As we seek out mentor texts to imitate or emulate, we encourage the mindset of comparison.
When I suggested you search out writing you admire, you’re going to be drawn to a writer you look up to, whose work dazzles when you compare it with your own. Naturally, this writer naturally seems superior to you in some way—otherwise, why would you select this author to learn from?
But as soon as we starting thinking in terms of better or worse, superior or inferior, more or less advanced, more or less prolific, more or less famous…we’re using the language of comparison to label who’s better or worse than us at something. And that’s when we teeter on the edge of unhealthy comparison.
Comparison: The Good
Before we get to the not-so-good, let’s start with the good. The good news is that there are benefits to comparison. Really!
When we read people we admire, we see what’s possible—we aspire to write as well as this author or that blogger, this poet or that novelist. One day, we think, maybe I could write something as sharp and clear and scintillating as that.
And thanks to aspirational comparison, we might set a word count and get to work in hopes of improving and moving toward that level of excellence. That’s a good thing.
Discover Ideas and Solutions
Comparison leads to another good thing: When we compare ourselves to other writers, we look to their text to figure out how they handle the very things we struggle with.
We get ideas and solutions from the mentor text we choose—maybe they handle flashbacks with ease, for example, and know just went to end a chapter or stanza; they integrate ten-dollar words without sounding pretentious and make humor look easy.
So we compare their strengths with ours, spot their techniques, and decide if we can apply those to our own efforts and improve so that our own transitions seem more natural and our own chapters make the reader turn the page. By comparing their approach with ours, we see how to improve as a writer.
Critical Analysis Helps Writers Improve
Comparison really isn’t a problem when we see ourselves as students seeking to improve, as professionals taking our work to the next level. MFA students read and analyze mentor texts all the time as part of their study. They discuss the strengths and learn how to apply similar approaches to their own work.
We don’t have to be in an MFA program to compare one short story or poem to another—or to our own—in hopes of improving. Critical analysis is essential to growing as a writer and represents comparison at its best as we learn from excellent texts.
Comparison: The Bad
When you started thinking through writers you admire—writers you’d like to emulate—did a range of thoughts and feelings squirm inside? Did you realize you don’t just admire those writers—you actually felt something negative as a result of reading and reviewing their work?
Maybe you started to compare their work with yours and felt inferior, like you’d never be able to write as capably as they do. You feel inadequate. You begin to doubt yourself and wonder why you even bother writing when others do it so much better than you ever will.
This is comparison gone bad.
When Comparison Diminishes Us
Comparison that leads to self-doubt and an inferiority complex can leave us frozen, unable to put another word down on paper. With social media, we compare followers and likes and shares and feel very small and insignificant compared to that writer with a major following or that author with a bestseller.
When we feel we don’t measure up to the talent that’s out there—that our work will never be as memorable and beautiful as all the books and stories and poems that have already been written—we end up veering off course, drawing ridiculous conclusions, like:
- “What on earth could I offer to the conversation?”
- “What could I possibly write worth sacrificing a tree or a megabyte of cloud storage?”
- “Others have written on these topics far better than I could now or ever…”
- “Why add to the noise?”
I’ve seen people paralyzed by comparison. I’ve seen them apathetic, frustrated, or worse, facing despair, and in some cases, tumbling into depression.
It’s easy to despair when we compare. Instead of a writer gaining inspiration from a mentor text, she can face frustration. And that’s bad.
Comparison: The Ugly
And it can get worse. Comparison can get ugly.
When we compare our work to others, we can feel a surge of jealousy. We envy their talent or their success. Comparing goes ugly when we’re wracked with that jealousy, wanting something bad for the other writer and something good for ourselves.
It can happen when we stumble across other people’s work and let our mind travel to dark places. Instead of feeling camaraderie and solidarity with other artists, we might look at an article or flip through a book and think, “Well, I could have written this!” Or even, “I write better than this!”
You’re aggravated or irritated because you know you could have rocked that topic but never got a break. You start to feel like you deserve to have what that writer got—his fame, his money, his fans. You’re not proud of these thoughts, but that’s what goes through your mind.
This professional jealousy or literary envy can flare up when you scroll through your Facebook feed and see someone signing a book contract. Part of you wants to celebrate with them—and you send out a sincere thumbs up or heart and write a word of congratulations in the comments.
But at the same time, or later that day when you find yourself thinking about it, you wince, knowing you’ve worked and worked and waited and waited for your chance at the brass ring, your ship to come in, your own success story to be told. That writer got an opportunity you thought should have been yours. Why them? And why not you?
That’s the dark side of comparison. It can breed discontent and bitterness. It slows us down or brings us to a screeching halt. It distracts us from our own creative ventures.
Comparison: The Answer (or at least some ideas)
What can we do?
You’ve got to know who you are and where you’re at. To struggle against comparison gone bad, you need to have a clear and honest appraisal of who you are as a writer and what stage you’re in.
After all, is it fair to compare yourself to someone who is wildly different than you?
