it need not stick to the outline!
  8. I don’t have time to read. If you don’t have time to read, then you don’t have time to write, and you shouldn’t. Writers are readers. They read in their own writing genre. They cross-read. They read to do research. They read to flesh out or even come up with ideas. They read to improve their own writing. They read to get to know the competition. They read to get to know what their target readers like. They read to see what sells. They read because they love language and books are important to them.

There you have them.  My eight delusions.  Now I’m going to go back to my incomplete manuscript and convince myself that indeed, I do need and editor.  And soon.

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2 thoughts on “Eight common delusions of unknown writers

  1. As usual, an excellent post. I particularly loved the part dealing with grammar. Grammar is boring to study but it exists for a reason; grammatically correct writing is far easier to understand than that which is not. Grammatically correct writing flows; grammatically incorrect writing does not!

    I don’t know why you don’t get more comments from readers, as you always make important points on this blog, but I have the same problem when I post in the blog section of my web site (highdesertlit.com). It seems as if readers are very reluctant to post, and I never have been able to understand why.

    1. To tell you the truth, it has often occurred to me that my perspective is often unwelcome since I do tend to be somewhat critical of the processes and outcomes of publishing, especially self-publishing. I’ve noticed that the self-publishing ‘community’ is a bit insular and not prone to looking at itself critically. There seems to be an unspoken rule that if you can’t say something nice don’t say anything at all. Not my approach — just ask my students who are finally grateful for my critical appraisal of their work. I’d like to see the reputation of self-published work improve, but that won’t happen without a critical eye on some of the schlock that’s out there.

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