Comparison Doesn’t Work
But that’s the surest road to making a poor decision. We can’t compare ourselves to others. We have to know ourselves and accept the fact that we’re unique individuals and our experience isn’t going to be exactly like anyone else’s.
Some people write a novel a year. Others need two years to get out a good novel. Still others write two (or even three) novels a year. Wherever you happen to be on that spectrum—it’s okay. It’s who you are. Don’t let anyone try to talk you into being something different.
My friend Dave Cullen worked on his book Columbine for nearly ten years. One of my favorite authors, Tom Wolfe, reportedly spent ten years working on his novel, A Man in Full, to the point that when his children were asked, “What does your dad do for a living?” they replied, “He writes a book called A Man in Full.”
We are who we are. The same thing applies when we talk about plotting versus pantsing (meaning whether or not you plot and outline before writing your book). It’s great to try different techniques, see what works for you. And it may take you several books to find your most effective process. But don’t try to be either a plotter or a pantser just because your friend or your favorite author does it. Find who you are, and be the best you that you can be.
Most writing teachers advise you write first drafts quickly with very little self-editing along the way. And yet… some people function better if they do a little editing even in the first draft. Listen to good advice, but try not to compare yourself to others.
Everyone’s different. Don’t accept a process or technique just because someone tells you that you should, or because you think there’s one “right” way to be a writer.
Experiment, try different methods, but remember: Don’t try to be someone else. Just be you. Because after all, you’re the only you there is.
Q4U: In what areas of writing or publishing have you been especially prone to comparing yourself to others?
© 2010 Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent
Really inspiring. Thank you 🙂
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Very interesting entry, I look forward to the next! Thx for share
>My cousin recommended this blog and she was totally right keep up the fantastic work!
>Thank you so much for this post! It was exactly what I needed to hear today.
I compare myself to other writers most when it comes to age. I am 23, so I feel that I'm getting a start on my author dream pretty early. I hear of authors that are published at 21 and I feel bad about myself or at 26 and I think "That's only 3 years away!"
I have no idea how long it will take me to get published. I just have to be okay with my path and my process.
Comparing myself to other writers is a fast ticket to a terrible day.
>I always compare myself to others in terms of writing schedules.
A self-published friend of mine has two novels out and another one on the way in the time it's taking me to rework the outline for a novel I've been working on since 2005. (I started it and it wasn't working, so I sort of scrapped everything I had to start over.) At the same time, she was writing her novels full time, while I was working as a freelance writer full time from home and taking care of my son.
>Great post! I just did NaNoWriMo, and, though interesting, it also felt wrong to simply disgorge words to meet a word-count.
I realized I'm a slow-and-steady kind of writer- and that's okay!
>10 years. That sounds about right. Now all I have to do is start it!
>Well, I guess this depends on where we are in life. My first novel took 9 years (but I had three babies in that time!) and its sequel took one year. However, I often feel hesitant in my writing schedule as to when I should approach a publisher. I have not, as yet, approached a publisher or agent at all. When are you 'ready'? I've set a deadline now for one months time. Two years – I've got to know – even if its a rejection! Three novels down and I have not even sent away one of them! ok, rambling now 😉
>Ever since I was a kid, following the crowd has never been my thing. I always had an eye out for things that benefited me though. I know how selfish that sounds, but even today, I find myself doing the same thing. I comb the internet and listen to everyone who talks about the writing skill in any aspect I can find but I can't claim to copy any of it. I soak up whatever advice I like, and I think my writing has improved exponentially because of it, but comparing myself or my writing to someone else is denying individuality, in myself and in others. I will try on new shoes, and I will accept hand-me-downs if they fit, but I see no point in sharing a single pair of shoes with any one other person.
>I just wanted to say thank you, Mrs. Gardner, for such encouraging words.
>At this point in my journey, I compare myself to every single published author. I'm a bit schizophrenic trying to be all of them right now. 🙂
>A friend fowarded your blog to me, and I'm so glad!
