A little healthy comparison

As artists, there are a lot of reasons why we should never compare our work to everyone else’s. Every person has a unique take, and every creation we bring forth will reflect what is ultimately incomparable.

But I feel like some writers take that notion too far. Instead of holding up their work beside another and seeing where they could strive for improvement, many of them declare their piece finished with no greater judgement. They don’t assess what makes a story good, so they can’t apply that knowledge to their own creation.

We’ve all heard the stories. A writer who’s rejected by every agent and publishing house turns around and says they all missed out on something great. They drop a pile of money on self-publishing, only to prove they had been submitting an unpolished draft. No wonder it wasn’t picked up; the story wasn’t ready for publication.

Instead of being really honest and hard on themselves, these people abandoned reason in a glorious spray of egotism. They might’ve had a real chance at traditional publishing if they’d only been willing to compare and see why their story wasn’t up to snuff.

Criticisms of certain popular teen romance novels are only damaging this mentality more. “If that crap got published, I can too!” Simple fact is, most big books have a specific audience and appeal, and had a professional, experienced editor make it into a very readable piece. The writing is intentionally simpler for the younger market. Hate it all you like, there are no outrageous, book-breaking errors in the vast majority of traditionally published works in the YA range.

As with all “rules”, there needs clarification. Don’t compare yourself to others; they will have a different output, a different situation, a different career. They will sell more than you, or less than you. They will have a bigger fanbase than you, or a much smaller, yet more dedicated one than your own. They will have a larger marketing budget, or a smaller one. There will be differences, and you cannot compare yourself to those; they are outside of your control.

But you can compare your technical skill. What makes other books good? What makes you read your favourites? What stands out, what do they do, what don’t they do? Learn. Learn as much as you possibly can about the technical side, and compare your work in the most vicious, heartless way you can. Tear it down. See what emerges from the rubble. Start again, do it right.

There are also stories of people who were rejected by everyone, self-published a very good book, and are now international best sellers. Because they made sure their work could stand up against the other greats.



12 thoughts on “A little healthy comparison

  1. I disagree with you because of one fundamental truth about the publishing business– there are lots of reasons why books get rejected and they have nothing to do with quality of the writing or of the book.

    The main ones have to do with marketability. Many books are rejected because they might be seen as too similar to a book that the company has already published. (Like they already have a story coming about about mermaids, can’t have two of those! They’ll look like they’re copying themselves.) Books are often also rejected because they aren’t necessarily marketable. (“How the hell would we sell THIS? It doesn’t fit into any established genre.”)

    I have a friend who recently self-published after being traditionally published,.She had two stories ready to go, they were even looked at and edited, but in the end, the publishing houses decided not to publish for other reasons. So she plopped down approximately $100 for the cover of each (maybe, I’m sure one was less than that), and she’s been doing pretty well with her books. She’s making much more money than she ever did with the publishing house.

    As to comparing your book to another book to learn? If it helps you, that’s good. But I recoil in horror at the thought! I don’t even compare two other books to one another; I’d never compare my book to another book I’ve read unless I wanted to be thoroughly depressed. Does that stop me from learning? No. I’m always pushing myself in unforeseen and unexpected ways, testing stories out, getting feedback, figuring out what works for me and what doesn’t work for me. It does help that I read a lot and that I examine story structure of all sorts of things (comic books, video games, books, movies, etc.), but I don’t let it get in the way of my enjoyment.

    (Speaking of, oh my goodness, I put down money for a subscription to Marvel comics online, and I’ve been in heaven. Soooo many comic books! I haven’t stopped reading in days! My vision’s probably going a little blurry, haha.)

    1. Fair enough, except I didn’t mean to suggest that’s the sole reason why a piece will be rejected (and indeed, the final paragraph tied it all off 😉 ). Since I’m talking about the quality of the writing, anyone can manage to very successfully self-publish, so long as the know how to write well.

      I have to ask, Nina, why is the thought of comparing your work to another depressing? In my mind, I know when I take a fantastic book and compare my work, I will get a bit disheartened if their skill is leagues above my own, but that’s important, because that’s spurring me toward improvement. I can see where I need to change. I can judge what they do better than me, in a technical skill sense, and I can adapt and grow. Besides, you said you examine the structure of what you read, and that is pretty much what I’m pointing at. 🙂


      1. I get down about my writing naturally and have to claw my way back better, I see no need to force myself to be down about it, lol. The reason I don’t compare myself because I know I’m not in the same league as most authors I read. Does that mean I think I’m bad or that I think I can’t improve? No, course not. I’ve got my own voice, and I’m always going to work on perfecting it.

        Also, I always always have questions about what “writing well” means as well as “successfully published.” Does it involve money? High ratings? Fans? Critical acclaim? Obviously it depends on each individual, and it’s something a person has to discover for themselves.

