Some writers imagine themselves with multi-book, mega-buck contracts. Other see themselves holding an Oscar for best original screenplay. And many would be happy to sell a short story or get a memoir finished for the family. Coming up short isn’t in itself a problem. As Browning said, “"Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, Or what's a heaven for?" But I think being deeply frustrated because of fixable problems is tragic.
With that in mind, I present another one of my completely unscientific diagnostic tests. I won’t be checking your answers, so you get to decide if it illuminates barriers, delusions, or distractions that are holding you back from achieving your goals. The imagined goal for the test-taker is a person who wants to be a novelist who makes a little money on writing. Transpose your conclusions to fit your actual ambitions.
For each pair, choose a score from one to ten, giving yourself nearer one if the first statement feels more like the truth and and nearer to ten if the second statement feels more like the truth.
1 Other priorities - Most writers claim they don’t have enough time to write. The truth is that few writers have the time to write and revise all the stories they wish to tell. What they do have is a dedication to the work that carves out time for it. In my experience, working with hundreds of writers, the minimum required is 15 minutes a day, five days a week, committed to moving one Work in Progress (WIP) to completion.
Several times a year, I spend a week without writing. / I rarely go through a week where I don’t write five days on my WIP.
2 Poor choices - What you write matters. Some people pursue what they believe is the easiest course, but if that means working in a genre that doesn’t interest you or telling a story you’re not invested in just because it has a great concept, that’s unlikely to lead to success. Routinely beginning new projects before finishing a WIP (and not having any criteria for selecting a WIP) means delays in finishing works or not finishing them at all. Having difficulty deciding which project to work on demonstrates a lack of focus. Chasing every new opportunity (contests, markets, gigs) without at least a general career plan and selection process only leads to confusion.
I have several active projects and could not articulate how each of them move me toward success. / I am committed to a WIP that fits criteria that move me closer to achieving my writing ambitions.
3 Fear - Whether you call it the doubt monster or the critic in your head, it is a part of you that challenges or dismisses what you do. All writers have this. In fact, it’s necessary. If you are delighted with your first drafts, it’s unlikely you’ll do the work required to suitably revise your stories for real audiences. A successful writer can manage these negative voices during the drafting stages (and, as needed, during rewrites).
Useless fears are along the lines of “what would my mom say about this?” No one sees the work unless you put it out there. “I have nothing to say” is another fear that is baseless. We all have stories others are interested in. If you don’t believe that, sit down now and write your most embarrassing moment. Fear of failure? It’s really fear of trying, isn’t it? It’s ridiculous to worry about failure or success in the absence of a completed work. There also may be an over-focussing on weaknesses, from lack of experience (guess how you get experience) to shortcomings in craft (character development, plotting, grammar, etc.).
Every writer has weaknesses. And, yes, these need to be overcome enough to reach professional minimums (though, perhaps with help from an editor). The best come to understand their strengths and appreciate and develop these.
Anxiety keeps me away from writing or sabotages my work on a weekly basis. / I am able to put aside fear and negativity enough to get my work done almost all the time.
4 Lack of commitment - Even though dwelling on weakness can become a barrier, ignoring them is not a good idea. Writers should be dedicated to growing and developing through exercises, courses, and mostly attentively reading other writers. Some writers go stale by writing the same thing over and over again. Others get lazy and reduce their attention to selecting and developing concepts or going through sufficient rewrites. Good writers who get better take pride in their work (while avoiding perfectionism. They don’t abandon work when it gets difficult. They step out of their comfort zones and learn from failures.
My approach to craft and my career is ad hoc, going where the spirit leads me. / I have articulated what I have to achieve, I have specific tasks (including development work) aimed at getting me there, and my calendar includes deadlines for achieving tasks.
5 Unhelpful guidance - When you tell people you write, you will meet those who see that as an invitation to make nasty remarks. There is no way you can write stories of a high enough quality or can be prolific enough or edgy enough or responsible enough to satisfy self-appointed critics. Family and friends can get into your head — out of concern for your well-being, the need to right your wrongs, snark, jealousy, or the need to put you in your place. If your work goes out into the world, complete strangers will troll you. Sometimes, they’ll carry the title of critics. Peers and would-be mentors and teachers may also undercut your confidence, challenging your skills, talents, and choices. It can drag your writing down and even block you. The solution is compartmentalize this unhelpful guidance, which may mean removing topics of conversation or ending contact with some people.
A self-inflicted wound is comparing yourself to other writers. Often this means comparing your work to completed, edited work, which is crazy. As is jealousy of others’ success. You are not competing with anyone. Only you can tell your stories, and no one has complete control over how their stories are received.
Allied to this topic is concern about a lack of credentials, whether that means education or perspectives (as in writing from the point of view of another race or sex). This only (possibly) matters for nonfiction. For the rest, you may make mistakes, but, as long as you write with integrity, your expertise and identity will not trump the authenticity of your endeavor.
I feel every criticism and clutch the negative ones with both hands. / When I pay attention to others’ views of my work or my career, I explore the comments dispassionately and make changes in response to the very few that are important and resonate with me.
How did you do? Looking at the low scores, do any of them hint at what might need attention? Do the statements on the right suggest solutions to you? And not to make this all negative, are some of your high scores indicative of strengths that will help you reach your ambitions?
Sadly, there are clinical issues that can hold people back. Writers frequently suffer from depression, attention deficit, and obsession with perfection. Outside forces, like illness, injury, poverty, being a care provider, and legal problems can stymie a career. These do not have easy answers, and they usually require the help of an expert.
There also seem to be many people who are enthusiastic about the idea of being writers or having things written, but who don’t actually have writing as part of their lives. Some have no idea what the actual job is comprised of (even if they have taken dozens of courses). They either don’t write or write only when they are inspired. If you’re one of these people, perhaps this test was entertaining, but I doubt it will motivate you to move from aspirations to actions.
But my hope is that for many writers, this test will indicate where brainstorming new approaches to writing will lead to action that leads to greater success.