In the last few years, I have dealt with hundreds of writers and explored the field of writing to a great degree. Here are a few myths that have come up which need to be debunked as they are often held to be absolutely true, when in fact they can be harmful to a writer’s progress if followed.
1. ‘You have to be absolutely perfect to be successful.’
This applies on a couple of levels. First, technical. Yes, it’s wise to put a manuscript through an extensive process of editing and correction before you submit it to anyone or self-publish it — technical mistakes put readers off and are counter-productive, for sure. But the industry norm is one mistake every 8-10,000 words and I’m sure that you can think of an example in your experience of an error in a professionally published book.
One of the most glaring I ever encountered was contained in an exam paper in the secondary school examinations for English in the UK, some years ago. Students were being asked to answer some questions about a two-page short story which they had never seen before, and would be graded on their answers, written under pressure in one hour. You would think that the short story in question would have been through the mill as far as proofreading and so forth, before being printed. But this one contained the phrase ‘congenial defect’ when it was obviously within the context of the story meant to read ‘congenital defect’. This was a major error, as clearly it could alter the whole meaning of the piece if read incorrectly. So it's important to get things right.
Perfection? Not necessarily.
But proofreading errors are only one level of this kind of detrimental perfectionism. The main thing that I encounter with many writers is a feeling that their work as a whole, thematically, stylistically and in every other way needs to match some kind of abstract ‘ideal’ as a story. Of course, one should strive to make one’s story as perfect as possible and this is not an argument for shoddy or incomplete work — but many writers reach a point of paralysis at which they introvert and begin correcting and altering work ad infinitum rather than being able to accept a piece as it is and walk away.
You may have experienced the same thing if you have ever painted or drawn anything — an urge or impulse to keep ‘fiddling’ with it. Eventually you have to conclude the thing and put the brush down.
What’s the answer? A writer needs to have a policy about this kind of situation: at what point are they going to accept something as done and put it aside? Working out a conscious ‘exit strategy’ is a healthy step towards being able to get more work done. Over time, work tends to improve in quality anyway, with practice, and so the more work taken to an agreed end result, the better the writing tends to become overall.
Be sane about it.
2. ‘Your work needs to be seen by as many people as possible in order to make it.’
This is only partly true. Trying to spam the internet in order to reach ‘a million views’ or some other kind of arbitrary statistic can not only prove expensive and wasteful, it can also create a reputation for spamming which can close the very doors that you need to stay open.
The qualified version of this would read something like this: ‘Your work needs to be seen by as many of the right people as possible in order to make it.’ Isolating who those right people are and finding out where they are already lurking is the key. Once you find your audience, then for sure it’s important to get as many ‘views’ by them as you can. If they really are your public, they won’t mind either, as they will already be interested in what you have to offer.
So don’t go for numbers alone — go for numbers with a qualification.
3. ‘Publishers are only looking for high quality work.’
This again is only part of the picture. Naturally, any worthwhile publisher is going to want work to be of a certain quality, both technically and content-wise. But believing the above myth leads to a corollary: ‘Publishers examine manuscripts purely to find work of the highest quality and it is a publisher’s function to publish such work once it is found.’
It’s tricky this: I’ve encountered again and again in many writers a kind of assumption, which I presume (and hope) is an unconscious one. The assumption is that it is the writer’s job to write and the publisher exists to facilitate their writing reaching a wider public. On the surface, that’s true. But most publishers are operating on a slightly different basis. Most — not all, but by far the majority — are in the publishing business with at least some hope of making some money. They tend, therefore, to be involved in intensive calculations concerning viability. For a publisher, their function is not to service the writer but to make this judgement: ‘Will the writer’s work plus the publisher’s investment of time and money result in a commercial return?’
Publishing is a business, not a writer’s service facility.
So while writers rightly put a great deal of attention on making their manuscripts as flawless as they can, both technically and in terms of the quality of the content, they are not owed anything by anyone as a result. Publishers won’t publish their material because it is technically and stylistically flawless alone: they will only invest time and money into it if they think that they can get something out of it. Even the most noble-minded publishers don’t give freely of their efforts and cash: they want to at least cover their costs, and 99% of them want to make a profit too. So part of a writer’s calculation — a crucially important part — is ‘Is my work viable in terms of a potential readership?’
This is largely why self-publishing fails. Writers who self-publish more often than not don’t bother even trying to make that viability calculation — they just hurry the book through to print, believing that there are hundreds or thousands of readers out there waiting to get their hands on it. Traditional publishers, small or large, have this purpose: to make judgements regarding a book’s commercial viability or not.
Quite often their judgements are wrong, as we see by the number of stories there are about authors who went on to become huge best-sellers after being rejected dozens of times by other publishers. These stories are true and heartening, but the point underlying them is viability: eventually, a particular work found its audience and made money. Who knows how many books there are out there which have not had such judgements made about them at all, and therefore disappear without trace soon after launch because they are not viable?
Yes, publishers are looking for high quality work — of course they are. But there are many works out in the marketplace making a fortune which could be regarded as low quality. That’s because a publisher made a calculation regarding viability above a similar calculation regarding quality, and got it right.
I’ve had authors write to me and say ‘I never thought about it like that. I always thought that as soon as a publisher saw that my writing was good, they would publish me’. No — good writing is great, but commercial viability is vital in terms of an appeal to publishers.
Publishers often have the marketing power to make a book more visible to the right readers, which obviously affects the viability equation. But you can do something about this as a writer: research your possible audiences. Find out what other stuff they like, and why. Then, without compromising the integrity of your own work, do a comparison: what about your work is similar to the work that your potential audience loves? What about it is different?
Work on those two points — similarity and difference — and you’ll have the beginnings of a marketing strategy and an appeal to publishers.
There are many more myths out there in the writing field, especially in the area of marketing. But the above are pervasive because they are partly true, and can lure writers off a workable track and into a jungle of disappointment.