Writing Wednesday: The Comparison Trap
Writing Wednesday: The Comparison Trap
I’ll let you in a little secret: anybody who writes—whether they’re a newbie fanfic writer or an award-winning, bestselling author who’s been writing for years—always feels like there’s somebody out there who’s a better writer than they are. Writers are always comparing themselves to the other writers, always worried that their prose is hokey or their plotline improbable or their characters unlikeable, that somehow, some way, for some reason, they’ll never be as good as Insert Name of Big Time Author Here. This usually leads the writer to either start copying their idolized Big Time Author (which ranges from everything to mimicking style to outright plagiarism, which will get to another time), or to quit writing completely.
To both points, I offer three words of advice: KNOCK. IT. OFF.
Seriously. Stop comparing yourself to others. You’re not them, you’re you. If you start obsessing over being “as good as that guy,” you may discover that you’ll never be any good. No matter how much you write, how much you improve, you’ll always feel inferior to those other authors. That can destroy your self confidence as well as your ability to write.
Now, on the other hand, emulating authors that you admire isn’t necessarily a bad thing. One of the best ways to learn how to do something is to watch how the masters do it. By reading Stephen King, you can learn how to creep your readers out. By reading JK Rowling, you can learn how to much magic fun and believable. With Jeannette Walls, you can learn how to write characters that can be endearing and repulsive at turns. Reading Tim O’Brien can teach you to write characters with emotions that are subdued but powerful. Writers like Sue Monk Kidd and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie can show you how to create stories of beauty, struggle and hope, and writers like James Patterson show you how to write in a fairly simplistic but engrossing style.
With that being said, don’t go off and start copying their style as if the authors themselves are writing your story. I don’t mean plagiarism here, I mean don’t try to write exactly the way they do. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but if you are not Gillian Flynn and you try to write something the exact same way Gillian Flynn would write it, in her style with the words she likes to use, it’s just not going to come across as sincere, honest writing. It’s not going to be you.
To tie these points together, here’s my experience: about ten years ago (give or take) when I started to really seriously focus on Nike, I spent a lot of time thinking that I sucked as a writer. I had been writing for a long time, long enough to develop my own style, but I kept thinking that I sounded amateurish, bland, boring, so on and so forth, and that I could never hope to compete with “real” writers. It really affected my writing at times, made me frustrated and depressed and consider giving up writing entirely.
Now, this part may seem kind of arrogant, but I’ll tell you one of the big reasons why I decided to keep writing; aside from realizing that I was my own person with my own style (which I’ll relate to next), I went through about a few years of reading really, really crappy books. I mean REALLY. The kind of books that were so bad you’d think that the publisher was being blackmailed into printing it or something. So bad that everybody who gave it a glowing, five-star review had to have been paid off or stoned or read a better version that mysteriously appeared here from an alternate universe. I mean they were BAD. And I started thinking, “I know I can write better than this … I know that I do write better than this. And if these nimrods can get their crap published and read, then so can I!”
And I did.
But I did struggle with developing my own voice at first. For example, while in the middle of writing my book, I really got to like a series of werewolf books written by the late Alice Borchardt. One of things I thoroughly enjoyed was the way she would described food; she could describe an ancient Roman dinner so well I half expected it to be served at my college cafeteria that night. I liked her style so much that I deliberately copied it (the style, I mean, not her actual writing) into a scene in Nike, The Demon Road. I was quite proud of it …
Until about three years later, when I was reading through the book looking for errors, and I found that paragraph. I was so jarred by the change in style and tone—it was so different from the paragraphs before and after it—that I actually thought “Ew!” There was nothing wrong with the section itself, but it didn’t match the style of the rest of the book—it was clearly Borchardtian and not Newcastleian, if you get my drift. It was like watching Batman Begins, then midway through it changes to a clip from the overly bright 1960s Batman TV show where Adam West is Bat-dancing with a bunch of go-go girls, and then it switches back Christian Bale-Batman is beating the crap out of the Scarecrow. THAT kind of jarring. THAT change in tone and style.
It just wasn’t me. It felt like somebody stole my book and snuck something into it. It made me feel like a fraud. I didn’t like those feelings, so pretty much the first thing I did was delete that paragraph and rewrite it, made it Newcastle-esque, and I was much happier about it.
And you’ll be much happier too once you stop comparing yourself to other writers. You are you. Be yourself. Keep writing.