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.


17 Responses to You Are Not Your Words

  1. Avatar
    Shirlee Abbott December 6, 2017 at 3:22 am #

    My words are to me as I am to God. That is, we are works in progress. Parts of me are glorious as is, but lots of me still needs work. Some of my words are glorious as is, but lots of them still need work. There is no perfection this side of heaven.

  2. Avatar
    Damon J. Gray December 6, 2017 at 5:58 am #

    There is an interesting dichotomy in the writer’s world wherein each of us is so filled with self-doubt (Do I measure up? Is my writing even a desired read?), yet at the same time we can be so protective of what we write. If I have those doubts, it would seem incongruous to protect it or withhold it from those who could play a role in making it better.

    There are a couple of young ladies in my most recent critique group where played that role so well. Not only did I allow their deep criticism of my work, I invited it and looked forward to receiving it.

    • Bob Hostetler
      Bob Hostetler December 6, 2017 at 6:51 am #

      Yes, Damon. It requires a recurring victory of mind over emotion, of good theology over bad theology, for me to achieve a healthy separation from my words.

    • Avatar
      Sharon Cowen December 6, 2017 at 7:35 am #

      “Yes” to Bob. “Yes” to your comments as well, Damon. ‘It is what it is’–my writing, that is, and other things, too. One of my mom’s favorite expressions was “It’s just the way it is.” She was an angel or acceptance. Perhaps that’s the middle ground for those of us who write or have written.

  3. Avatar
    Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D December 6, 2017 at 7:17 am #

    Bob, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I claim no pride of ownership, which was a huge leap for me but which was honed by working with a co-author. My students sometimes give me grief about the feedback I give them, but I let them know that I am trying to help them move from being a good writer to becoming an excellent one. That does seem to help a bit, usually.

  4. Avatar
    Rebekah Dorris December 6, 2017 at 8:12 am #

    After a world-class author extraordinaire labeled my best paragraph “overkill on steroids,” I had to face facts. I could lie to myself and say he’s mean. Mean and hateful. (He’s not. Nobody tells the truth that directly unless they care.) Or I could learn.

    With fresh vision I admitted overkill was an apt description, and I learned to fix it. I thought I’d conquered my criticophobia.

    Then yesterday I faced harder criticism. Now it wasn’t my prose that missed the mark but my entire premise. I know the only thing harder than taking wise criticism is giving it, and again I had to admit they were right.

    I wrote a blog post about the sinking “I can’t do this” feeling (I’ll link to it) and how God lifted me out of it.

    All that to say, I feel like THIS post is “the rest of the story.” I’d never considered any of this. My words feel like the sum total of my soul. Of course! They’re just a gift. And I haven’t been giving thanks. Or considering them “foul papers” to be treated with casual incision.

    Thanks so much for meeting us writers right where we live. God bless you.

  5. Avatar
    Jaime December 6, 2017 at 8:38 am #

    Oh, how I love this post!

    In any calling where our name is attached, the struggle against pride will be real. So I assume that in order to get God’s message out there, the way HE wants, He is going to use more than just me. Because He likes to use people in community and show us that we all have a role. So the fact that others will have input that improves my contributions should be refreshing (I remind myself). That means that it is His and not mine, and that more heads make the work better and sharper than I could ever do by myself. What a privilege to be a part of such a team!

    I also like the point about giving our work to God. My blog and writer’s page is titled ForHisFridge, because long ago I decided the only way to write and submit work without destroying my confidence was to do it all for God. When I finish something, I prayerfully picture myself as a child, giving my Daddy my best efforts to put on His fridge. Then whatever He does with them after that is His business. Rejection doesn’t sting when I’m reminded that He will do with my work what He pleases. And acceptance means I know it was God’s hand on it, not something for which I should get all the credit.

    I once edited a manuscript for someone who had no previous writing experience. Her dedication to every word was surprising to me. I heard, “I used that word on purpose.” many times. And don’t get me started on the number of exclamation marks!!!!