The area in which I compare myself to others is in editing-as-I-go. I'm a perpetual editor, and so many tell me 'No, wait until it's finished.' And I see the merit in that, but it's just my way of writing, and it works for me.
Many thought it was the reason I hadn't been published, and I learned, after a while, the reason wasn't the constant editing, but completely stopping before I could ever finish.
I finally did finish a book. It was accepted and is scheduled for release in March. And, yes, I edited-on-the-go all the way to th words THE END. LOL.
I so enjoyed this, and feel sort of a burden lifted to hear others say my way is okay.
>The trouble with being a fast writer is you don't often spot holes till the end, then you have to go back and fix them. The constant revisions are killing me, but necessary if I ever want this published.
>Q4U: In what areas of writing or publishing have you been especially prone to comparing yourself to others?
And BTW, Laura Hillenbrand and I started with the same editor, Jonathan Karp. He edited Seabiscuit and was also the first and last editor on my book. In that first incarnation, in 2000, he kept encouraging me to take whatever time I needed to get it right.
He also told me at the time that Ron Rosenbaum's "Explaining Hitler" took ten years and was one of the best books he'd ever worked on. I don't think he was suggesting I take that long, though. Haha.
>So often writers talk about getting up early in the morning, like four or so, to write. So I figured I needed to do that.
But I have health issues that at times demand I get a lot of sleep. So I quickly realized I couldn't skimp on sleep. Which really doesn't bum me out after all. 😀
>I often fall down the rabbit hole of comparing myself to other poets and sometimes to the really great poets, like Lorca and Naruda, but because they are so wonderful I don't worry too much that I'm not like them. Besides, my poetry must come from my time and reflect the world I am living in today.
More discouraging, however, is when I compare myself to my contemporaries, especially those who have published their first books of poetry while I am still fooling around with putting together a manuscript. I can easily fall into beating myself up for not working quicker and it takes a lot of re-framing to get my mind and my writing back in the game. I want to live in a world where everyone expands in their art, but somehow it's easy to think that another poet's success is paramount to my failure – and that simply isn't true.
>I don't have a whole lot to add to the discussion–ditto what others have said–but I do want to shout a giant thank you for this post. It came at exactly the right time for me as I conclude that I have a definite speed vs quality thing going on and sometimes slow is okay.
I wrote a post about Laura Hillenbrand's recent book Unbroken (A-mazing! Reminded me of the depth of research and storytelling of Dave Cullen's Columbine). She basically writes a book in ten years. TEN YEARS. Part of me wishes I could dedicate that much time to a book, and be able to provide for my family on great advances. But the other part of me knows that God enabled me to write prolifically.
The post is here: http://www.marydemuth.com/2010/11/should-i-write-slow/
>This is so true. When we're comparing, we assume everything is equal, but we all have different responsibilities, different priorities, and different methods that work for us. Thanks for this!
>You know, I did so much of that kind of thinking in my 20's, and it gets you nothing but trouble. Somewhere along the way (probably slowly, over time) I ditched it, and I'm much happier for it.
>Awesome advice; thanks for sharing it.
I must admit I'm guilty of the "if they can, I can" syndrome sometimes.
>This is a great answer to a question I've struggled over: How much input does a writer have in setting a deadline? I've been concerned about this being a sticky point in a contract. I'm half plotter, half pantser and continual editor, so I'm fortunate to get 1,200 words written in a full a day.
Thank you for reassuring me that I can only do what I can do.
>Two years is my time frame. I've been working on my speculative fiction for a year now. It's almost done, but every so often I step back and edit what I've done, adding things, tweaking my characters, fixing subplots and main plots. Maybe it's not how one of my writing buddies does it, but it's how I can complete this novel to my satisfaction.
>The two areas where I do most comparing are outlining and editing.
Most writers in my writing group have extensive outlines from which they work, pages in length. I have a rough outline – a beginning, a middle and an end. I need to let my characters/plot evolve as I go.
I also seem to be at odds with everyone in the editing area. I do minimal editing while writing the first draft. I have a great story sitting on a shelf because I spent so much time editing I got frustrated with not moving forward. My current novella is all about writing – editing will come once I'm done.
