Words on a Page Writings about writing

Don't compare yourself to other writers

Comparing shoes

There’s always someone else, isn’t there? That guy or gal who can turn a phrase better than you can. Who can write faster and more fluidly than you can. Who can pull together a post or an article or a story that sings and soars.

When you compare your writer to their work, yours seems to come up short. And, to be honest, that can be discouraging. Very discouraging. Sometimes, it can make you want to pack it in and take up something else.

I’ve been in that position several times. Each time, comparing myself to other writers put a huge dent in my productivity and set back my development as a writer.

Regardless of whether you’re just starting out or if you’ve been hammering a keyboard for a while, you need to fight the urge to compare yourself to other writers.

Why? Mainly because it’s a fruitless exercise. Guess what, kiddo? There will always be writers who are better than you. You can’t escape it, and getting down about it won’t change the situation. All you can do is be the best writer you can be. All you can do is tell the stories that only you can tell, and tell those stories in a way that entertains and informs.

Chances are that you’re probably still developing your writing style. That takes a long time — it took me about 15 years (and a lot of work) to develop my style. After all that work, I’m still not much of a prose stylist. I don’t think my writing is boring, but it’s not up there with the greats (or even with writers on the cusp of greatness).

While there are writers I would love to be able to write like, I know that’s not going to happen. Instead, I focus on honing the style that I’ve developed. You should do the same.

Remember there’s room for writers who have different styles. Two of my favourite science writers are Issac Asimov and Stephen Jay Gould. The contrast between the two of them couldn’t be sharper. Both were good writers. Gould brought an almost literary sensibility to his work while Asimov’s prose was lean, plain, and utilitarian. But their writing was interesting and fun to read. Here’s an exchange with Asimov that Gould recounted:

I picked up the phone one day, and a voice bellowed “Gould, this is Isacc Asimov. I hate you.”

So I replied with an astonishing lack of originality, “Why so?”

“I hate you because you write so well,” he said.

So I replied, “And if I’d written four hundred books instead of 10, I wouldn’t be paying such rapt attention to stylistic nuances either.

It’s fine to be the Issac Asimov to someone else’s Stephen Jay Gould if your work reads well, has an audience, and helps that audience.

There’s nothing wrong with aspiring to be a better writer, so learn from others. Just don’t let any feelings of inadequacy take hold and stop you from both writing and improving.

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