Reading Too Deep: How To Handle Writer’s Doubt

by S.E. Batt

January 2015

Writers know that the golden rule of writing is to write. Stories don’t write themselves onto paper, so actual writing is the only way to become a writer. There is the sister advice that tags along, however, and her name is Read Books.

It makes sense when you consider it. In order to learn how to tell good stories, you must read good stories. Other people’s stories can be useful in various ways. Books written in your genre help develop ideas, showing different plot devices and styles that you may have never considered before, as well as revealing what ideas have been done time and time again. Stories in genres with which you’re unfamiliar (say, suspense or romance) can educate you in other aspects of storytelling untouched by your genre. Writers, taking this advice to heart, often dive into their collection of books and begin to read them.

This is where doubt likes to strike.

The writer would have done some fiction writing of their own at some point, whether they have just completed their first short story or finished up a trilogy. Then they read the works of their favorite author, compare it to their own work, and then – oh dear. The prose they wrote was not as great as they first thought. They spiral into doubt. In the worst case, the new writer decides the solution is to copy the experienced author’s style or ideas, thinking it will help them in the long run.

The stem of the doubt comes from examining the gap between ourselves and the authors we admire. We put the authors on a high pedestal and look up at them from a lowly, dark place. We don’t want to just write stories – we want to write stories like they do. Every day that passes during which we’re not writing a story on the same level as that author, we feel worse and worse about our ability to write a story.

With this in mind, there is one very, very important piece of information we must remember during a dark time, when we feel that we simply cannot compete with the best authors out there.

We cannot, and will not, write a story like theirs.

This may sound like a pessimistic view, but bear with it – there is a silver lining. Take your favorite author: you will never write a story as they do. The reason for this is simple. If you and your favorite author both received a short story prompt, and you both got to work writing a story based on it, do you believe that you would both write the exact same story, with the exact same characters, setting, and dialogue? Of course not.

Two authors working off the same prompt will always produce two different works. One might create a romance, the other, a fantasy. Tie both authors down to a single genre, and they will each write main characters with different personalities. Give them both a rigid, unchangeable character, and the events within the story will still be wildly different. The only way to ensure that both authors write the same story is to flat-out tell them what each character is like, what they say, and what they do. And even then, they’ll both present the details in different ways.

What does this mean for the case of writer’s doubt? It’s true that you’ll never write a story like your favorite author. But, at the same time, your favorite author will never write a story like you. No matter how hard they try, they will never be able to accurately copy you and the ideas that you have, whether you’re a skilled veteran or working on your first novel.

This is what you must remember when you read the works of others. When you find an author who writes a fantastic story, never directly compare them to yourself. Why should you? They’re writing from their experience, and you should write from yours. Your goal should not be to try to make your work just like theirs. Instead, look out for the parts in their story that really inspire you, the moments in the plot where you really synergize with the author. Take that lesson away with you, then craft it into something that only you can make. What causes readers to be so enamored with a single genre is discovering how each author presents a story, and you are no different.

Next time you read a good story, and you hear the internal critic calling you worthless, remind yourself that you’re not racing the author of the book to a finish line. Your goal is not to ‘beat’ them – your goal is to write a story that only you, out of seven billion people, can write. And while inspiration and learning are worth their weight in gold, they should not be used as a weapon against your own storytelling.

S.E. BattComment