12 July 2013 - 5:46 pm

Random writing tip #6: You’re wrong

You can see your work as clearly as this cat can see your smiling face.  (Picture by Alida Saxon)

You can see your work as clearly as this cat can see the green blanket.
(Picture by Alida Saxon)

You know when you read your work, and you’re stunned by how utterly awesome it is? How no-one has ever put words in that exact, shining order before, with such cleverness and richness?

You know when you read your work, and you’re appalled by how terrible it all is? How you have somehow forgotten how to string words together, and there’s no way anyone will ever understand your slack-mouthed drivel?

At both of those times, you’re wrong.

Writers are their own worst critics. It’s not that we always criticise ourselves too negatively; it’s that we are bad at criticising ourselves, positive and negative. I’ve seen both polarisations happen, though the negative is far more prevalent; writers are very keen to stamp on their own work. As a rule of thumb, the more extreme the polarisation, the more wrong you’re being.

It is a matter of perspective and distance. Our internal editors chitter away on the edges of our brains, like ants. They cover our eyes and cloud our judgement, until we’re so busy swatting that we have no perspective on what we’re smacking and sweeping away. Or they cover the bad parts and all we can see are the bright, shining sections.

Chances are, you’re being too hard on yourself. Maybe you’ve edited and reworked and massaged the piece so many times that you can barely see it any more. Maybe you’re having a bad day. Maybe someone said something to you that has dented your confidence, and now it’s reflecting on your writing. Does any of that mean that your piece is crap? No. It means that your perspective is wonky.

Alternatively, maybe you’re so caught up in the idea of the piece that you’re not reading the words on the page. You have that image so clear in your mind that you can see it, regardless of what the piece actually conveys. Maybe there’s a phrase that makes you happy because it’s so intelligent and sharp that you’re proud to have come up with it. Maybe someone praised you today and you feel like you can do anything at all, including writing golden words with nary a flaw. Does that mean your writing is wonderful? No. But go enjoy the feeling while it lasts; come back to reality later.

The truth is, you’re too close to the work. When you’re feeling so strongly about a piece, you need to step back and clear your eyes. Accept that you’ve lost perspective and are wrong about it. Put the piece away for a while. Write or read something new. Distract yourself with something completely different.

Better yet, get someone else to read it. Get several someones, because many opinions are better than one. Make sure they are people you trust. Gather feedback and perspectives, and see what your rose- or mud-tinted glasses are really doing. Clear your eyes; adjust your mental view.

It’s never as bad as you think it is. Embrace the wrongness of the writer’s perspective, and then put it aside. You’re better than you think.

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3 comments

  1. Francisco says:

    How about those times when you look at your work and say, “Oh, it’s OK”?

    July 13th, 2013 at 5:24 am

  2. Lexi Revellian says:

    Random comment #2: No, I’m not.

    July 15th, 2013 at 1:53 am

  3. Mel says:

    Francisco – good question! That is a hard one. I find it frustrating when that happens. It’s often hard to see what’s good and what’s bad about your work (particularly when it has just been written), though it might not swing the whole piece towards one extreme or the other. Sometimes, when I look at it too long, it all winds up feeling ‘okay’; that’s when I know I can’t really see it any more.

    Objective opinions are valuable in helping to provide perspective (as long as you’re getting opinions from people you trust), and time and distance often help.

    Lexi Revellian – in that case, I envy your clarity!

    July 15th, 2013 at 9:07 am