I originally posted this a few years ago, but since 2020 has not been the most encouraging of years for many of us, I thought it might be time to dust it off for a better perspective.
Tell me if one (or both) of the following sound familiar:
1. This is terrible! How did this get made while my great project sits in slush piles across the country?
2. This is so amazing! How could I ever be as brilliant and creative as this author? Why do I even try?
Whether you’re working on a novel, screenplay, short story, or something else, we’ve all been through Writer’s Envy at some point. That feeling when we start comparing our work to somebody else’s, somebody who has had more success than we have, and get a little frustrated.
It’s perfectly natural to compare our work to others, but it’s also a very dangerous (and easy) trap to fall into if you’re not careful. You’ve probably heard “comparison is the thief of joy,” but have you thought about what happens if you let your writing joy be taken?
That’s right. If you’re no longer finding joy in your writing, you become much less inclined to do it. And the less you write, the harder it is to get back into it, until all this hesitation has cemented itself into one big WRITER’S BLOCK (insert dramatic music here).
So, how can we keep ourselves out of this trap, or pull ourselves out if we do fall into it? Let’s go back to those examples.
1. My Work Is So Much Better!
This may or may not be true, but it doesn’t really matter in the end. The fact is, this book/movie/play that you hate exists, and it exists because someone out there thought it had merit. Everyone’s opinions are different, and somewhere out there lurks a troll who will hate your work just as much as you hate this one.
What’s at the root of this statement is the frustration that your work hasn’t reached the same level of success as whatever you’re comparing it to.
The way out of this trap is to look on this other work not as unworthy, but as a threshold. Instead of questioning how something below the quality of your project was published, celebrate that your work is above the quality of something that was published! That means there is hope someone will pull it out of the slush pile!
The second step is to build on that threshold to make your work even better. You’ve already identified the way this other work fails to meet your standards; what does it do right? Sure, the plot is contrived, but maybe the dialogue is really funny. Or, the characters are one-dimensional, but the world-building is phenomenal. Find the good that balances out the bad in this work.
Finally, go back to your project with the same sharp eyes. Are any of the areas in which the other project succeeds areas where your writing could be stronger?
If the answer is yes, then congratulations! You’ve just identified a weakness and therefore taken a step to becoming a better writer. If not, then you might have to console yourself that this other work was just lucky. But take heart: if it could be published, yours could too.
2. My Work Will Never Be As Good!
Again, this may or may not be true, but it doesn’t really matter in the end. Lots of things get published or produced of varying quality. What matters is whether or not you’re happy with your work and feel it is the strongest you could make it.
The root of this statement lies in the frustration that something in your writing isn’t living up to your vision.
The way out of this trap is to take a long, hard, analytical look at your project. Break it down into its parts. Where is your writing strong? For best results, you might have another pair of trusted eyes give you their feedback as well. Finally, identify what it is you’re not happy with—be specific. Maybe it’s just one scene that doesn’t sit right; maybe the world-building is a little vague throughout. Either way, you don’t want to scrap all the good in your rush to get rid of what’s bad.
Now, go back to this other work, this beacon of perfection. What is it that makes you like it so much? What impresses you? Odds are, one of the things that impresses you is something you identified as a weakness in your own work, and is the real reason you feel so inferior. Instead of despairing over that skill, study it!
Let’s say for example that this work has rich, nuanced characters, and yours feel a little flat. What is it that this other writer does to make their characters so compelling? Is it their control of tone and voice that makes characters distinct, or perhaps rich backstories hinted at through action and dialogue? Perhaps they mention on their website or in interviews particular habits that help them achieve these things.
Whatever the skill you’re envying is, once you identify it, you can research and practice it until you’re ready to apply it to your project.
The Bottom Line
Staying positive can be hard in a world full of rejection letters, but whenever you start to feel Writer’s Envy creeping up on you, fight it off by asking what you can learn from other writers, not how you can compete with them.