Dear Authors: Drop Your Defenses!

Sometimes as an author it feels like getting words out of your head and onto paper is as painful as giving birth. Naturally, when those word finally do make it out into the world, they feel like our baby. This story or article or book you’ve written is an expression of what is inside you. It’s your precious creation, the product of hours of laboring.

But what if the people you share it with don’t like it? What if they criticize your work? It feels like they’ve insulted your child!

Many authors can relate to this feeling, and I see it so much at writing conferences and workshops. You’ve met the type. As soon as you share a suggestion or make a comment, they immediately go into defense mode. “Well, what I intended is this…” or “what you don’t understand is…” or even worse, they stare at you with tears in their eyes as though you’ve just told them their precious firstborn child is sick. Which, understandably, is what it feels like to them.

I’ve seen so many authors do this to agents or editors or other authors who are genuinely talented and trying to help. And here’s the problem: I think we get in the mindset that we have to be perfect the first time we write something. We get this idea in our heads that there are “bad writers” and “good writers”. We all secretly fear someone will shine a spotlight on us and say, “Look everyone! She’s a bad writer! She has no talent!” That translates to us as: you don’t have what it takes to live out your dream.

Is there anything more painful than hearing that you’ll never reach that dream you’re working so hard for? That dream you’ve spent countless hours pursuing? That dream that genuinely feels like it fills some part of your soul and makes you who you are?

Uh… no wonder we get so defensive about our writing! We are not just protecting our words, we are are defending ourselves as writers. We are protecting our sense of self-worth and our dreams for the future!

But…that mindset won’t get you anywhere.

Trying to put yourself in the box of “good writer” or “bad writer” and treating your work as though it is your precious child will only serve to hurt you in the long run.

I teach math. Even saying that is enough to make most people cringe. A lot of people hate math, and I often find a very similar attitude about math in my students. They love to say, “I’m just bad at math” or “I’ll never be good at math”. It. Drives. Me. Bonkers.

Yes, there are the select few people that are brilliant at math naturally. They hardly ever have to do their homework and they just seem to ace every test… BUT! Even those students get to a point where they struggle eventually. And usually, those students are quick to give up because they don’t know what it’s like to not be “naturally” good at it.

The students who end up succeeding are the ones who know how to put their nose to the proverbial slate and WORK HARD! They show up at tutoring, they ask questions, they get feedback and help. They know they have more to learn and they know that they CAN learn it if they try. In teaching, we call this a “growth mindset”. Intelligence and knowledge are not fixed abstracts that you just “have” or you don’t.

Writing is the same way.

If we fall into the trap of thinking we are either a good writer or a bad writer and that it’s just something that comes naturally to some people, we are setting ourselves up to fail. Writing is a skill. Yes, there is a creative and talent element to it as well, but as with any form of art, you have to practice! You have to learn! You have to grow!

If we start to fear feedback or fear people criticizing our work and taking it as a personal reflection on who we are or our talent as writers, we miss out on valuable opportunity to LEARN.

I recently went through multiple rounds of edits with critique partners and my agent. Here’s a weird confession: I LOVE edits! I love learning ways to make my manuscript the best it can be. I love learning new ways to deepen a certain character or add to a particular scene in a way I haven’t thought of before. I don’t feel threatened because I know these people genuinely want to help me make it better. I don’t worry about being a “bad writer” because if I am, then I can learn to fix it! I can study and practice and GROW.

I will never reach a point where I am a “good writer”; I am merely someone who loves writing and loves learning about the craft of writing. I will always continue to grow. My manuscript will never be perfect the first time because NO ONE’S is! Even the most talented authors in the world have editors and go through multiple rounds of edits.

If we want to be successful as authors (and frankly, be someone an agent actually wants to work with), we have to be open and flexible. We have to have a growth mindset instead of a “fixed” mindset.

Next time you are tempted to say “I’m not a good writer” I want you to do what I make my math students do every time they say “I’m not good at math.” I want you to add the one little word to end…

I am not a good writer YET!

Go make it happen!

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