  6. Avatar
    Linda Riggs Mayfield December 6, 2017 at 8:48 am #

    I’m a coach and editor for dissertation writers, and your point exactly fits their kind of writing, too. I’m saddened and amazed when clients hire me to critique, then defend weaknesses or errors I note for improvement. Like you, I always try to do it kindly. I use the “sandwich” method–praise on both sides of the criticism. ‘Thought I totally got it–then had a group first-page critique at a conference and reacted just as defensively! Lifelong learner with empathy here.☺

  7. Avatar
    Norma Brumbaugh December 6, 2017 at 9:00 am #

    It’s a process One slowly (or “fastly”) becomes aware of these things. My words have been cut down to size, like others. And it always stings even though there’s truth to their words (usually). The first time, when I sought advice from a writing coach, was devasting. I didn’t know I was so off the mark.”Your writing is that of an amateur,” she said. I had no idea. But then she gave me hope, “You also have some strong statements that work.” Truly, you don’t know what you don’t know. Then it becomes your job to figure it out. Bob, this is a good reminder. We can become too attached to our words.

  8. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser December 6, 2017 at 9:19 am #

    Great post, Bob, and so true.

    I thin our words are like what we choose to wear; we can look in the mirror, but we can’t get the three-dimensional effect of our appearance.

    Other eyes are needed for that.

  9. Avatar
    J.D. Rempel December 6, 2017 at 9:20 am #

    When someone is editing my work, I don’t think of them as a critiquer but as a reader. If they don’t understand what I’m trying to say, then I haven’t explained it well enough. I really like when people really mark up my work. I think of it as Proverbs 27:17. “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” (NIV)

  10. Avatar
    Marcia Laycock December 6, 2017 at 9:56 am #

    Such good advice! I once had the privilege of being in a mentoring workshop with a Canadian literary ‘icon,’ Rudy Wiebe. When it was my turn to have my work critiqued I was vibrating with excitement and fear. When Rudy said, “this is good writing,” I thought, Okay, I can go home now. But then he pointed out one sentence in my opening paragraph. “You have to cut that one,” he said. Then he grinned at me. “You like that line don’t you?” I admitted that I thought it was the best line on the page. Then Rudy went to the black board and started to draw a line across it. “The story is going along well,” he said, “then this happens.” The line became a box, then he continued the straight line across the board. “Your reader has left the story because that’s such a good line. So you have to cut it.” I did and now I look for those “best lines on the page.”

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    J. Otis Ledbetter December 6, 2017 at 10:08 am #

    Such good word Bob. Your blog reminded me of the words of an author who was speaking at a CBA authors banquet. He was decrying editors and how painful they make life for us authors. He talked of how he would lose sleep or sonetime not sleep at all after sending his precious manuscript into the editing process. He told us he found a scripture verse for all us authors out there to remember. Hopefully it would be helpful for us to recite now and again. Then he quoted, “We shall not all sleep but we shall all be changed!” : )

    Your blog says it better! Thank you for this encouragement.

  12. Avatar
    Kathy Cheek, Devotions from the Heart December 6, 2017 at 11:42 am #

    I usually respond poorly initially to constructive criticism, but when I think it over I can see the value and understand it truly is intended to make me a better writer, and that is the point!

  13. Avatar
    Cathy Krafve December 6, 2017 at 12:11 pm #

    Love this. (Intentionally leaving fewer words) 😉

  14. Avatar
    Meg MacDonald December 19, 2017 at 12:48 pm #

    Catching up on some blog posts I missed and I really enjoyed this one!
    It reminded me of something I read along the way, have adopted in my own approach as a writer, and frequently share with other writers–particularly young or inexperienced writers who resist revision let alone rewriting. The words are not the story–the _story_ is the story. Again, the emphasis is on not being too in love with those first (or second or third) draft sentences. Don’t be afraid to tell it again, tell it better, tell it with different words. I took this advice to heart during a recent revision project that was simply massive. Talk about banging your head against the keyboard. Peeling away the layers and revisiting the story with an open heart and a prayerful attitude made all the difference. I stopped tinkering with the words that were already there and allowed myself to rewrite. Have i found all the right words? Doubtful, but the story is more the story I sense it was meant to be.

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