The Greatest Enemy of Your Writing Practice Is Getting in Your Way
How to stop it from holding you back.
Starting anything new is hard. But being consistent once you’ve started is no picnic, either. You know the internal battles you must wage to get yourself to do the thing you want to do. It’s ridiculous. And it’s human.
As a writer, I’ve found a lot of strength in Stephen Pressfield’s approach to simply writing every day, no matter what. This has helped me understand that I can’t wait for inspiration to strike, I need to act first. I credit my daily writing practice to this little piece of wisdom.
But, there’s always something lingering in the shadows waiting to tear my practice apart. If I let my guard down, I know it will.
What is this beast? It’s external validation. And it comes in the form of claps, likes, shares, and comments. If you’re not careful, it will destroy your practice.
Unfortunately, we can’t simply ignore this mischievous entity. We need to interact with it occasionally because it provides us with useful information. The question is, how do we work with it productively so that it doesn’t ruin everything?
We love to be validated
We’re social creatures and therefore we care about what other people think of us. It’s built into our psychology. And when we post something online, it’s hard not to care about its reception. Besides, isn’t that important? Isn’t that why we write?
The confusing answer, at least as far as I can tell, is both “yes” and “no”. I am writing for others. I want to be of service, helpful, and useful. And, on Medium at least, reads and claps and comments represent a measure of my effectiveness.
However, writing is also a process. One does not simply flick a switch and become a good writer. If I’m wrong, please show me the switch!
Part of the aim of writing must be to become a better writer. And the best way to become a better writer is to write. Stephen King’s word is good enough for me.
The problem is that we want to become better writers and we want external validation. Unfortunately, validation is pretty hard to come by and risky to rely upon. Sure, you might get a person here or there commenting on your stuff, telling you you’re awesome, but unless you’re getting it 24/7 it’s never enough.
And even if you are getting it 24/7 (which, I confess, is not a problem I’ve ever had) you’ve got other problems. Because if you rely on external validation for your self-worth, all of a sudden that’s a hell of a lot of pressure to make your next piece of work amazing. Your sense of self is counting on it.
If you care too much about external validation, you’re going to be distracted. And if you’re distracted, you’re not going to produce your best work, if you produce any work at all.
Focussing excessively on claps, comments, likes, and shares isn’t helpful. We all have that desire for fame and fortune, but if you don’t tame it, it will ruin your practice.
Keeping the beast at bay
It’s easy to say, “don’t care about external validation,” but it’s another thing to put it into practice. How do we start caring less about our claps and likes?
For me, it comes down to what I pay attention to.
Our minds are fearful things. So, once we hit “publish” on an article, we need to know our thoughts will quickly stray to whether anyone’s read it or clapped for it. This is when we need to stay balanced and create a habit of not obsessing.
When you automatically reach for your phone to check your stats, stop yourself. Create a boundary between you and Medium or wherever you write. Decide not to check your stats outside of certain hours. Then, follow through on that decision.
Cultivating this mindset will take time and effort. You will be desperate to see what kind of engagement you’ve received. But, don’t worry, it will still be there in a couple of hours.
And when you do receive praise for your work, remember that praise is fleeting. Remember you have no control over what people like and don’t like. Remember that your next piece might flop. And remember that enjoying it too much is just a distraction.
Creating and maintaining a distance from validation is critical not just for your writing practice, but also for your mental health. Relying on people’s positive reactions to boost your self-esteem or self-respect is unhealthy. Just examine your own experiences to see this truth for yourself. When you’re overly concerned about the reception of one of your pieces, aren’t you anxious? Aren’t you stressed?
Once you put a piece of writing into the world, try to let it go. It’s finished, so move on. Stopping yourself from checking your stats and engagement will, in time, help you move forward in a healthy way.
If you can do this, you’ve created a virtuous cycle. Because, if you can decrease your need for external validation, you will decrease the anxiety and stress you feel. With less anxiety and stress in your life, you can focus more of your time and energy on writing. This will make you a better writer and result in more engagement with your work, which will then likely encourage you to write even more.
That sounds like a win-win-win to me!
Thanks for reading!