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.


Leave a Comment

The Curse of the Writer

Speaking from an agent’s perspective…
I have more conversations with clients about their feelings of anxiety, apprehension or insecurity than almost any other topic. Almost every writer I have ever worked with as an editor or an agent severely doubts themselves at some point in the process.

Doubts occur in the midst of creation.
Doubts occur when the disappointing royalty statement arrives.
Doubts occur … just because…

It is the curse of the writer. Writing is an introspective process done in a cave…alone. It is natural to have the demons of insecurity whisper their lies. And, in a cave, the whispers echo and build into a cacophony of irrepressible noise.

Once I had an author with dozens of titles in print and over three million books sold turn to me and say with a somber voice, “Do I have anything left to say? Does anyone care?” I didn’t quite know how to reply so tentatively said, “Well, I like it!” The author responded with a grump, “But you are paid to like it.” After we laughed, we agreed that this lack of confidence would pass and ultimately was very normal.

Read More

How to Post a Negative Review

Posting a negative review is not the same as trashing a book. Sometimes you really are doing a service to let prospective readers know the book in question may not be right for them. Here are a few tips:

Be sure you rarely post a negative review. If you make a habit of posting bad reviews, you’ll be known as a grump who hates everything and your words will lose their power.

Approach from a position of authority. Why should prospective readers value your opinion? Examples might be that you are the president of an historical society, a professor, or hold some other position that shows readers when you say a book contains inaccuracies, you probably know what you are talking about.

Address problems with the book itself, not your perceptions of the author’s shortcomings as a person. The author may be dead wrong, but approaching the book dispassionately will gain you more respect in the reading community than simply blasting the author.

Read More

Avoid Trashing a Book Online

When I’m thinking of buying a book, I do read the one-star reviews. There. I admitted it. But would I write one? No, and here are three reasons why:

The author is not a moneymaking machine, but a human. A mean reviewer won’t see the fallout of posting a nasty review, but writers cry, get angry, sulk and fall into depressions over one-star reviews. It’s not fair to use the Internet to vent at a target you think is safe because you are in a bad mood that day or just angry in general. I know I’m preaching to the proverbial choir because I don’t sense angry dispositions among our regular blog readers, but we’ve all seen reviews from people who need a chill pill. If a book happens to hit all your HATE IT buttons, take your chill pill before bequeathing a one-star review. Wait a day or two before spouting off. Or better yet, don’t.

Read More