Thanks for a great post that encourages each of us to follow our own instincts!
>I accept that I was created as a unique person so it shouldn't be difficult to extend that to my individuality as a writer. Comparison must be a tool of the devil, designed to clog the creative works.
NaNoWriMo has been a month of reporting word counts and comparisons have sometimes been discouraging. When I stew about not writing as many words in a day as I should or could, I have to remember that part of my writing process is the percolation of ideas or sentences and some days that produces fewer words on a page.
>Hey, I'm back to say I'm a pantser! Who knew? My husband, on the other hand, is a plotter. His outlines even include diagrams and little pictures for crying out loud.
Thanks for giving me a new writing term to throw around- although I must be careful…I noticed another non-writing definition for the term as well.
>I fall prey to the comparison game pretty regularly. Recently I read about an author with a bunch of kids who has published her first novel and is well onto her second — AND she homeschools! I felt pretty lame after reading that — I only have 2 kids after all…and they are both in school — how am I not onto my fifth book by now?!
It's very good to hear again what I already know: that it's fruitless to compare.
On a side note…what the heck is "pantsing?" I thought it was a rare typo until I saw you used it more than once! Must go Google…
>I’ve found that there’s a point at which fast can produce a better quality. I know it’s not supposed to work that way, but the longer I take to write something the less likely I am to remember what I’ve already said. So, on the first two or three drafts it is helpful to move quickly. This makes it easier to see how everything fits together. I’m sure it would be helpful to spend more time on the fourth draft, but it is always so tedious.
>BTW, setting long-term deadlines is one of my biggest challenges, because it's hard to know how long these things will take.
I get nervous, because deadlines really help force me get the stuff done. I need them. But I don't want to miss them.
My first book, it was a total stab in the air. Before the book auction, my agent asked me the question I knew was coming: How long will it take you to write the book?
How would I know? I'd never written one. (Not one that had been published, at least. And nothing like this one. I'd mapped it out in a 100-page book proposal, but that was only a blueprint, which I know would change.)
But we had to put a date in the contract once we sold it. I pulled 18 months out of the air. That was 5 years in. It ended up taking two years longer than agreed. I felt shitty about that, and still do. I don't want to miss a contract date ever again. But I'm nervous.
It's much easier to know myself after a published book. I know myself much better. But not nearly enough.
>I'm really ashamed to admit this, but the only way in which I USED to compare myself to other writers was in position on the publishers list.
I'm happy to say that I finally grew up. It took a while, but it happened.
>What a great post, and what fantastic comments! This post came at just the right time for me. I write for the erotic romance e-book market and a lot of writers in that arena are FAST. The turnaround time for small press e-first publishers is pretty quick and it's pretty common for writers to turn out a book every other month.
And that's approximately the pace I've been keeping. (My books are novellas or short novels.) But now marketing and blogging are stressing me out. It seems like every writer I see at my house is blogging somewhere different every week, has promotions going constantly, etc.
It's intimidating. And even though I promised myself I wouldn't spend too much time promo-ing my first couple books, I feel the pressure to keep up.
And yes- as someone said above, when you start obsessing about yourself productivity drops, your fingers cramp up, and you stop writing.
Anyway- sorry for the blog-post length reply. But, what you said! And what she said! And what all of you said! Yes!
>Really great advice, as usual. And thanks for mentioning me. We'll see if I can get my ten-year average down on this next one. Haha.
I especially liked this bit–which I'll come back to discuss, after I finish a piece on the Wisconsin "hostages" that needs to get out fast:
"Most writing teachers advise you write first drafts quickly with very little self-editing along the way. And yet… some people function better if they do a little editing even in the first draft. Listen to good advice, but try not to compare yourself to others."
p.s. An unexpected issue that comes up if you're lucky, I guess, is how much time to devote to talking about the book before publication, and after. I recently spent a couple months devoted to creating the Columbine Instructor Guide and Columbine Student Guide. Yes, I'm shamelessly plugging them, but also addressing the scheduling issue, since it's been 18 months since first publication, and I'm still devoting huge chunks of time to touring, skype sessions, and these sorts of projects.
