There’s a virus spreading between writers and the infection rate is high. It has the power to destroy your creativity as it builds upon your fears and insecurity. It can contaminate you at any time, no matter where you are on your writing journey.
The major symptoms are jealousy, worthlessness, and despondency. We’re most at risk when our own writing projects are not going as planned. The infection starts when a fellow writer shares their latest good news. We congratulate them with genuine pleasure and joy, but then the virus takes hold deep inside our heads. Doubt thrives on it.
Why are they doing so well, and I’m not? Why did they get a four-book deal with that publisher when the same publisher rejected me? Why can’t my story or poem win a major competition? Why does publication come so easily to others, but not to me?
Thoughts like this can develop into a severe case of comparisonitis. It might sound frivolous, but it can seriously harm our writing business. At its worst, it can stop us writing, if we don’t recognise the symptoms and take remedial action.
Thankfully, more writers are talking about it.
Claire McGowan, whose latest novel is The Push (Thomas and Mercer), recently wrote about comparisonitis in The Telegraph. A good writing friend shared news with Claire that their book was going to be discussed on Radio 4. And while Claire congratulated her friend’s success, she felt the tell-tale signs of comparisonitis stirring in her stomach.
‘I experience this all the time!’ Claire explains. ‘Almost every time I go on social media, I’ll see someone achieving a thing I might want for myself. It tends to make me work harder, often too hard, burning myself out a little.’
Sharon Booth writes uplifting women’s fiction and her 20th novel, The Whole of the Moon, is published at the end of May. Despite her writing success, she too suffers from comparisonitis.
‘I experience comparisonitis almost every day! I think it’s in my DNA or something. I can’t help but look at other people’s achievements and think how well they’re doing. It’s not as bad as it used to be, but at one point it impacted heavily on my writing,’ she says.
‘I couldn’t help feeling there wasn’t much point in carrying on with the WIP, because who would want to read it? There were so many other authors out there, who were clearly so much better than I was, judging by their chart positions, bestseller flags, social media followers, or new publishing deal, so what was the point?’
As with any virus, the risk of catching it increases significantly in social situations, particularly on social media platforms. Doing so when your immune system is already fragile, such as after a rejection, can be especially dangerous.
‘It’s definitely caused by social media for me,’ confirms Claire, ‘and of course is worse if I’ve experienced any rejection or setback in my own career.’
Sharon agrees. ‘Comparisonitis is at its worst when I’m on social media. When I’m writing, I tend not to think about it at all, as I’m so involved in my story. Scrolling through my Facebook feed, or Twitter timeline, is the very worst thing I can do. It can be paralysing at times.’
Comparisonitis thrives on social media because we filter what we put on our timelines. I know I’m guilty of that. We’re extremely good at sharing the good news, but perhaps not so great at sharing the less than perfect days. As a result, our timelines become one long feed of amazing successes, rather than a genuine reflection on what life is really like running a writing business.
We must share our successes, because we know how hard it’s been to achieve them. But perhaps we should learn to share our difficult days too, which will better reflect our real writing journeys.
While we can’t be immunised against comparisonitis, we can look out for the symptoms and then take measured steps to reduce them. Share your feelings with other writers who will understand, and focus your energies on your current project.
‘Try getting off or reducing social media,’ advises Claire. ‘Talk to other people about it and you’ll find it’s very common. Try to focus on doing the actual work, rather than the outcomes of it.’
To make accurate comparisons, we need to compare like with like, and no two writers are alike. We’re unique. Therefore, any comparisons are a complete waste of time.
Writers specialising in science fiction have a completely different writing business to those writing romance. Short story writers have different journeys to those writing articles or poetry. And we shouldn’t compare ourselves with writers in the same genre because we’re all at different stages and different points of our writing journeys.
The only comparisons we should make are those between our past selves and our current self. Compare Today You with Last Year You. Don’t compare yourself with anyone else.
Sharon recommends focussing on what you want from your writing business. This is more important than comparing yourself with other writers and their writing business.
‘The best way to deal with comparisonitis, in my experience, is to stay off social media as much as possible when you’re feeling particularly low or vulnerable. Try to focus on your own journey. Look at what you’ve achieved in the past year, or five years, or ten years. See how far you’ve come in that time, how much you’ve learned, how many words you’ve written, how many stories you’ve created. As long as you’re moving forward in some way, you’re winning.’
‘Also, think carefully about what it is you really want from your career. Another author may have announced a four-book deal with a publisher, but did you want to be tied to a publisher, or would you rather be indie? Your Facebook friend might have a book on sale in an actual, physical bookshop, but maybe you’re happier focusing on e-book sales? A writer might be all over social media doing live video broadcasts, book readings and interviews, but are you the sort of person who’d enjoy doing that, or would it be something you’d dread? Once you start breaking down what it is you want, and which path you want to follow, comparisonitis often melts away.’
For those of us who suffer with comparisonitis, it’s not just about finding a cure, but learning to live with it. When we do that, we can turn it to our advantage.
‘It can definitely open your eyes to new opportunities, and spur you on to try new things and finish projects,’ says Claire. ‘Looked at a different way, it can actually be beneficial when you see that certain things are possible – you can use it for inspiration to aim higher.’
Likewise, Sharon agrees there are benefits if it makes you stop and think about what it is you’re trying to achieve on your writing journey.
‘Comparisonitis can be beneficial to writers in the sense that it makes you look at your own path, and what it is you want for your career. More importantly, it can be a huge inspiration, seeing someone doing so well and realising it’s possible to achieve the most amazing things. For instance, seeing an indie author reach number one in the overall Kindle chart and sell so many copies of her book, was massively exciting. If you can get past the feelings of inadequacy and focus on the possibilities, it can be empowering.’
It’s Who We Are
Comparisonitis is part of who we are. For some of us, we need to accept that it’s part of the job, and to succeed in our writing we should be kind to ourselves. It’s about having the right mindset that stops us from pressurising ourselves with other people’s successes.
As Sharon explains, nobody’s writing business is perfect. We all have good days and bad days.
‘Comparisonitis and its sister affliction, Imposter Syndrome, are so common that it’s important we realise we’re not alone in suffering. Guilt about our feelings makes it seem so much worse, and we’re often afraid to admit to it. But talking to some of my writer friends, I think it’s perfectly normal. I know some hugely successful authors who suffer massively with both these things, so it’s not really about actual failure. It’s all about our perception of ourselves. Writers do seem to have low self-esteem!’
So the next time you see on social media yet another writer successfully securing a film-deal, revealing their latest book cover, or announcing their competition win, remember the Government slogan: Hands, Face, Space.
• Hands: Apply your fingers to the keyboard and crack on with your own writing journey. Ignore every other writers’ project.
• Face: Use a mask to cover your eyes so you can’t see what’s happening on social media. Better still, muzzle all social media notifications.
• Space: Distance your writing dreams from those of other writers. Think about what you want to achieve with your writing business.
Finally, perhaps we should all pluck up the courage to share more of our not-so-good writing days on social media, so our timelines aren’t a seamless string of successes. We all need to talk about comparisonitis more.
We’re all incomparable. Focus on your uniqueness. For that’s what your writing business is all about.
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