Author Bob Hostetler

You Are Not Your Words

Writers love words. That’s a good thing. But when we become attached to our own words, that’s a bad thing.

I see it often in meeting with writers and offering critiques at writers’ conferences. The writer will hand me a piece of his or her work, “to see what you think.” I’ll look it over, and identify several things to compliment about the piece. And then I’ll make a suggestion for improvement.

I always try to make sure that my positive remarks far outnumber any criticisms or suggestions. But often a writer will respond defensively:

“But that’s how it really happened.”

Or, “I used that word intentionally.”

Or, “I happen to like adjectives.”

You get the idea. When that happens, I’ll often make one more attempt at breaking through, taking a different tack. If that fails, however, I will steer the conversation elsewhere, because I realize I’m talking to a co-dependent writer—someone who identifies too strongly with his or her words.

But you are not your words.

If you plan to develop as a writer and aspire to regular publication, you must understand that.

Oh, I know that when you wrote that sentence or that page, you were thoroughly invested. You felt a rush of excitement, even love, as you poured out those words and phrases. You longed so much for others to feel the same connection you did as you wrote those wonderful things.

But you are not your words.

Some writers are devastated by critique, rejection, and editing, because their words feel like a part of them. If someone proposes changes, it feels like a personal attack. When others suggest that a word or sentence isn’t quite right, it sounds like judgment, even hate, against the writer.

But you are not your words.

Your words came from you. They were the product of your mind and heart. They cannot possibly be you; they are separate and distinct. You are the creator, they are the creation.

It may sound elementary, but it is a critical realization for the developing writer. Identifying too closely with your own words can turn the dream of creation into a nightmare of criticism. It can make the necessary and daily processes of a working writer—editing, revising, critique, and rejection—into a debilitating experience.

So, what is a co-dependent writer to do? I suggest four things:

  1. Give thanks. When you finish a devotion, poem, article, or chapter, pause to thank God for the blessing of having written it. That action itself can instill a separation in your mind and heart between you and the thing you’ve created.
  1. Give it a name and a number. Something like “[Title], first draft.” Or “second draft.” “Work in progress” works too. The point of this tiny exercise is to remind yourself that you don’t expect this piece of writing—even if you’ll soon be sending it to an editor—to be perfect. You may not want to go as far as William Shakespeare and his contemporaries, who called their works-in-progress “foul papers,” but you get the idea.
  2. Give it to God. Formally or informally, offer your piece to God. Surrender your ownership of it. If it belongs to Him, you may be able to make adjustments or suffer rejection a little easier, since it is thereafter His property, not yours.
  3. Give it away. Not permanently, perhaps (though some writers do designate a certain number or percentage of their works or income as a “tithe”). But by “give it away,” I mean let someone else hold it, read it, mark it up, and offer feedback. And don’t defend every word or try to explain why you did this or that; what matters is how readers respond to it. The most glorious sentence ever written is only as good as the reader’s appreciation, not the author’s. So, get enough emotional separation to let someone else read and critique it. The more you do this, the easier it will become.

And if you’re ever at a conference where you can show your work to an editor or agent, relax. I assure you, they’ve never met a “perfect” writer. Only—like you and me—developing writers.


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