So much of this side of the business has shifted to the authors.
>This article is timely in so many ways… My book was about refusing to let anyone define me when I worked in corporate America. Once my book was complete, I found myself losing creative control based on the suggestions of others. While I appreciated a lot of the feedback I received, many of the feedback was based on what others thought I should be writing about and other people I should include…
I got to the point where I was tired defending my project and being defined by the opinion of others. I realized that I can only be me…
>I don't compare my process to that of other writers much, but occasionally I'll stumble into the trap of comparing myself to other writers in terms of publications, grants, prizes, etc. I just did this recently and came away feeling depressed and hopeless. And yet I know how unproductive and pointless this is! I've had a great year, with many writing successes, and whatever other writers are up to has nothing to do with me. Comparisons in general are usually just a waste of time, energy, and emotional trauma.
>It's wonderful to hear this from someone in the professional world.
Writing in the way that I do has been a topic of conversation amongst certain people. I have my basic plot, then sit down at the computer and type away. Every word, every detail of my story comes to me with each second that passes.
I've always wondered if my style is unorganized just because I do not outline or follow some kind of software. Although, I do know for myself that the answer is no!
Thanks again for the input.
>What Katy McKenna said. I'm a processor. I need time to really think about & play around with ideas before I get anything down on paper. My kids laugh at me because I have pads of paper full of bubble diagrams (which they're taught to use in grade school). So I can't fathom daily, high word counts. Even in life, when I was a swimmer, I was never a sprinter–always a mid-to-long distance athlete. And the more time that passes, the more comfortable I am with that.
I really appreciate this encouraging post, Rachelle!
>Thank you for this important post!
It's taking me longer to write and edit my memoir than I (and my mother) think it should and I needed this reminder that I'm writing at the pace that works for me.
>My sticking point is querying. I know I'm not ready yet, but every time a writer friend starts querying or, "worse", lands an agent, I twitch.
Like some of the other commenters, I struggle more with what I think I should be able to do than what anyone else is doing — after all, my "perfect" self is more productive than any real person. Writing speed and especially revising speed are biggies.
But I'm learning. This year, I did NaNoWriMo on my own terms — a 25K goal on a WIP, with some editing allowed. I didn't write 50K in a month, but I do have 50K+ of a novel, and it's a lot more solid than most of my past NaNo novels. It's been a good month.
Thanks for the reminder that it's okay to be who we are!
>I tend to compare my form letter rejection level with those who regularly comment on these blogs. It's good to know we're all in the same boat together. But I'm ready to jump ship.
>I love this post!
One of the things that's holding me back in finishing my novel is that I'm afraid it will get published. The reason that bothers me is because I imagined that at that point I would be under immense pressure to crank out a book every six months. I can't do that. I get palpitations just thinking about it.
This post is very freeing. I didn't know I could have options.
So, now I need to deal with the fears of not getting published. 🙂
>This was exactly the post I needed to hear, Rachelle. Thank you. I'm not a slow writer, but I am a slow re-writer/editor. This is such an important topic for writers to hear over and over – to "be the best you that you can be." And it's a good reminder to be honest with the professionals there to help. It would be a shame to unnecessary pressure on a writer who has enough pressure already.
I think the area I have the toughest time with comparing myself is in the blogging world. Many writers are master bloggers, while others seem to struggle. Some writers blog every day with fantastic content and still manage to keep a book writing schedule, while others are happy posting once a week. This is just another area I think writers have to find out who they are and what's best for their writing.
>In only recent weeks, I've come to the conclusion that I can't write fast and expect my book to be any good. I've slowed down considerably and feel great about it.
>Comparing myself to others is the surest way to dry up my creativity. The focus jumps off the story and onto myself. As a consequence discontent abounds, ungratefulness flourishes, and crankiness multiplies.
