The inevitable failure of writing for validation: GUEST POST by Rachel Emma Shaw
The Inevitable Failure of Writing for Validation
Rachel Emma Shaw
When the amazing team at Fantasy Hive asked last year if I would write an article for their women in SFF month, I gathered together the thoughts and experiences of authors I admire, exploring the difficulties faced by women during their writing careers (read the post here). The same themes resonated throughout their accounts. Themes of self-doubt, of insecurity about being an author – emotions I’ve known only too well, but never realised dogged so many others. To my eyes, the women I reached out to were successful. Why then should they have any doubt about their abilities as authors?
Sadly, many authors, myself included, publish under the delusion that it will bring some form of validation. That it will eradicate our near crippling sense of self-doubt. That readers will recognize our worth as individuals and affirm us as authors.
Spoiler alert: Irrespective of how successful your books are, that’s not how it turns out.
For every positive rating your stories receive, there will always be a negative one your mind fixates one. For every standout review, you’ll only notice the less positive line. For every competition judge who loved your book, you’ll only remember the ones who didn’t. You’ll decide that friends and family who say they love your book are just lying to be kind, and you’ll convince yourself that the fans stalking your house are just insane. Although, you might have a point with that last one…
You get the picture. Self-doubt corrupts everything. If you’re hoping for validation from your writing, then you likely won’t find it. Like matches on a dating app, each small sense of validation keeps authors going a little bit longer. Long enough to keep them clinging to the hope that the next book will finally bring the affirmation they’ve been seeking, but it never can. Instead, they receive diminishingly small dopamine hits.
Why can’t books give its creator that sense of validation? Authors have slaved hard to bring it into being, surely there should be some good to come from it? There are two reasons why not. Firstly, books are like children. The author can be proud of them, but just like regular children, their existence doesn’t validate its creator.
Secondly, because for a book to bring validation for the author, the reader must understand the context behind its creation, which they mostly don’t. Even those who read the bio will only comprehend a fraction of what it took the author to create that story. They won’t have lived the dyslexia and the stigma the author might have struggled through. Nor will they have woken up with the author before dawn each day just to carve some time out starting their ‘real’ bill-paying job. They won’t have heard the kids screeching in the background behind every word the author wrote, or understand the self-doubt the author overcame enough to share their manuscript with readers in the first place. Readers can only ever judge books by the final product they see before them, rather than the hard work behind its creation. They can commend an author for being talented, but talent isn’t a recognition of hard work.
Why does this happen? Because the publication process makes all books equal. Stories exist to be read without consideration of the one who wrote them. How many have you read without knowing much about an author beyond their name? The problem is that not all authors have equal opportunities to create those books. Whether for reasons of inequality or just plain dumb luck, all authors lead different lives, and the challenges they must overcome are not the same.
Inevitably, we must consider the validation of the author and of their works as two separate things. No matter how successful and validated one becomes, it’s validation does very little to validate the other, or counter the very insecurities that made the author start writing in the first place. Ironically, that same self-doubt is likely a part of what makes these authors so good. It drives them to keep going. To tweak and improve until they have something that sets the dopaminergic neurons alight.
Writing for validation is a mistake new authors make all too often. One they can avoid if they learn from the lessons of authors who have come before them. If I were to conduct a survey amongst authors no longer publishing, then I imagine ‘disappointing publishing outcomes made continuing not worth it’ is a box that would get checked a lot. It’s why it’s important for authors to have another reason behind why they publish. Something more achievable than the reduction of their self-doubt (a task that by all rights is best left to trained professionals!).
So instead of seeking validation through your stories, write to improve your skill, or even just for your own satisfaction. When it later comes to the choice of whether to publish or not, publish to spread your message to the world, whether through offering readers catharsis, escapism, or whatever else your stories provide. And, perhaps publish to increase your bank balance. We can but hope.
So if you’re a writer struggling from self-doubt over your career as an author, then here are five tips to help.
- Tip one: Seek validation elsewhere, and publish for other reasons. It’s highly likely that the source of your self-doubt goes far beyond your writing. Be open with others. Share what you’ve been through with a therapist or someone who’s really good at listening and being supportive. Self-doubt is a craving of recognition, so seek out that recognition.
N.B. There is nothing to stop you trying to do this online through blog/social posts, but you’ll be taking a risk if you do since you don’t know who will respond.
- Tip two: Try not to view critique about your book as criticism of you. Instead, see critique as opportunities to grow as an author. The best authors are the ones who keep challenging themselves to improve. Critique is the roadmap to how you can do it.
- Tip three: Write what you love. If you don’t, then it will be harder to finish, which will just provide more opportunities for your self-worth to take a knock.
- Tip four: Don’t be pressured into publishing. You can always make the choice just to write for yourself. Maybe you’ll decide to publish further down the line. If you do, then you’ll have a whole back catalogue to launch on the world all at once.
- Tip five: Recognise that readers won’t have been on the journey with you, so don’t expect them to give any allowances in their reviews for everything you went through. You’re the one who must recognise how incredible it is that you overcame all you did to write that book.
Writing is hard. I’ve only met one author who said it’s easy. Because if it wasn’t, he said, then he wouldn’t be writing. I reckon that was a lie, but his glibness has still made me never touch his books since. But as hard as writing is, if you take out the self-doubt, it can be a lot easier. So take the necessary steps to help make it a little easier for you, and keep writing. The only person you have to convince about your writing being good enough is you.
A neuroscientist by training, Rachel Emma Shaw was a finalist in SPFBO6. She delights in creating stories that blend psychology and fantasy to explore the nature of life. Alongside her writing, she works as a science communicator for a charity and has more plants than is normal. Check out her website and find her on Instagram @rachel_emma_shaw.