I had a Zoom meeting last year with a new client who was so busy he needed to outsource a few projects. He seemed nervous at the beginning, but eventually, we got onto the subject of writer ego. His words. He mentioned the need to stick to the brief and not try and turn it into a unique piece of art.
“Are you sure you don’t want it in sonnet form?” I asked.
He laughed, still nervous.
It turns out there’s been some difficulty in the past with writers veering off the brief and onto something more artistic when all he needed was a technical document written in its some digestible format.
Wow, I thought, writer ego in technical writing? Why not, I suppose every genre has its ego issues. Don’t get me started on the theatre! It’s something we all need to battle with, whether in a creative or technical capacity. Negative feedback hurts all of us, but if we want to get to the top of our game, we need to grin and bear it.
“The Cave You Fear To Enter Holds The Treasure You Seek — I love this quote by Joseph Cambell, first heard of from the screenwriting guru Scott Myers. It’s something I apply to all of my fictional characters because internal conflict is at the heart of all interesting people, the intersection of fear and desire.
I don’t want to venture too far into that cave myself; not towards shady memories. I’m not ready for that kind of introspection thank you. Still, I will look into another dark shadowy cave that holds not only the treasure we seek but the obstacle we must defeat to become genuinely amazing writers, the ego.
Given the many different contexts and descriptions of ego, I’m going to talk about separating yourself from your writing. When I refer to the ego in the negative here, it’s because you’re taking things personally that could be applied to enable constructive growth.
Here are my top reasons why you want to wrestle with this beast, or get stuck in his cave forever.
If you are unable to detach your ego from your work you won’t be able to grow. Part of being a writer is being able to turn criticism into a sharp tool for improvement.
Talent is a dangerous concept in any creative endeavour. It dispenses with the need for hard work and perseverance and sells the idea that some people have it and others don’t. This outlook is unhelpful. Believing in talent is a lazy fall-back position.
If when someone tells you that your characters are flat, your structure is confusing, or your ideas are cliched, you need to figure out whether this advice applies to your writing OBJECTIVELY. This change could be the difference between making competition shortlist and not.
Retreating into a sulk for six months or endlessly seeking other people’s opinions solely to disprove the negative feedback will keep you in the cave and stop you improving your writing.
You’ll be unpleasant/seem insecure
Always getting upset about what someone else says about your writing is ultimately going to end in you appearing bitter and unpleasant to work with.
People are going to avoid reading your work because you’re not listening anyway and it’s more hassle than it’s worth.
It’s a significant effort to read someone else’s work, and more energy to feedback honestly. I hate giving negative feedback to people, and I always start with a disclaimer that it is a subjective art, but I think that being dishonest about what you think is a higher crime than upsetting a fragile ego.
Without Empathy, You Can’t Be An Amazing Writer
A constant focus on yourself in writing belies a lack of empathy which will prevent you from creating compelling characters. Without the ability to look beyond your needs and into the complexity of humans, your writing will forever lack the depth that 21st-century writing requires.
You’ll be boring
If you’re always thinking about yourself and seeking approval, you’re going to be boring. You won’t be participating in writing chats; you won’t be giving anything back, you’re going to make yourself avoidable.
You’ll be a cliché
The old idea of the tortured artist is just that — an old idea, a stereotype. Now that access to writing courses, tools and platforms have opened up, more people than ever are writing which means if you want to be known as a progressive writer you need to behave in the same way. There are other, super friendly writers out there.
Bad stuff over, now I take a look at the good news.
You can be in control of your ego. It may take a little training, but what doesn’t? Here are five things to do to make sure you’re putting your writing ahead of your ego.
1. Permit yourself to love your work
Differentiate you from your practice and allow yourself to enjoy what you create without being egotistical. It will take time and hard work. You’ll go through the lost and loathing phases, you’ll lose the sense of relevance, you’ll feel like giving up and throwing your laptop out the window but on the other side of that will be a story that you love, and you’re proud of.
Getting bad feedback on something you love is always easier on something you haven’t put effort into.
Sometimes a reader isn’t into your genre or doesn’t like the language or any other of a million reasons, but none of that will matter if you genuinely like the piece.
Separate yourself from your work. Someone else doesn’t have to love it, but it doesn’t mean they don’t like you. Likewise, you can like your work without having an egotistical obsession with yourself.
2. Become super analytical
Do they have a point about the theme or structure? You can still love your piece of writing while appreciating aspects of feedback for improvement.
You don’t have to take on everybody’s feedback. If you disagree, you should still thank the person for taking the time to read your work.
Get into the habit of separating the positive feedback from the negative feedback; enjoy the former and analyse the latter.
3. Get involved with reading other people’s work
Understanding and critiquing other people’s work will give you an idea of how it feels from the other side; a reader’s perspective. The more you can get involved with a writing community, the less I-centric you will be. Plus you’ll learn so much.
4. Enter the danger zone more often.
The less you share your work, the more nervous you’ll be about feedback and the more you’re likely to succumb to ego sabotage. Try new things, put your work out there, get used to learning hard lessons, get used to dealing with feedback.
5. Create a mechanism for dealing with hard feedback.
You could create a motivational checklist to run through when you are feeling super sensitive. What is upsetting for you? Can you remind yourself that usually, negative feedback is not an attack on you personally?
I hope you’ve found this constructive. Bad feedback is hard to take, but the writers who can set their ego apart and learn from all writing experiences are the ones that are destined for positive growth.
There’s nothing more refreshing to see than the quiet confidence of someone who can take negative feedback with grace.