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    The Pros and Cons of Comparing Yourself to Other Writers

    With the advent of writing communities on such networking sites as Twitter and Facebook and half a thousand forums and Nings, writers are perhaps more social and less solitary than at any time in our history.

    This brings its fair share of both benefits and drawbacks, since our easy access to other writers—both those who are striving to be published and those who have a dozen bestsellers under their belts—causes inevitable comparisons.

    Are we as good as they are?

    Are they as good as we are?

    Let’s explore what we can gain from answering these questions, as well as the pitfalls to avoid.

    Cons

    Jealousy: Easily, the most destructive con of comparison is that of jealousy. Sometimes this jealousy is the simple result of having read a book that spun its tale with such gossamer characters and seamless themes that we were left astonished.

    We look at this brilliant author’s perfect prose, and we hate them just because they’re so much better than us. Or perhaps a writing buddy has just nailed a plum contract with the Agent of the Year. What did she do to deserve that honor, especially when—let’s be honest here—her writing leaves a lot to be desired compared to ours?

    Jealousy is a flaw common to the vast majority of writers (due largely to the next con on our list), but it’s one that gets us exactly nowhere. The sooner we can stand up to our feelings of jealousy, put them behind us, and work toward being genuinely happy for our fellow writers, the more content and the more productive we’ll be.

    Because, let’s face it, there’s always someone who’s better, richer, or luckier than we are. Jealousy is a never-ending melodrama of pain and pettiness.

    Inferiority: Perhaps the reason jealousy is so prevalent among authors is that it almost always follows on the heels of its kissing cousin: inferiority. Very few writers are able to maintain perfect confidence in their skill.

    When we run across a writer whose prose is more effortless than ours, whose characters are more realistic, whose paychecks are larger, and whose accolades are louder, we can’t help but compare. And when we find ourselves wanting, we either want to plot laborious and exhaustive murder for the object of our comparison, or we want to crumple in a corner and bawl at our general wretchedness. Sometimes both.

    In one sense, this chronic inferiority complex is actually a positive thing, since it keeps us honest. As Orson Scott Card put it in How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, “Writers have to simultaneously believe the following two things: The story I am now working on is the greatest work of genius ever written in English. The story I am now working on is worthless drivel.”

    Maintaining humility in our work is crucial to our genuineness as artists. But we can’t take this too far. We have to be able to reach a place of objectivity from which we can honestly compare our work to other writers, glean what we can from that comparison, or, if there’s simply nothing to be gained (as would be the case if we, say, compared the latest advance on our books to Stephen King’s), shrug it off as the inconsequentiality it is.

    Pros

    Inspiration: Comparing ourselves to other writers isn’t all bad. So long as we keep the downfalls in mind and are prepared to avoid them, we can actually gain a number of benefits from considering our fellow writers and how we measure up against them.

    Honestly, can you imagine living entirely segregated from writerkind?

    That would mean no books to read.
    No fellow crazies to understand our quirks and obsessions.
    No writerly energy to feed off.

    We gain our inspiration from the art of others, from hearing about our writing buddies’ struggles, and from bouncing ideas back and forth.

    If I were to write a thank you note to every author I’ve read, loved, and inevitably compared myself too, I probably wouldn’t have time to finish my next novel. Because most of us write the kind of books we enjoy reading, we are constantly reading books that are similar to our own. We recognize similar elements, compare them, and learn how to improve our own characters, plot, and prose as a result.

    It’s a win-win situation, because who’s to say our mentors may not someday read one of our stories and find some similarity that brings that next epiphany to their writing?

    Motivation: Once we get over the crumpling and crying brought on by our sense of inferiority in comparing ourselves to great writers, our next step is to rise from the ashes, pen in hand, motivated to blot out the very reason for our inferiority. The brilliance of this other author isn’t a boulder to crush us; it’s a mountain to scale.

    Perhaps today we’re not good enough to be mentioned in the same breath with our heroes, but, you know what? If they can do it, so can we!

    Reading great writers and comparing their brilliant stories to my own has been one of the single greatest factors in motivating me to keep writing, keep learning, keep trying. Nothing is more exciting to the dedicated writer than reading good fiction. Good stories excite us and drive us forward. We close the covers on a good book, and the first thing we want to do (after buying the sequel) is run to our keyboards and funnel all that inspiration and motivation into our own writing.

    As with so many things in the writing life, successfully comparing ourselves to other writers is all about balance. If we can tamp a lid on the cons and embrace the pros, we can use the success of our fellows to launch ourselves to even greater heights.