- Different support systems: The writer you’re comparing yourself with may have more time than you to work, or more support from family and friends.
- Different writing styles: The writer who makes you feel inferior may simply write in a different style that you’ll never achieve. If so, this may not be the person to emulate.
- Different stories: Each person carries a story collection inside of them, both the memories of the past and the imagination that can dream up fiction. When another writer seems to produce more interesting stories than yours, you stop valuing the treasures you carry within yourself.
- Different timetable: Finally, the writers who leave you feeling small and insignificant may have started years earlier than you and have had longer to practice. Give it time.
Fill the Gap
Are you just starting out or early in your career?
By now you’ve likely seen the Ira Glass clip where he encourages beginners, who look at the work they create and compare it to the work that inspired them to get in the game in the first place. And beginners feel they fall short.
They forget—or maybe never realized—that the art that inspired them was made by someone who worked at it for a long time. Fill the gap, Ira says, between where you are and where you want to be. Fill it by making a lot of art.
The aspirational part of the story is the good side of comparison—you saw something excellent and that got you in the game, that’s what he says. The desire to quit, however—and to quit before you’ve really developed your skill, because you see how terrific the mentor text is and how bad your first efforts are—that’s springing from the bad side of comparison.
Fill that gap between where you are and where you want to be. And as you make your art, only look at others if they inspire; stop looking at their work the moment it begins to intimidate you.
Author and speaker Jon Acuff said, “Never compare your beginning to someone else’s middle.”
Understand by Journaling
If you struggle with comparison gone ugly, examine your heart. To better understand how you’re feeling and why you’re responding to other writers’ work with envy that’s devolving into bitterness, write in a journal. Get it all out there on paper so you can see it spelled out. Be honest.
And then, follow your honest outpouring with gratitude. Be grateful for who you are and how you write. Express gratitude for the stage you’re in, for where you’ve been, and for where you’re headed.
Then write about how that other writer has written a gift to the world and be grateful for his or her contribution. Offer some kind of blessing for the other writer, and a wish for his or her success.
Even if you do so reluctantly, the act of writing all that down can tame those negative thoughts with positive ones. And write out your desire for a heart-change, assuming you want one.
Do that daily, as a gratitude practice and an others-focused mindset.
Then—one more step—go write a positive review of someone’s work. You can write it on GoodReads or Amazon or as an article on your own website. As a literary citizen, contribute something positive and uplifting that supports your fellow artists, even those you feel jealous of—maybe especially those you feel jealous of. It’s an antidote to the dark side of comparison.
You Do You
If you’re tempted to veer into bad or ugly territory, you might need to walk away from the pros, step away from the classics, let go of the models, and ignore the best.
It might be time for you to do you. Remind yourself who you are and what you bring to this world. List in that journal your…
- likes and dislikes
Share your insight, tell your truth. Know your own backstory—identify your desires so that you can spot your conflicts and see how you push through them. What motivates you? What are your goals?
Don’t compare where you are with where someone else is: compare where you are with where you’ve been. Celebrate your progress.
Overcome by Doing
That Ira Glass message to push through and start writing our own projects, slapping our own words onto the page, requires a Herculean effort. But that’s how we overcome. That’s how we outsmart the temptation to compare for the wrong reasons and draw all the wrong conclusions.
Make your art. And when you feel you have a viable product, make another one. And another. And at some point, you’ll have some that are pretty good.
That’s when you ship one. Yes, ship it out into the world.
You click “publish” or “send” and then, of course, you’ll likely second-guess yourself a hundred times.
Go make more art. Write another poem. Write another short story. Write another essay. Make lots and lots of art, and let any hint of jealousy light a fire in you to create and ship your work into the world.
Do something. Write something. Send something out.
The only way to become the writer you want to be is to do the work. Feel inspired by other writers, but the moment you feel something bad or ugly, walk away and do the work.
Your Business Is to Create, Not Compare
In her classic book If You Want to Write, Brenda Ueland insists, “Everyone is talented, original, and has something important to say.” At the close of her book, Ueland summed up her thoughts with twelve statements, and the twelfth is this:
Don’t always be appraising yourself, wondering if you are better or worse than other writers. “I will not Reason and Compare,” said [William] Blake; “my business is to Create.” Besides, since you are like no other being ever created since the beginning of Time, you are incomparable.
Yes, you have something important to say.
You are incomparable.
- Ep 107: Learn from the Best: Copywork for Grownups
- Ep 106: Learn from the Best: Imitate but Don’t Plagiarize
- Ep 102: Grow as a Writer – Surround Yourself with Excellence
- Ep 104: Learn from the Best – The Book Is Yours When You Write in Its Margins
- Jon Acuff’s guest post at Michael Hyatt’s website
- Ep 56: To Learn How to Write, You Have to Write (includes the Ira Glass video)
- Ira Glass video
- Brenda Ueland, If You Want to Write (affiliate link). Twelfth statement from Graywolf Press edition, published 1987, p. 178; everyone is talented quote from p. 3.
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