Seriously, what is it with writers?
You’d think they actually enjoy pain and misery.
After all, writing is hard enough without inventing new ways to make yourself suffer. But suffer they do.
Perhaps it’s the image of the writer as a tormented artist, or a form of occupational masochism, but something seems to make writers seek out pain.
Maybe without it, they don’t feel like “real” writers.
But what about you? Are you a misery magnet? Is pain your faithful muse?
Here are seven ways that writers torture themselves. See how many you recognize (and discover how to avoid them.)
1) They Set an Insanely High Bar for Success
Writers often set wildly unrealistic goals for themselves.
They demand that they land every writing job, their first book is a bestseller, or their debut product is a slam dunk success.
It’s almost as if they want to fail.
But in reality, like any skill worth studying, writing is a journey of incremental successes.
Set the bar too high and your every achievement becomes a disappointment. Every small step of progress is a letdown. And it’s torture.
Of course, massive, sudden success does happen, but it’s amazingly rare. (And almost never as sudden as it seems.)
Sadly, the chances of it happening to you are slim.
If that news makes you want to give up, that’s fine. You probably weren’t cut out to be a writer anyway. Seriously, go and do something easier instead.
But if you’re still reading, it’s time to scrap your crazy, self-sabotaging success criteria.
Choose an alternative measure of writing success. In fact, here’s one:
Did I write 500 words today? (Or 1,000 or 2,000 – you decide.)
Because until you have a regular writing habit, any other measures of success are just failures waiting to happen.
2) They Invent Dire Consequences for “Failure”
If writers’ unrealistic goals are the proverbial dangling carrots, their self-imposed penalties for failure are the sticks they use to beat themselves toward success.
Who else but a writer would say to themselves: “If I’m not earning a living from this in the next six months, I’ll give up on my dream forever.”
Positioning like that places every day under an impending cloud of disaster. It’s like a form of torture, a car crash in slow motion.
But your writing career is not a bargaining chip or a passing fad. If writing is your true calling, it’ll be with you for life.
Over that time you’ll have more failures than successes, no doubt. Learn from them, but don’t make them into more than they are.
You cannot force or coerce success. Keep writing and it will come.
3) They Create Terrible Working Conditions
How often have you heard this advice, aimed at busy writers:
Make time for writing by stealing spare moments from your hectic day.
That usually means brainstorming blog post ideas on your morning bus ride. Or outlining a manifesto on your smartphone in the doctor’s waiting room. Or scribbling a few paragraphs for your new book over lunch.
But you know what, I hate that advice.
Why? Because it gives writers another way to torture themselves.
Think about it for a moment. Just what kind of time are we talking about here?
Short and unpredictable stretches of time spent in different environments with a variety of distractions. You couldn’t design worse conditions for producing quality work if you tried.
If your writing week consists of slivers of time duct-taped together, you’re making it almost impossible to gain real traction.
And it’s excruciating to look back on a week where you spent several hours writing but never made any significant progress.
If you want to write at your best, you need to give your best time, not the crumbs from an already overloaded day.
By all means grab extra writing time when and where you can, if that feels useful.
But unless you have a bedrock of quality writing time factored into every week, you’re not pursuing your dream; you’re just torturing yourself with the illusion of progress.
4) They Torment Themselves with Others’ Success
Heroes and rivals – every serious writer has them.
And these figures have their part to play in your success too. Heroes inspire you; rivals spur you on.
But they’re also another way for masochistic writers to torment themselves.
Writers compare their latest work to the “greatest hits” of their heroes and always come up short. They conveniently forget that they never get to see the work these big names abandoned or deemed unfit to publish.
Likewise, they don’t know the full story of their rivals’ successes. They don’t see the work behind the scenes, help that was given by others, or any part that luck played. So their comparisons always leave them feeling inferior.
They forget, results always have a wider context.
Bloggers with an established platform will almost always make more money blogging than those without. Some A-listers could publish their grocery lists on their blogs and still attract a few dozen comments.
So if you’re looking to taunt yourself with the successes of others, you’ll find no shortage of examples. But fair comparisons are almost impossible to make.
Why not avoid them altogether and find a different way to harass yourself?
5) They Constantly Measure Their Worth by Their Results
Great writers have bad days. Bad writers have good days.
Writing proceeds in fits and starts. The results are unpredictable. That’s its nature.
Sometimes your writing will sing — and sometimes it’ll suck.
Too few writers recognize this. They can’t separate the writing from the writer. But if you measure your worth by the quality of any single day’s writing, you’ll beat yourself up several times a week.
Your worth as a writer is not a barometer needle, fluctuating from day to day and hour to hour.
Your worth as a writer lies in your future potential.
It lies in the body of work you’ll create over the coming years, even decades. You’ll be judged on the eventual high water mark of your work, not your running average.
So the only way you can limit your potential is to stop writing.
Keep writing and your worth can only increase.
6) They Flagellate Themselves with Self-Criticism
Writers are their own worst critics.
Hardly have their words hit the page before the self-flagellation about those words commences.
And it’s painful, right? Nobody excels when every tentative move is scrutinized and remarked upon. Good writing can’t flourish under the glare of harsh criticism.
Judging your work while you’re creating it is not only unhelpful, it’s dumb too.
Criticism requires a totally different mindset than creation. You’re either in the game or watching the game. You can’t be both.
So choose. Are you writing, or editing?
When you write, focus on quantity. Keep going and make sure you hit your target word count.
When you edit, focus on quality. Tighten, reorder, clarify.
And when that critical voice appears with another “helpful” opinion, tell it politely but firmly to back off. Remind it that the time for criticism will come, but not now.
7) They Always Attempt the Hardest Thing First
Ambition is good. It drives you forward. Big scary goals give you something inspiring to aim for.
The problem is, many writers skip the steps in the middle, creating a formula for failure.
And constant failure, particularly when you miss your goal by a mile, is excruciating. So pick goals you have a hope of meeting.
Want to write a novel? Awesome. But promise me it’s not your first serious project as a writer. That would be like running a marathon without training over smaller distances first.
If a novel is your ultimate goal, write some short stories first. And when you produce one or two that don’t suck, maybe, just maybe, you should start thinking about writing something longer like a novella.
It’s the same with blogging too. Want to write an in-depth “ultimate guide” on some aspect of your topic? Then write a few focused “how to” style posts first.
If you habitually set yourself up for failure, it’s a sign you don’t feel you deserve success. That’s why you keep engineering situations that confirm your deepest fears.
So cut that shit out. Or get to the bottom of it. Or explore it in your writing.
But whatever else you do, don’t pretend it’s not happening. Otherwise, we’ll have to conclude you actually enjoy the pain.
Let’s End this Pointless Torture
Let’s face it; as writers, we love to torture ourselves.
Maybe we believe that true art can only come from struggle.
But being a writer doesn’t have to be painful.
It’s not always easy, but it can be joyful, even effortless.
If misery truly inspires your best work then go ahead, torment yourself silly.
But if you can nix the behaviors that rob writing of its pleasures, not only will you find more enjoyment in it, but your writing may actually improve.
So check the list above and see if you’re causing yourself needless pain.
Together we can end cruelty to writers for good.