    It should be the goal of every writer to be comparison worthy. Hearing someone say, “I wish I could write as well you,” isn’t only the highest of compliments, it’s also a sign you’re giving back to the writing community the benefits you drew from it yourself.

    About the Author: K.M. Weiland is the author of the historical western A Man Called Outlaw and the medieval epic Behold the Dawn. She enjoys mentoring other authors through her writing tips, her book Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success, and her instructional CD Conquering Writer’s Block and Summoning Inspiration.
    ___________________________________________________________________________________________________

    About the author

      K.M. Weiland

      Historical and speculative novelist K.M. Weiland is the author of Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

    • James says:

      Kim, I appreciate this article. In particular, the way you addressed the cons. You make good points about ‘jealousy’ and ‘Maintaining humility in our work is crucial to our genuineness as artists. But we can’t take this too far.’

      Maybe it is just the way I am, but by and large, I’m happy for fellow writers’ success. Case in point, this is the reason I’ve started following your videos, blog, etc… I appreciate your knowledge and skill of the written word.

      All the same, your words written in this post are ones to ponder.

    • seo says:

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    • IIT 2012 says:

      Good advice. I’m reminded of age-old advice I was once given and have never forgotten: never compare your inside-self to the outside-self of others. Consider the work of others when it gives you a good goal to reach for, but know that you’re going to have to reach that goal on your own terms.

    • IIT 2012 says:

      This has shed some light on the matter for me definitely and I intend to use this in the future. Well done a very simple and concise post. Looking forward to learning more from reading your blog.

    • Good advice. I’m reminded of age-old advice I was once given and have never forgotten: never compare your inside-self to the outside-self of others. Consider the work of others when it gives you a good goal to reach for, but know that you’re going to have to reach that goal on your own terms.

    • Jim Woods says:

      I am a new writer struggling to find my own voice. I know this is not something that can be rushed; it will take time and work. This still makes it more challenging when comparing my work with others. I find myself more influenced by others because I am not quite sure how “I” say it.

    • Sam Lab says:

      Inferiority. That’s a tough one to fight as writers. But one thing I always do is that I tell myself that “this writer I adore today did not get where she is today in one day. She worked hard at it and sacrificed a lot and she is enjoying it today. I need to do the same if I want other people to look up to me as their writing mentor.”

      I think if writers tell themselves the same thing from time to time they will find it easier to fight the inferiority thing.

    • When I first started writing a little over four years ago, I read so many blogs written by other freelancers that were really awesome, especially from my newbie perspective. I got a little discouraged after that and I had to wait for the memories of just how great those blogs were to dissipate before I got the courage to start my own blog. I actually sold that initial blog and I’ve started a new one. I love writing and I’ve had other writers compare themselves to me now. It’s a never ending cycle! Now that I’m a bit more confident in my abilities, I mentally compare myself to other writers and it’s actually quite a boost!

      • One of the things I love about the writing community is that it’s so circular. We glean encouragement from others only to encouragement them right back. It’s a beautiful cycle.

    • I read a lot of novel submissions each month and a surprising number of authors include some such comparison in their queries. I’ve always believed an author should be confident in their own narrative voice. Let me decide if they stand out, or only obscure themselves in other’s shadows…

      • We often see the experts advising authors to include comparisons to other authors in their queries, so agents and editors can get a better idea of how to categorize them.

    • doug_eike says:

      Comparing your writing to that of good writers is necessary in order to grow as a writer. Refusing to do so is like a young athlete’s not observing other athletes in order to improve. Comparisons contribute to raising the person’s consciousness of the skill level required to be good.

      • I agree. Recognizing, accepting, and thriving upon our own uniqueness is fabulous. But we also have to realize the greats have a set a bar we have to strive toward. To ignore it would be to trash our careers and doom ourselves to a lifetime of incomprehensible drivel.

    • Yes, I say that jealousy is damaging and does one no good, but a teaspoon or two of envy motivates!

      I don’t compare my writing to others, because we are all different and all have our own style and voice, but I do compare myself to those I consider a “Success” and fwap myself upside my pea-head with these, “Why can’t YOU be a kindle millionaire?” “Why didn’t YOUR book win a prize instead of just a measly nomination from some blahdoodidle.” “Why didn’t YOU have a review in publishers weekly or nyt?” “You SUCK!” . . . and do I in reality suck? Mostly not. 😀

      So yes, just as you say, there is always someone doing seemingly better than us and seemingly “worse” than us. We can only control the books we write and how we present ourselves to the world!

