Why You Should Stop Listening to Other Writers

KahloIn today’s writing culture workshops, critique circles, and beta-reading partners are the norm. Writers are so focused on feedback—any feedback—that they frequently rush through writing two or three pages of the beginning of a story and then immediately hand it off to their writing buddies for comments and suggestions.

But sharing writing before it is ready to be shared is most often not helpful to the writer.

It’s a question of right timing. If you’ve finished the sloppy first draft of your novel and you’ve read it all the way through at least once, and you have a pretty good idea of what you think needs work and where, that’s an awesome time to seek outside feedback. Call up your army of beta readers and let them have at it with the red pen that shows no mercy.

However, if you’ve written half of the story, many of your characters are still fragile and nebulous, and you’re not yet sure about the ending, it’s time to check yourself before you open the work up to an actual full-blown critique.

Because when your creative ideas are still struggling to form themselves, they can very easily be influenced by what someone else thinks is best for your story. And someone else is not writing your story. You are.

One of the most essential skills a writer can cultivate is the strength and self-awareness to trust their gut instinct about their story. You are the only one who really knows why Aunt Edna said that weird thing during the cocktail party. At the end of the story it turns out that it wasn’t totally irrelevant. And you’re the only one who really knows who is responsible for that spooky moaning coming from the attic. At the end of the story it turns out it wasn’t totally unrealistic. Even if you don’t know that you know…well, you know. Or at least, some part of you does. The writer part.

To be a great writer, you have to learn how to trust yourself as a great writer.

When you get five different opinions on how your story should end before you’ve written the ending, it clouds your judgment and makes it even more difficult to listen for that small, still voice inside.

It’s not easy learning to trust your gut as a writer. Believe me, I get it. Self-doubt creeps in, you feel uncertain about everything, including why you even embarked on this crazy project in the first place. Your characters keep looking to you, asking what they should do next and, frankly, you have no idea. It’s an uncomfortable place to be in and the uncertainty lasts a while.

But no one else has the answers for you. That’s just the way it is. You can ask all your writer friends, spend days on Google surfing around, and research your brains out, but when it comes to your story, you are the only one who can discover just how it’s supposed to go. And you have to discover that all on your own.

Because the only way to find out what’s supposed to happen in your story is if you write it down.

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  • Reply Trevor 3 April, 2014 at 10:21 am

    Great post, Lauren! I’ve definitely had to come to this realization lately, and I have you to thank for that. Our stories need time to gestate before being delivered into a world of criticism.

  • Reply Kara 3 April, 2014 at 11:04 am

    Wow, glad you posted this. Good to know for a new writer. I often thought this would be the case but helps to hear from someone with experience.

  • Reply Phillip McCollum 3 April, 2014 at 1:46 pm

    Great advice Lauren and something that I’ve needed to hear lately. 🙂

  • Reply Robyn LaRue 3 April, 2014 at 4:28 pm

    Very true! I generally don’t show my work to anyone in the draft stage because I don’t like to talk about my drafts. If I say the story, I lose all impetus to write it down. I won’t talk about it except in very general terms until after my first read-through and big fixes. I learned this lesson the hard way a long time ago. 🙂

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 4 April, 2014 at 9:07 am

      I don’t like to talk about my drafts either. For me, the more I talk about an idea before writing it down, the more the idea loses its steam before it can even get to paper. I tend to keep my sloppy first drafts very close before they’re finished.

  • Reply Glynis Jolly 4 April, 2014 at 6:29 am

    I don’t know if I agree with you or not on this point. I want the learner’s opinion. But I think I value the reader’s opinion more. Where does this put me?

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 4 April, 2014 at 9:06 am

      I think it puts you perfectly in your own space in the learning process. There really is no “right” way for everyone. I know that some writers out there honestly do benefit from outside readers seeing their work in the very early stages, but what I wanted to emphasize was learning how to trust yourself to make the final call about your own writing.

  • Reply Sharon Rawlette 4 April, 2014 at 6:45 am

    I wholeheartedly agree. I feel like the most helpful thing I can get from beta readers is their questions: “What did that character mean by this?” “Why did you end the story this way?” “Why did you put in the part about Aunt Edna?” Often they don’t have to do any more than pose the question. I immediately see the disconnect between my vision and what I actually created, and I hasten to put down on paper some things that I had accidentally left in my brain, unwritten. Sometimes I have to puzzle a little longer, but even there, the questions are the invaluable starting point.

  • Reply Paul Sutton Reeves 4 April, 2014 at 12:48 pm

    Yep, I’d agree with that, Lauren. I’ve just spent a year and a half on my first draft and shown nothing but tiny extracts to anyone else. Doing otherwise would be like saying ‘what do you think of my new house?’ when all that you have in place is a frame, a roof and a few windows.

  • Reply Warren Ward 4 April, 2014 at 5:25 pm

    Hi Lauen I just wanted to let you know I have found all your posts incredibly helpful – I now read one every morning before I start writing or editing. Being an as-yet unpublished writer it helps me to silence that unhelpful chattering critical monkey in my mind and find the words I need to tell the story that only I can tell. Thank you…

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 7 April, 2014 at 9:22 am

      That’s so cool Warren! Thank you so much! I am now following your blog as well to keep up with your writing progress.

  • Reply James Stone 5 April, 2014 at 6:57 am

    Thanks Lauren,

    Great advice. I actually did that once and only once. The critiquing friend began suggesting possible scenarios and I found myself getting upset with them because it wasn’t their story to twist and turn. After that experience, I now wait until it’s ready for the cruel, kind red ink.

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