T.Anne, your comment made me laugh, because I feel like I'm plodding at the moment! 🙂
Hmmm…time to go reconsider if I've been comparing myself to others and as a result am having a hard time on this ms…
>It's interesting you brought this up today. As a 2011 debut novelist, interest in new titles is starting to show up in the blogopshere. My quiet title isn't drawing as much discussion as splashier ones.
I have to remember it's okay for me and okay for my peers. We write differently. We support each other.
>Writing is one of those things where it's okay to work at our own pace. I don't try to compare myself to other writers. Instead, I make the mistake of comparing myself to what I could've already done by now if I push myself soon. That still adds up to a recipe for disaster.
>This is a great post, Rachelle. Thanks for the reminder.
Oh, and I thought Dave Cullen's COLUMBINE was an amazing book. Ten years? The time, effort, research, craft – it shows. Well done.
>I tend to compare myself to whomever I'm reading at the time. I read a lot of classic books so I'm always coming up short.
Otherwise, I barely compare myself to other writers, partly because I'm kind of a hack (not print published yet) and partly because it's a useless endeavor.
>I think I'm one of those who functions better if I can do a little editing along the way. It's a relief to hear that it's okay. It always made me feel bad to think I was doing it wrong. Thanks, Rachelle!
>I learned this the hard way. Somehow, early in my author journey I ended up with a lot of friends who are massive producers, and I wondered what was wrong with me. It took its toll on my psyche, being unable to keep up, and eventually my output trickled to a stop. Along the way to healing, I found I needed to distance myself from the friends who constantly crowed about their word counts.
And as to your point about assessing which advice applies to your needs, I also had to distance myself from people who press me to do things a certain way. I didn't know in the beginning what I needed in a community, so I have to make adjustments now.
Thanks for all your wonderful posts, Rachelle. Our career paths will likely (and unfortunately) never cross, but I love your style.
>One of the things Agatha Christie is credited with saying is that a month is plenty of time to write a book. Realistically, four books a year would be pushing it for me, even if I were making a living from it. But I once wrote a book in three weeks and managed to sell a few hundred copies.
The more I write, the more I’m convinced that we all ought to be plotters and pantsers are just plotters in denial.
The place I tend to compare myself to others is in book sales. There seems to be no correlation between writing skill and book sales. That’s not to say that my writing is the best it can be, but even when I compare other authors, it amazes me that one is popular and a better author is hardly read.
>Excellent advice, and a warning against a temptation to which I fall prey again and again. One of the mixed blessings of being a writer is becoming friends and acquaintances with lots of neat people who also write. I say "mixed blessing" because with that many writing friends, one of them is always getting a contract, having a book released, or even pumping out a word count in a day that I'd be pleased to reach in a week. The hardest lesson I've learned–and I relearn it almost daily–is, "I'm not them. I'm me. Be glad for them. Then go back to work."
>Such an important point to remember. I often remind myself that writing careers will advance at different paces. A friend of mine had things happen right out of the gate. Secured an agent. Landed a huge publishing deal. Got a book published. Her platform exploded and she received numerous accolades all within a year. I was thrilled for her but also aware how it made me check my watch. It helped to talk with her too (come to find out the year timetable was longer than I’d suspected). Grass has a way of appearing greener even when pests burrow below. It really is best to focus efforts and attention on improving our own lawns.
In His time.
>Comparison can play both positive and negative roles. I see it as positive when it motivates me to improve my work, to strive for the best. But it becomes negative when I hear it as the whispered voice in my head: "You're not as good as ___________. You'll never write that fast (that tight, that well). Give it up!"
If I keep my relationship with God strong, I'm less prone to negative comparisons and more prone to follow his directives, not others' accomplishments.
>Thanks for this post, Rachelle. As a new author, I find myself comparing my publishing journey to those of other writers all the time. This year, I've had to learn how to set my own pace–and it's been a hard lesson to swallow. I'm not a fast writer, and I knew that about myself…I just didn't realize that fact wouldn't change when I had a deadline dangling in front of my nose.