      • “Fwap.” That is so totally my new favorite word.

        I highly doubt there’s a one of us who hasn’t had a silent conversation identical to yours. And, in the end, what does it get us except frustration and heartache? It isn’t the other author’s success that’s making us feel that way. It’s our own inability to face our fears about our perceived inferiority.

    • I remember when I was co-writing a story with a friend. I don’t kid myself to being as productive a writer as she is (for every story I finish, she finished 5) and she (it seems) an easier way with words. Normally, I don’t compare myself to her, because we’re different, have different amounts of free time and different way of seeing the world. But when we were writing that one story together she was such a motivation for me, to put the best words into the story, write fast and as clean as possible. The story we came up with was EPIC and wonderful and her mere presence pushed me above and beyond my usual quality of writing. I think I learned a lot from that one experience. I wish I had more time to repeat it.

      • I’ve had a little experience with co-writing, and although it’s not something I’d want to do on a regular basis, it was a hugely instructive and inspiring process. Just the bare fact of being daily accountable to someone else, both for word count and word quality, is invaluable.

    • All day I thought about this question and the comparisons and judgments I make. I ran an early chapter of my current project through “I Write Like” and received the answer “Arthur C. Clarke.” I thought that was cool. Months later I ran another chapter and received “J. R. R. Tolkien.” Okay, my writing voice must have changed, but it was still cool. These comparisons were cute, but meaningless.

      After meeting various authors, I became acutely aware of how different I am. Those differences mean that comparisons are meaningless, as meaningless as the “I Write Like” results. What is important to me is to learn from others, both the bad and the good, and then to apply what I learn to my work, striving to be the best I can be within the limits and constraints that define who I am.

      • Comparisons are *only* valuable insofar as we’re able to learn from them. Sounds like you’re in a very good place as far as this is concerned.

    • Gideon says:

      One of my older brothers was a pretty good writer, so I always had the inferiority problem. But, now that I have written some of my own works, and had people enjoy them, I’ve quit comparing my work to that of other writers.
      Thnx for another great article.

      • Confidence grows as we put more time and stories under our belts. And more confident we get in our right, the less we even feel the need to compare ourselves with others.

    • Bob Mahone says:

      Thank you for this timely post. I have only recently determined that I will write for the rest of my life. And, on occasion I anguish over the many years that I could have been developing the craft skills that I see in others. However, I am able to dismiss those anxieties by basking in the experiences that will feed my creativity going forward. In fact, going forward is all there is. Thanks for the encouragement.

      • I don’t believe time is ever wasted. We are the product of every moment we’ve lived, good and bad. Our unique life experiences are the greatest gift we bring to our writing, so even the moments spent *not* writing are never wasted.

    • Excellent post as usual. Thanks. Your words ring true for many of us. We all strive to write the “great American novel” and one of us will. We can’t ignore the possibility and we can’t assume it will happen. Your post pointed out the facts perfectly and I think we all learned a good lesson. Thanks again.

      • Wanting to write the Great American novel is a worthy aspiration, but if that’s one of our primary motivations for writing, we’re probably doing it for the wrong reasons. Add to that the fact that most great novels aren’t written just because the author *wanted* to write the next big book, but rather for much deeper and more personal reasons, and we’ve no excuse not to rejoice in our writing based solely on its own merits.

    • Bill Polm says:

      Oops! Make that “I HAVEN’T read a single one of her posts….”

    • Bill Polm says:

      K. M. Weiland is one of my models for excellent fiction and super-helpful posts.
      I have read a single one of her posts or video-casts that wan’t either a needed reminder or an enlightening new point.

      As usual, she’s right of course.
      Reading some writers has at times left me with the sad feeling that “I’ll never be that good,” while at the same time delighting in such quality writing. The real challenge for us all is not to give up, in spite of those days when it isn’t going well and we can’t get it right or we just plain feel worthless.

      I try to remember–and do not always succeed–to let the great ones inspire me and meanwhile compare myself to myself. Am I better this year than last? And if not, why not?

      Ms. Weiland is an accomplish storyteller. If you haven’t read her short story “The Memory Lights,” I highly recommend it. One of my favorites and available for download to Kindle or other device for a mere pittance.

      • Thank you, Bill! I’m so glad my blog has been helpful to you, and I’m tickled pink you enjoyed The Memory Lights so much.

        I agree wholeheartedly with the idea of comparing ourselves to ourselves. At the end of the day, that’s the only comparison that matters. Are we better than we were yesterday? Is our latest story better than our last? Whether our latest story is better than that of the latest NYT bestseller is both subjective and irrelevant.

