The Not-Good-Enough Syndrome

Comparing your writing to others is a terrible thing to do

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

Let’s start with a little story.

I have had my writing rejected far more times than it has been accepted. That is just the way it goes. I do not calculate such things, but thinking now, I likely have been rejected by publishers and editors at journals and magazines, oh, 300–400 times? That’s probably about right. I have been writing professionally for nearly twenty years, so, that seems realistic.

My books have been up for awards, and yes, I’ve won some. But I have been dismissed far more often. Numbers again? Oh, let’s see, twenty years of writing, eight books, 8-times-20, maybe around 175 times, give or take. The number of awards I’ve won? Maybe ten? Again, I don’t calculate these things. And yes, some of these awards have held some weight. No Pulitzers or Nobels or Booker Prizes, but decent ones that would make some notice.

All of this, the good and bad, is part of the gig.

What’s also part of the gig is comparing your work to those who have not been rejected so often, and those who have won some of those more prestigious awards. It’s natural to do so. But if you’re continually doing this, like I have at a times, I’m telling you now—find a way to stop it. It’s a creative killer.

I read the works of some wonderful writers and I shudder. I can’t do that! I read a beautiful passage and my insides scream. Not out of jealousy, but out of the belief that my work is mediocre crap. How in the world did I get published? Were those judges on those awards committees drunk? I am not worthy. I am not good enough for this work.

What a load of garbage.

Look, art is subjective. Yes, there are reasonable parameters for what can be considered good and talent is a many-colored coat. But the reality is that writing is subjective. Art is within us. It is what we feel, what we experience when we are confronted with it. This goes for the written word, too. For it is art. And art, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder. Cliche, yes. True? Absolutely.

If you spend a lot of time comparing your work, you will do one of two things. You will either find yourself mimicking the work of the writers you love, unknowingly. Or you will put the brakes on your own work. If I can’t be as good as they are, then I shouldn’t be doing this at all.

Certainly, you don’t want either of these to occur.

When you find yourself comparing—and you will, we all do—take a step back and consider what it is you are actually doing. If you are studying for craft, that’s a different story. But if you are reading and finding yourself believing you will never be the prettiest book in the library, well then, I suggest a big, deep breath. Drop the book, take a walk around the block, and when you return, get down to what matters—your writing. Write your heart out. Write from the gut. Write with abandon. For it is only you and your reader who will make the true comparison, not comparing your work to the writings of others, but comparing your words to a life, their life, the experiences you share. This is the ultimate comparison. Not artist to artist or writer to writer, but writer to reader. It is the only one that matters.

To compare is to find fault. Artists rarely compare to find similarities. So drop it. Step away when it happens. And tell yourself the art of writing is an individual, personal endeavor, and when you compare too much, you are abandoning that partnership. And that is no place to find yourself as a writer.

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