        1. You know how much I enjoyed reading Ruin and The Two Brothers, and from reading it, I can honestly say you write more like comics than traditional novels. That is your own voice, most certainly, and made the stories really vivid and easy to read. Maybe it’s less that you don’t write in the same league as the authors you read, and more that you DON’T write like the authors you read. 😉

          There are some rules which are pretty hard and fast about good writing. I can’t even begin to cover them; hundreds of other articles are out there to address the subject. When comparing one story to another, you look at what makes the writing work as well as it does, and then collect pieces from here and there; the characterisation of this author, the description of that, the expressive word choices and momentum of the story. These are things which can be learnt through comparison, definitely.


    2. I remember something similar happened to E.E. Cummings. He didn’t have too hard of a time getting ‘The Enormous Room’ published, because it was (a) normally-readable prose & (b) a true story about an American being falsely imprisoned by the French. Easy stateside marketing there.

      A year later, though, his first poetry book, ‘Tulips & Chimneys’, was butchered by the publisher; almost half of the poems were removed by the publisher, who also changed Cummings’ ampersand to “and” in the title. So he went ahead & self-published the remaining poems in a book simply titled ‘&’, which sold great. (Modern editions of ‘Tulips & Chimneys’ often include ‘&’ as well.)

      A decade after that, it happened again. Despite 3 more of his poetry volumes doing well, Cummings couldn’t get anyone to publish his newest one, so he self-published (with his mother’s backing), retitled the collection ‘No Thanks’, & dedicated it to his 14 rejectors, as in “No thanks to you guys…” Image: http://www.rodboyle.com/images/rejected/eecummingsnothanks.jpg

      I think after that he never had trouble getting a publisher again. 😉

  2. This post is so well thought out, Ashlee. I like that you advise us not to compare on levels other than the technical/skill level. This maintains creativity and originality as sacrosanct, but points us in the direction of where so many need to improve: the writing itself.

    As a warm up to writing I often pick up a book I adore and read a bit, just to get the creative juices flowing. It’s inspiring to read someone’s beautifully crafted sentences and images. Then go to my desk and work to bring my own delivery up to that level. What fun!

    1. Thank you, Cynthia! There’s always something we can improve. 🙂

      I’ve never tried doing a quick reading (I’d get all caught up in the book!), but that sounds like an awesome idea. I definitely agree, seeing how one person can perfectly capture a moment can trigger a real need to write our own pieces. 😀


  3. It’s enough to make your head spin, isn’t it? I think all it takes for some writers to pull the self-publishing trigger is to hear a story like Kathryn Stockett’s journey to publication for The Help, and how she was rejected SIXTY times before she got a publisher and then went on to become a bestseller. In this age of easy-peasy self-publishing, they figure they might as well skip all the rejections and go straight for the “gold.” But perhaps more time would have helped fine-tune their work.

    And I’m glad you pointed out the intentionally simpler writing for the teen market. I agree with you on that point. Yes, many teens are smart and can read classic-level literature, but there’s also a time for fun, entertaining reads too.

    1. Absolutely; the one-in-a-million success story is what most people will remember, even though the other 999,999 folks didn’t come close to achieving what that one special person has. Of course the chance is there! But if we’re all serious about being successful, we absolutely MUST demand the best of ourselves and our writing.

      Heck, I was a smart teen, and I didn’t like the majority of classic lit, and really still don’t for a large part. Black Beauty and The Call of the Wild were well-read classics (along with the likes of Little Women and The Naughtiest Girl series, if that counts). I was well into high fantasy and military action novels at that age. It’s all about appeal! Simple reads are definitely entertaining, same as a good action movie (or most of the terrible television shows everyone watches 😉 ).


  4. I wish it would be less than rude for me to print out this post and hand it to a certain writer I know. Don’t worry; he doesn’t ever go online, so he can’t know I’m hinting at him. Plus, his ego is so enormous he could probably read this and laugh at it — no clue that it’s about him.

    I have seen this happen to more than one writer. They hear phenomenal stories like that of Laurell K. Hamilton: she was rejected by over 200 agents before someone signed on her first Anita Blake book. Now the series is over 20 books long, every new one hitting the NYT bestseller list, with one of the largest impacts on modern literature’s genres to date. So hell, if no one could see her genius, that’s probably what’s happening to me, right? Unfortunately, that’s usually not right. Usually if someone gets hundreds of rejections on the same project it means that project needs more work.

    So I agree with you completely. I understand exactly what you’re saying, and I wish more writers believed it. Comparisons to other writers’ successes can be damaging. Comparisons to their style, talent, techniques, and quality can be enlightening. Great post, great discussion!

    1. Thanks, Annie! Yeah, Laurell K’s story is definitely one of those which sticks out to people, and it truly is incredible. What most people will fail to understand is, in her case, she basically helped invent a new sub-genre, so there was just no place for her work according to the publishing houses at the time. It’s a really different situation than what 99% of the other rejected authors will go through!


Comments are closed.