    • PJ Reece says:

      Good topic. Because it’s a sensitive one. Most writers I know are cautious about sharing and meeting other writers. I think we all need to toughen up. The competition is fierce in this digital age, yes? I can use all the reality checks I can get. And the reality is, that most writing ain`t that good. So, there`s lots of opportunity to shine. I only see networking with others as a positive. I want to know the facts of life!

      • I’ve had only positive experiences with the online writing community. In a pool this vast, there are always a few rotten eggs, but a huge majority of the thousands of writers I’ve communicated with have been friendly, generous, and fabulously encouraging to one another. Building relationships with other writers offers far more benefits than drawbacks, in my opinion.

    • Jealousy has certainly popped its head up from time to time. Now that I am older (and theoretically more mature) I tend to be inspired by talented writers. One of my friends has recently taken to reading huge amounts of Charles Bukowski and his writing style has improved dramatically. Not only did this make me slightly jealous but it also inspired me to read more.

      • Properly harnessed jealousy can actually be a huge motivator. As long we keep it in perspective and don’t let it rule us, instead of the other way around, we can use it as incentive to better ourselves, so we can match or surpass the object of our envy.

    • I and two other writers bid for the same job, offering a 200 word product description sample. The product line was clever, witty and fun–the writing had to match. Another writer won the bid, and when I looked at what she had done, I was sick with envy. Her work was hip, edgy, fun and most of all, it felt effortless. Through a series of events, I wound up with the job after all. I challenged myself to do what this other writer did. It was the most challenging and yet exciting and fun job I have had to date, and I believe it has taken my writing to a whole other level. The important part of comparing yourself to other writers is to be realistic (if possible) and not lose yourself or your confidence in your initial emotional reaction to someone else’s talent or skill.

      • Chances are this other author’s work *wasn’t* effortless. Perhaps she was even inspired by comparing her own work to someone else’s. It’s all very circular – and we can use those cycles to our benefit, as you did, or we can let them suck us into despair and failure.

    • One of the best ways to compare yourself to other writers is to copy their work. I mean that literally. Take something they’ve written and COPY it, word for word (either by pen or by computer.) Benjamin Franklin used this technique and so have many other (famous) writers. By absorbing the vocabulary, syntax and sentence cadence of others, you’ll give your own writing a big boost. It’s the fastest way to learn that i know.

      • I’ve done that myself. It’s one thing to read someone else’s work with purpose, but we’ll never be able to immerse ourselves in the technicalities of their writing without slowing down to focus on each word. Transcribing is a great way to do that. Plus, there’s something about the act of our fingers forming the words of the greats that imprints them in our subconscious. Muscle memory of a sort, perhaps?

    • MGalloway says:

      Interesting points.

      A while back, I heard a talk on the radio about the pitfalls of comparing oneself to others. The speaker used the analogy of a young athlete trying to compare their abilities to those of athletes they see on a highlight reel on tv…and how depressing that can be. So many times I think writers don’t really get to see what other writers truly go through (hard work, failures, rejection, editing problems, etc.) and they end up just seeing the “highlight reels” of others through articles, occasional forum posts, etc.

      • Great point. The latest rookie drafted out of college may be talented as all get out – but he’s not John Elway or Dan Marino, not yet. Even Elway and Marino had to *become* Elway and Marino.

    • When I read other authors I try to look for what they do well and that I do not do so well myself. After I get over the crushing blow to my ego, I remind myself that I now have a great role model to help me learn how to do that thing better. One thing I do have confidence in is that I am able to learn, especially if I have someone to show me how to do it right.

      • Sometimes if we go *looking* for the ego crushers (moving into the pain, so to speak), we can take control of the discouragement, learn how to manage it, and actually twist it around to our advantage.

    • The universe is wide and open and there is room for all of us. On days when the writing is bumpy and I don’t think I’m good enough, I remind myself of this. And keep writing….

      • Keep writing. That should be the mantra we say to ourselves every day of our lives. So long as we keep writing, everything will work out in the end.

    • Marcie says:

      Initially, I think inferiority was my challenge, but as I grow as a writer, I am motivated to be a much better writer. And, I would probably reach out to the writers whose work I admire and build relationships that would help all become better scribes.

      • The ability – and willingness – to reach out to other writers, both those who are above and below us on the ladder, is a wonderful trait. Aside from the fact that what comes around goes around, there’s no better way to blot out our insecurities than by reaching out to encourage others in their own weaknesses.


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