>"Some people write a novel a year. Others need two years to get out a good novel. Still others write two (or even three) novels a year. Wherever you happen to be on that spectrum—it’s okay. It’s who you are. Don’t let anyone try to talk you into being something different."
I found this especially helpful because it FEELS like everyone churns out 2-3 books a year–a pace I could never keep. Finishing one a year is a challenge. Everyone keeps telling me "You need to start submitting your manuscript." But I hold back because it's going to take a year or more to finish the next one. I wish I COULD crank them out 2-3 per year but it just doesn't work that way.
>Believe it or not I had never actually heard the phrase 'plotting versus pantsing,' although I've understood the concept for a long time. Writing for me has always been through the use of an outline or flow chart that helps me get all my characters and scenes lined up. Then when pen hits page the outlines get tossed out and I don't follow it at all. So not sure why my brain feels the need to use them, but it is part of my process.
As for deadlines and comparisons, yes I've been trying to hold myself accountable to the 100k novel a year. It would be hard to shoot for any other goal keeping in mind my busy schedule.
>These are the right words at the right time for me at this moment. It took me six months to write the first draft of the MS I'm shopping around, but it took me forever to revise it. I got a lot of criticism to the effect that I was being one of those writers who tinkers endlessly and I needed to get it out the door, but I knew it wasn't ready! I also got a lot of reminders that if I happen to launch a writing career, publishers these days expect at least one to two books a year from midlist-type writers, so I can't indulge in this length of time to revise in the future. And those points are not without validity. I hope that with what I've learned on this WIP, the next one will need less revision and be done more quickly. But I really appreciate this counterpoint telling me to basically do what I need to do and not worry about the rest. Thank you. 🙂
>Thanks for the reminder! It's sometimes so hard not to compare yourself to others, when you wish you were at the stage they are at. But everyone works differently — and I think I work better when I focus on my own strengths.
>This is such a wonderful post, and applicable to so many more areas than just writing! Thank you! You're awesome. 🙂
>I'm especially intimidated by the FB updates of the high-word-count authors. A "bad" day is one in which someone might only write 8500 words. That might represent a bad YEAR for me, but not a bad DAY. 🙂
Thank you, Rachelle, for this important and reassuring post. Sometimes, your perspective helps me simply breathe, and I do find breathing to be crucial in moving forward.
>Such a timely post. For me, I struggle with comparing my writing successes or failures each day to the successes of others. Of late I've had a severe reduction in available writing time but my brain can't make that connection and still rebukes itself for not producing words on days that life and school just got in the way.
Thanks for this. Very much needed.
>I suppose I'm lucky – when I wrote my first novel I realized that I had a style that was completely my own, both in execution and voice. Now I'm well into #4.
Of course, all that would mean a lot more if any of them were actually published…
But really, I'm confident in what I'm doing, and that I will eventually find an outlet and audience. I really don't compare myself with others.
(I didn't say I don't envy others…)
Comparisons generally do no good, in any walk of life. Compared to someone who's fighting an intractable, viciously painful illness, a paper cut seems like nothing. And yet…the paper cut still hurts, and the one who has it is still deserving of compassion, and of the same quality of compassion that's extended to the dude who's dying. (This, unfortunately, from experience…but the bright side is that writing while on massive painkillers can result in some hilarious typos.)
>And… to add to your thoughts, it all depends on the project as well. Some novels come quicker than others depending on something as simple as the research needed.
>This is a great post. I can write three MS' in a year, maybe four tops. But what are the odds of a publisher pumping them out as fast as I can produce them? I wonder sometimes if there is a boundary or a norm for how many novels a publisher is willing to produce for an author in a year.
(And Erica Vetsch if you are reading this, I aspire to be in your writing machine shoes! 😉
>I struggle the most with comparing achievement schedules. I'm fine with others achieving before me – but expect my road to that milestone to be the same length as theirs.
This is a timely reminder to be willing to wait for God's timing. Also that it's better to do my best and reap the rewards, than to try and rush something and reap the consequences.