Writers, You Are Your Own Competition
Jumping onto the Twitter moment that happened earlier in 2021 in which someone told writers that the #harshwritingadvice was that other writers — even your friends — were your competition. Then all of writing Twitter exploded and overwhelmingly eviscerated, criticized, and memed the idea. But it got me thinking.
Who or what is a writer’s competition? Is it the audience of readers we are hoping to attract? The agents and publishers that hold our potential future careers in their hands? The reviewers, whether on Kirkus or Goodreads?
No, nothing like that at all. We writers are each our very own competition. Your competition is you. My competition is me. That is all there is to it.
But what are you competing against yourself to do?
Hold yourself accountable
You don’t have a coach when you are a writer. You might have a mentor. You might have a community. But a lot of writing is alone. Especially in the early stages when you are just keeping your head down, doing the work, and learning the craft… sometimes with very little (success, recognition, following, etc…) to show for it.
You have to hold yourself accountable. The buck begins and stops with you. Self-discipline is real work. It is a skill — a muscle that has to be strengthened and developed over time.
Putting the time and creative energy to build your craft and develop a writing career — whatever the shape of that career means to you — takes dedication. Temptations of other ways to spend our time are often easier and more instantly gratifying. Just one more Youtube video or episode of your HGTV guilty pleasure. Just checking Instagram again, for just a second that turns into a minute that turns into a rabbit hole of a time sink.
You have to make time to write. To edit. To submit. To read. To learn. Sometimes to the exclusion of other activities, even very enjoyable ones. Now, I’m all for finding a realistic balance in your life, with writing existing comfortably along with your other work and social obligations, as well as the things that bring you joy. Nobody has time for burnout. But by the very nature of wanting to make writing a serious part of your life means something else has to give.
There are only 24 hours in the day and we all already have to fill many of them with necessities — you have to fit writing in somewhere. With no coach or no boss to make you, you have to make you. That is the competition. You are competing with the part of yourself that sees how easier it would be to do something — almost anything — else.
Runners, like myself, know it’s all about achieving your personal best. Even in events, the focus is on beating my personal run time, not coming in first (which I would come nowhere close to, lol). If your eye is only on best-seller status above the next Stephen King title or getting the Manner Book Prize… well, they very high and difficult standards to measure yourself up against, especially when you are starting out. Disheartening in fact. How can I reach there from here?
If I only ran because I thought I could run in the Olympics or even just come in first in a 5k it could get real tempting to quit as getting there seems impossible. But shaving just thirty seconds off my time? That’s something there are achievable steps to work on.
Okay, enough talking about running in a writing post. (Though there is something to be said about self-motivation and discipline in different facets of your life feeding into each other.)
That is your competition here. You are competing to be better than you were yesterday. “Yesterday” here is a metaphor for all of the past. You want to grow in your craft and your writing knowledge. The very best way to do this is the continued practice of writing and reading regularly. You can, of course, also join writing groups or take classes and seminars. (You can also check out my article about continuing your writing education for zero monies right here.)
There are also areas tangentially related to your writing that you can learn more about that will help you grow a writing career, such as learning about SEO or the publishing industry.
Putting in regular work and practice is essential to keep growing. Pianists practice before their performance and soccer stars practice before the big game. Writers should be practicing too.
Alongside practice, you should be pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. That’s the only way to learn new things is to try new things. Write in different styles and genres, different POVs, different whatever. Three years ago I wouldn’t have thought I’d be growing a steady following writing nonfiction articles but here I am.
Focus on the things you can control
Just like the runner can’t control the speed of the other runners, the writer can’t control the whims of the market, the preferences of the publisher, or the talent and/or dedication of other writers. Focusing on all the things you can’t control will just distract you from putting your time and attention into all the things you can.
Turning other writers into the competition can lead to a negative headspace. Suddenly you will find yourself bitter at other writer’s success or even hoping for their failure, rather than focusing on your writing journey. As the long-lived self-help book Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway, teaches: Other people’s success does not equal your failure.
You can’t control the market, the agents, the readers, the publishers, the reviewers, or other writers. You can control the work, the time, and the effort you put in. You can control your decision to learn new things, put yourself out there, set SMART goals, and work to achieve them.
Wrapping it up
Make you your competition. A healthy competition. A sportsmanlike competition. No cheating. No backstabbing. Just deliberate practice and good effort. Aim to learn, stretch your comfort zone, hold yourself accountable, and beat your own best. In the end, it all comes down to what you do. Or what you don’t do.