Self-Worth and Eternal Editing Hell

I know basically two kinds of new writers.  Those who believe they suck, and those who believe they are awesome.  I know a LOT more of the first kind than the second kind, which is actually kind of nice because their writing is usually a lot better.  That may seem a little ironic on the surface, but it really isn’t.

The thing is, at the beginning, we ALL suck.  Which makes sense because, regardless of talent level, it takes time to hone the skill.  The self-hating writers look at this and recognize that they are not starting out at Pulitzer-prize winning level.  If that prompts them to lose hope and give up, that’s bad.  But if it prompts them to keep working until they get better, that’s good.  But the self-confident writers already think they are awesome.  They don’t think they need critiques or edits, and if someone DOES suggest something to be changed in their work, then they judge the flaw to be with the commenter rather than their work–because their work is THE standard of good writing in their mind.  So they don’t change and they don’t improve (at least not until they become humble enough to seek improvement).  They are often the writers who complain about ‘people not understanding their work’ and outside factors being the reasons they have only sold four copies of their self-published, edgy, dystopian novel on Amazon (and three of those copies were bought by relatives).  It’s not always that extreme, but it usually goes along those lines.

But my main message today is for the self-haters.  Because you are the ones I relate to and you are the ones who need to feel the hope that is there for you.

Many of the writers I know who loathe their own work get caught in what I call the Never-Ending First Draft, or Eternal Editing Hell.  They have an idea they are working on.  They write a few chapters, but then the doubt starts to creep in, and the ‘fixing’ starts.  Forward momentum slows, and sometimes stops.  I just need to get this right, you may think.  I’m just having trouble getting this one part working.  Then you hear all the advice about writing the first draft straight through without any editing and you start feeling guilty, but you feel like you just CAN’T not fix at least some of the issues!  And thus you are dragged carefully into hell.

So I’m not going to repeat that advice, because it doesn’t help me and for many of you, it doesn’t help you either.  Because the reason WHY we do this needs to be addressed.  Feeling that compulsion to edit is a SYMPTOM, not the problem.

There are many reasons that we get into writing.  Sometimes it’s because we love the written word, or we love the art of weaving a story.  Often, though, it is tied with a certain set of personality traits, often including the following:

  • An introverted personality that struggles with people in the form of shyness, anxiety, self-consciousness, etc.  It’s not necessarily that we don’t like people, but we feel uncomfortable around them, especially if we don’t know them well.  So we can still get lonely, and our discomfort in meeting people or being in large groups of people means that we are set up to be lonely often.
  • A sensitivity to feeling things more easily and strongly than many others.
  • An empathetic personality that is often highly aware of what others may be feeling.
  • A tendency to over-analyze.
  • A tendency to escape through books or other forms of entertainment.
  • A tendency to be hard on ourselves.

These traits often are major factors in our desire to write.  Because books have been our friends when no one else was, and our safe place when we did not feel safe.  They express emotions and feelings we weren’t sure others felt, and help us feel, while being relatively safe & predictable because they aren’t really real and have rules, which life often doesn’t seem to have.  Add to that the facts that we have natural advantages in writing because we read so much and because of our sensitive & observant natures, and we are drawn to writing stories like moths to flame.

But there is a downside to this.  One major one is that books follow rules that real life does not.  You do not see, for instance, the many, many hours of practice, instruction, experience, and most importantly, failure that the protagonists experienced to gain skills.  You see a montage or read a bit of backstory.  So we focus on the outcomes and the successes.  The other rule that is different is that books tend to be far more black and white than real life ever is.  In books, it is success or failure.  Life or death.  Not the incremental differences in the outcomes in one of the dozen directions your life pulls you.  In a book, if you miss the shot, the dictator lives, and the good in the world is destroyed.  In real life, you are choosing Lucky Charms over Raisin Bran and it may or may not have long-term consequences in your digestive or blood sugar health, but if it does, it’s minimal.  So sometimes our brains will inflate the importance of the story we are writing to more than it is, which makes it much more scary.

But the thing I see most often is that we put so much of our perception of our worth into that story that it becomes this daunting, life-or-death challenge.  I must (instead of want to) finish writing this book or else I am bad/worthless/a disappointment/a failure.  Sometimes there are people close to us who we fear this judgment from.  But more often, it is a criteria we put upon ourselves–and sometimes we even believe that others will feel that way about us, but it is really ONLY ourselves that would feel that way.

Not only does this put false value in the task and take value away from ourselves, but it CANNOT fill the hole we are feeling.  What we are thinking is not “if I don’t do this, then I am a failure.”  What we are actually thinking is, “I am a failure.  If I do this, maybe I won’t be a failure anymore.”  And therein lies the problem.  Because you are presenting yourself with a paradox.  Failures don’t succeed.  By definition.  Failures fail.  Failures don’t finish, or at least don’t do a ‘good enough’ job.  So if you define yourself as a failure, you are already telling yourself that success–defined, in this instance, as finishing a ‘good’ book–is something you are not capable of.  You probably aren’t thinking these things consciously.  But deep down, your brain recognizes the conflict.  So you continue to ‘adjust’ the criteria of success.  It’s no longer just finishing the story.  Other criteria get added.  Now it also needs to be published.  Get good reviews.  Win awards.  Impact lives.  Be praised by the people in your life whom you feel the most need for praise from.  All these criteria increase the pressure on you and make the task even more terrifying.  Now it’s far more easy to ‘fail’ because the criteria for ‘success’ is much more narrow.  And you have put all your self-worth in this success.

I am going to tell you a few very important secrets.  

  1. Your self-worth has NOTHING to do with your accomplishments.
  2. Failure and success are not black-and-white terms.  They are relative, and the criteria for one or the other is very personal and adjustable.
  3. If you do not have self-worth now, and you DO meet your criteria of ‘success,’ you will still not feel self-worth.  

Because being a valuable person, like being happy, is not something that happens to us.  People can give us praise and accolades and awards all day long, every day.  We could meet every criteria for success the world may hold.  But until we have the capability to hold onto that feeling of worth, it will constantly drain away and leave us empty, like a bucket with a big hole in the bottom.  Once you patch that hole, you will find that, instead of constantly craving praise and success, you actually feel good about yourself most of the time, even just from your own resources!  You will find yourself writing, not because you need to prove yourself or meet some arbitrary or high criteria, but because you love it, you love seeing your skills grow, you love the work.

How does this save us from Eternal Editing Hell?

Once you realize that you don’t need to prove yourself to anyone, then the words don’t have to be perfect.  They have value, just like you, in simple existence.  Whether they are a learning process or a step or a piece of the final, delicious prose, they are wonderful.  Instead of having the impossible task of filling a hole they weren’t built to fill, they can fulfill the measure of their creation as sand in your sandbox.  You can just create, and play, and learn, and grow, without the terror that makes us avoid the work and tell ourselves, deep down, that we are not capable of finishing.  Because you are capable.  You can totally do it.  Or not.  It’s your choice.  You are valuable either way.

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One Comment

  1. This is exactly how I feel! I’m on the opposite end of the spectrum of Editing Hell with three rough drafts laying around that I’m afraid to revise, afraid I’m not good/skilled enough to make them perfect. The fear has gotten to the point lately I can’t even finish a rough draft. I also, despite five years of studying and writing, don’t often share my writing for fear people will see what a fraud I am and the one dream I dare have for myself will be crushed. Thanks so much for this insightful post, and a good reminder of why I’m writing and that it doesn’t define me! You’re awesome!

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