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Show No Writing Before Its Time

November 5, 2012

Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer. —Barbara Kingsolver

Writers have many ways of sabotaging themselves. One of the most insidious ones, in my opinion, is showing their work too early.

I advise writers not to seek feedback from a writers group, or even a professional editor, when they’re in the process of generating a first draft.  I lose a lot of potential business this way, but here’s why I believe this so strongly.

When you’re generating new work, ideas are trying to happen and you’re discovering what your book is about. Stephen King uses the metaphor of the “boys in the basement” to explain how a writer’s subconscious mind works. The “boys” are at work creating characters, conflicts, and scenes, when you’re out and about running errands, when you’re fixing a sandwich, when you’re working your day job, when you’re washing the dishes, and even when you’re asleep. When you sit down to write in an attentive manner, King says, the boys will send their messages up to you. The act of writing opens you up to receive the messages. Be patient. Listen. You’ll hear them.  And when you hear them, you are hearing your own creative voice.

When your writing is still in a generative stage and you seek comments on it from others, their voices can drown out yours. You’ll be especially tempted to ask for help when you feel discouraged and frustrated. Know that all writers, even the professionals, reach points when they can’t see a way forward, hate everything they’ve written so far, and want to trash what they’ve done and start something new. Trust in the writing process, be patient with yourself, and push yourself forward.  If you ask others for help at this point, the beautiful novel that could  have been uniquely yours might never happen—because you didn’t give your particular vision the opportunity to emerge.

Novices are particularly susceptible to being swayed and confused by the voices of others. Fellow writers, and even some professionals, may have good intentions, but sometimes they tend to want to remake your work over in their own image. Some of the saddest sentences I’ve ever heard begin with “my writers group told me to…” Although you may think you’re above it, you’re only human if it’s hard to shake off comments and perceived criticisms about your writing when it’s still a tender seedling, not completely formed. You can always get feedback later when the work has blossomed.

Although you may believe you’re looking for advice in the generative stage, I’m going to suggest that what you’re really looking for is  encouragement. During this very early stage, it’s understandable that you might feel wobbly, but fight the urge to seek approval in the guise of seeking feedback. If you absolutely must seek professional help, then engage a “writing coach” who is trained to work with writers during the generative process, someone who can elicit your ideas and motivate you to move forward—without imposing or suggesting her own ideas and blocking yours. Or use your writing group, but be upfront that you want no undue influence. Be honest about the embryonic stage your work is in and your need for encouragement and a boost to move forward. Sometimes having the opportunity to read your work out loud in front of a group will be enough to re-energize you.

You know, the opposite side of the coin from sharing your work too early is never sharing it—because it’s “not ready.” That’s another form of self-sabotage and perhaps a post for another day.

Mary Ann de Stefano is a writer, editor, and writing coach with 30 years of experience in publishing and writing consulting. She does business at MAD about Words, named as a play on her initials and love for writing.

  1. November 5, 2012 6:03 am

    Thanks so much for this post. I’m excited about what I’m working on for NaNoWriMo, and was tempted to share it, but will be prudent. I appreciate all your posts, Mary Ann.

    • November 5, 2012 7:31 am

      Thanks, Tricia. I think one of the great things about NaNoWriMo is that there’s not much time to dawdle–no time to do writerly things like research, wordsmithing, and chatting about the work with other writers, all activities which might really be procrastination and resistance during this generative stage. There will be time for all that later. I’m so happy to hear about your excitement for your work.

  2. Chris Hamilton permalink
    November 5, 2012 6:27 am

    If you’re seeking comments from your first draft, you’re most likely wondering “What if it sucks?” Of course it sucks. It’s a first draft. It’s supposed to suck. Even Hemingway said so.

    • November 5, 2012 7:38 am


      Most of us are hard on our work, and it’s appropriate to be that way in later stages. I know my work is better when I am nonjudgmental in the early stages and write freely. But it’s hard to turn off my inner critic. That’s why I’m reluctant to let other voices join the chorus until I’m more sure about what I’m trying to say.

  3. Charlene Edge permalink
    November 5, 2012 8:06 am

    A wise yellow light of caution for us all!

  4. November 6, 2012 1:39 pm

    Your advice is spot on. I wish I could underline (in bold!) the part about well-intentioned friends trying to remake your work in their own image. Such experiences can be so maddening that you want to hide from the perpetrators forever. I remember spending 3 days not answering someone’s calls after writing group because I didn’t want the pressure any more! As you point out, it’s harder to maintain your own Voice when a piece hasn’t captured your unique Voice completely yet. But the problem doesn’t necessarily go away a couple drafts in.

    I also think that’s what so important about 1) being selective about who’s in your writing group, and 2) for the members of the group to ask, “What exactly are you looking for?” before offering advice. That way, if the writer is trying to create a piece of noir, the group doesn’t try to rewrite it as humor, for example. Or maybe, they imagined it for a different audience.

    Of course, you can always ignore advice. Even if it means not answering your phone for 3 days. 😉

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