The Writing Life: Doubts Part 3: Losing At The Comparison Game

Here we are again, wrestling with doubts! This week I’m going to highlight another way that doubt can worm its way into a writer’s psyche: the comparison game.

By now, I hope you are all familiar with my cast of doubt-related characters: General Zod, Sally, and the Toad. Visit here for the primer!

Over many years as an aspiring author, I would pick up books in libraries and bookstores, flip them open, and be astonished by what I saw. In my august opinion, the writing just wasn’t that good. General Zod went crazy, and demanded that the terrible writing kneel before him, and shouted wildly that anything he (I) wrote would inevitably be far superior to the feeble efforts of these pathetic ‘so-called’ writers! Everyone’s a critic, and the General is particularly harsh when he’s feeling otherwise vulnerable. It made him feel better on a miserable Wednesday afternoon when he hadn’t written anything worthwhile in weeks, to rant and rave about someone else’s inadequacies.

This is not, I believe, a healthy or productive practice. Quite the opposite, as what good does it do you to run someone else’s work down? Does it make you go home and work harder, or allow you to rest on some imaginary unearned laurels? I opted for the latter far too often. You’re still holding a published book in your hands, so green-eyed envy is clearly in ample supply when you yield to the temptation to pour scorn on another (often successful) writer’s work.  If your complaints have no relevance to your own current project, or serve only to cause you to do less because you’re already ‘better’ than X in your own not entirely reliable mind, then how have they helped you? Even in trying to build yourself up in comparison to something you feel is badly constructed you aren’t doing yourself any favours if it just causes you to slack off and lose focus.

And this is accepting for one hot second that your opinion is even remotely unaffected by your envy and unfulfilled dreams, which it clearly is. That writer has had the Sally moment you so desperately crave, and you just can’t understand why because under your jealous eye the writing does not justify the accolades. You imagine you’re better, but you’ve done nothing to prove it, and so you rant impotently about something else as a way to release the frustrations you have at yourself for not getting your work done, for not believing in yourself enough, for allowing doubt to hold you back. That writer’s success and self-belief are on every published page, in every line you think is so bad, and though you started off thinking you were criticizing them, in reality the negativity rolls right back around and gets turned on yourself. The unspoken doubts run like this: “If they’re published, why aren’t I?” “What is wrong with my writing – there must be something, if I can’t make it and X has!” You might not even articulate these ideas at first, so wrapped up in Zod’s critiques as you are, but sooner or later the Toad slides into view as Zod runs out of steam, and whispers the negatives into your unwilling ear. This can be avoided if you refuse to play the comparison game, but it is so easy to sit in judgment and ignore your own flaws by focusing on someone else’s.  Just don’t go there, or if you do, shake it off fast and take a humility pill, and remind yourself that even if all your wildest writing dreams come true, somewhere someone will pick up your book and be deeply unimpressed. All you can do is your best, and get your book out there. The rest will take care of itself.

Now it’s all well and good to rag on someone else’s writing to make yourself feel better (a temporary and potentially bitter fix, as I think I’ve shown), but what happens when General Zod reads a book and is blown away by its artistry and finesse? His puffed up arrogance withers and dies as the Toad slithers past him to sit coldly on your shoulder and peer at the beautiful writing too.

Reading excellent and inspiring writers can sometimes be worse than deludedly deciding you are clearly better than ‘bad’ writers, if you allow yourself to play the comparison game.

When you read great writing doubt can rear up and swallow you. The Toad gurgles gleefully that you’ll never match that, so why bother trying? In a universe with such artists, what is the point of your hopeless chicken-scratches? I didn’t write for a year after reading Brent Weeks and Patrick Rothfuss back to back. They blew me away, and then buried me under a mountain of my own perceived inadequacies. They were so good I was nothing but an obliterated shadow, their twin suns leaving me nowhere to hide. It sucked. I still love those books, but have moved past the intimidation of them, because I realized they are not infallible, not perfect, and what choice do you have if after a while the urge to write returns, and cannot be ignored?

In both cases I believe there is a failure of perception when the budding writer compares their output to those who have experienced some success. When running a book down and indulging General Zod you ignore the good aspects of the story, the things that made it a success, that spoke to people. Instead you pick at something you think you can do better, to bolster your fragile ego. Your vision is very selective, its choices determined by your own unacknowledged doubts. When being overwhelmed by glorious writing, you similarly ignore the flaws present in the book, and focus only on the aspects you feel you cannot compete with. The doubt riddled perspective that denies you can match them is as faulty as the one that declares your writing to be the best thing since sliced bread.

So: do not play the comparison game. If you are inclined to self-doubt, and many (all?) writers are, you’ll find ways to sabotage yourself whichever direction the comparison falls. If you think a book is poor for whatever reason, and you cannot make yourself acknowledge its strengths, read positive reviews of it, and be informed. Do the opposite for books you think you can’t hold a candle to, and refuse to find flaws in. Other people will have found them, have no fear. Do what you need to gain some perspective if you find yourself obsessing over other people’s writings and constantly comparing them to your own, and making yourself unhappy. Then do your best not to play that foolish game again. Read for pleasure, for enjoyment, as an educational exercise, just don’t read as a competition, because then you are destined to lose, no matter what the other guy does.

3 thoughts on “The Writing Life: Doubts Part 3: Losing At The Comparison Game

  1. I would argue it is very good practice to pick up popular books and critique them. Of course, I was trained to do just that as a graduate student studying history. Trained to not think that being published means someone is right. If it did, history as an academic field would have long disappeared. New historians are most often writing to fix the mistakes of past historians. And I think this sort of practice is indeed relevant to whatever your WIP is, in a manner of speaking, because any reading or critiquing you do that develops you as a writer will affect your work. Though it must be done in a healthy way. Recognizing faults and weaknesses to ensure you do not do the same, but avoiding the “how does this crap get published and I can’t” self-pity game. Same goes for stuff you think is good. Great post! 😀

    1. Thanks JM! I absolutely agree that analysing and critiquing good books can be useful for a writer, as long as it is done dispassionately, and your ego is checked at the flyleaf! The problem for some writers, and certainly myself in the past, is reading with too much ego at times, and letting it get in the way of learning anything useful. It used to catch me at the strangest times! I’d leaf through something idly in Costco – here comes General Zod!

      I get your point with regards to history, the ever emerging story, apparently prone to endless rewrites! Thanks for your comment!

  2. Pingback: The Writing Life: Doubts Part 4: Procrastination, The Thief of Time – Roderick T. Macdonald

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