Have you ever spent weeks rewriting the same pages over and over again without making any kind of forward progress?
Have you ever felt scared to share your work with other people because you just know your story could use a little more polishing?
If you're nodding your head yes, don't worry -- you're not alone!
I've worked with writers of all skill levels and at all stages of the writing, editing, and publishing process. And I've discovered that they all share one common belief that's holding them back from accomplishing their writing goals.
And in today's post, I'm going to share with you what that myth is -- and more importantly, what to do about it if you've fallen prey to this myth.
The number one myth that holds writers back is this: if you can write beautiful words, then that's what makes you a real writer. Or if you can write beautiful sentences, that's what will make readers fall in love with your story.
And at the root of this myth is the belief that these beautiful sentences or beautiful words matter more than anything else.
And that's just not true...
But before I give you some strategies to help combat this myth, I want to share a quick story.
(This writer gave me permission to share her story, but to protect her privacy, I'll call her Emily.)
Emily spent YEARS and YEARS writing a mystery novel. And when she finally had a finished draft, she spent THOUSANDS of dollars on line edits and copy edits to polish up her manuscript.
When she finally sent her manuscript off to agents, she didn't get a SINGLE bite. Not one agent wanted to see a partial draft or to even talk to her about her story. To say she was heartbroken and disappointed would be an understatement.
When she told her friends and family what happened, a few of them offered to review her pages to see if they could help her identify the problems. And once they read her words, they were shocked that her story didn't get any interest from agents -- after all, it was so well-written!
At this point, Emily didn't know what to do next. She put her manuscript in a drawer and didn't touch it for another year. To be more specific, she didn't write anything for another year -- not even a word in her personal journey.
But Emily's story wouldn't leave her alone. In fact, after about eight months, it started to consume her every waking thought. So, she decided to pull it out of the drawer and give it another look.
And this is when I met Emily...
She hired me to read her manuscript and to give her my honest opinion on whether or not she should continue to work on it.
I read through her manuscript and discovered that her line-by-line writing was actually beautiful. She did have a way with words, and she did have a really unique writing voice.
So, what was the problem? Why didn’t any agents or publishers want to see her manuscript?
Well, here’s the thing... And here's what I told Emily...
Although her line-by-line writing was beautiful, there was no story underneath those beautiful words. There was no deeper meaning or anything compelling enough to pull the reader (or those agents!) into the story and make them interested in what happens next.
So, my advice to Emily was that she needed to learn how to craft a STORY. She needed to start over, from ground zero, and create a compelling narrative that would take readers some kind of journey.
And that's just what Emily did.
She dug in and learned the fundamentals. She learned how to write a compelling story with well-rounded characters, immersive settings, and a unifying theme. She added structure and purpose to her scenes and trimmed out anything and everything that wasn’t needed.
And guess what?
About a year later, when she pitched her story at a writing conference, she got FOUR BITES on her manuscript! And just the other day, she emailed me to let me know that she signed a contract with a traditional publisher.
How incredible is that?
Now, I don’t tell you this story to toot my own horn as an editor. I tell you this to show you that had Emily stuck with the belief that beautiful words are what makes a good writer, she would have never published her book. And, from the sound of it, would have probably given up on her writing completely.
And, let me tell you -- she's not alone in how she felt or in the actions she took after getting rejected by agents. I talk to writers with similar stories ALL THE TIME.
So, where does this insidious myth come from?
Why do we believe that you have to write beautiful words in order to write a great story or to be a “real writer?”
Well, most of us writers are avid readers, right? And we're so used to seeing a book in its final state that we can't help but compare our messy draft-in-progress to someone else's finished product. It's just human nature.
I’m guilty of this myself sometimes... The second I start thinking about the worldbuilding in the Harry Potter series, I start feeling overwhelmed and inadequate.
Or when I reread The Name of the Wind for the billionth time, I agonize over not being able to write the type of beautiful, lyrical sentences that Patrick Rothfuss does.
So, what’s my point here?
My point is that we don't seem to realize that our nugget of an idea, or our messy pages, and someone else's finished draft are completely different things.
And it's this kind of comparison that feeds this belief that we can't be "real writers" unless we write beautiful, polished prose. And the more we do it, the more deeply ingrained this belief becomes.
But, luckily, there are some strategies you can use to unwind the impact that this myth has had on your writing life.
Try to catch yourself when you compare your work-in-progress to someone else's finished work. Just don't do it. Yes, you can still use other people's work to study, or even for inspiration, but please realize that their finished novel and your draft-in-progress are two completely different things.
Although many readers appreciate beautiful writing, beautiful writing is not what engages them with a story. The truth is that it's the STORY underneath those words that captures a reader's heart and mind. And without a story, those “beautiful” words are empty and devoid of meaning.
I love the way Lisa Cron describes this in her Story Genius book. She says that a book full of beautiful words (with no underlying story) is the equivalent to holding a conversation with someone when you have anything to say. Because no matter how beautiful the language is that you use, everything you say is meaningless. There's no point to it. And pretty soon, the person you're talking to is going to feel annoyed because they have no idea what the heck you're talking about.
It's the same with books. If you have a bunch of pages filled with beautiful words, but there's no underlying story or point, readers are going to lose interest. It's that simple.
So, what all of this means is that you first need to spend time learning how to unearth the story you want to tell. And then, you need to figure out how to structure that story so that it takes readers on a journey and gives them some kind of emotional experience.
And the only way to do this is to first understand what a story is.
And, that might feel weird, because we’ve all read books or consumed movies, right? But writing a story is something totally different.
I mean, you’ve probably watched the Olympics and recognized that these athletes are super talented, right? But you’ve never gone off and expected to show up on a field or on a stage and do the same thing they did, did you?
So, stories are the same thing. We can know and feel what a good story is -- but to write a story is a completely different matter.
So, to boil a story down into its simplest definition looks like this:
A story is about how what happens externally affects someone who’s in pursuit of a difficult goal and how they change internally as a result.
Because, if you think about it, that's what readers love most about stories. They love to follow the protagonist's journey as he or she tries to accomplish something. They love to see how the protagonist deals with challenging situations -- and how he or she changes internally as a result.
For example, think about Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Yes, there’s A TON of amazing world-building, and fantastic beasts, and magic, and all of that... But the story WORKS and it STAYS WITH US because of how it makes us feel.
As the external plot events of the story force Harry to find his place in the wizarding world -- as the "Boy Who Lived," or the one who's destined to defeat Voldemort, we see him grow and change. If we didn't have this underlying sense of internal change in Harry, the other things, things wouldn’t capture our attention and hearts in the same way.
So, the main thing I want you to take away from today's article is this: great writing comes from great stories. NOT the other way around.
And when you're writing your first draft (or even your second or third) I want you to focus on creating a compelling story first. Focus on telling a story that shows how the external events of the plot affect your protagonist, and how he or she changes as a result. Then, and only then, do beautiful words matter.
Let me know in the comments: Are you a believer in the myth that pretty words equal a great story? What was your favorite insight from this post?
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