Life and Writing Advice is a blog series intended to help writers, editors, and freelancers learn from each other. Sometimes the most helpful information is knowing that we’re not alone in our experiences, that others can empathize with us, and that we can learn from others.
Once a month, we give a writer a prompt question. Then we post the writer’s response. Get ready to read about personal experiences that impacted or changed writers’ and freelancers’ lives. We hope this series connects people and provides inspiration. Let us know your thoughts about our series in the comments!
Twitter memes might suggest otherwise, but there really isn’t one universal experience of being a writer. Everybody learns, progresses, and measures success differently. Frankly, one of the only things all writers have in common is the act of writing itself, but there are a small handful of shared experiences that many of us can relate to. Feeling jealous of other writers is one of them.
Envy may not be the prettiest human emotion, but it’s certainly a natural one and very common too. Uncomfortable as it may sometimes feel, does this jealousy actually help or harm us as writers? Is there a way to harness and use it?
For my part, I don’t think I’ve ever made it through a Neil Gaiman novel without feeling grumpy about his impeccable phrasing, and don’t get me started on James Baldwin or Margaret Atwood. I could have happily quit writing forever while reading The Heart Goes Last.
Okay. Maybe not happily — but it definitely made me wonder why I bother. I knew I didn’t stand a chance of writing even a single sentence with the kind of impact that book has, or at least it felt that way at the time. It wasn’t a pleasant feeling. For a good few weeks it chased me when I sat down to write. It was like some kind of unfriendly ghost, hovering at my shoulder and making me question every word choice I made, making me wonder whether my stories were worth telling in the first place.
Now, I’ve kind of accepted that I’m going to feel jealous from time to time. There are thousands of talented writers out there in the world, and feeling a twinge of envy is the price I pay for getting to read their work. Still, that doesn’t make it feel any better, so I’ve tried to develop some ways of thinking about writer-envy that are more productive.
If you find yourself feeling jealous of another writer, figure out specifically what it is that you’re coveting. Is it their financial success, for example? Or is it something more skill-based, like their expert handling of dialogue or evocative, unusual metaphors?
Let’s take the former first. Looking at stark sales numbers might make it feel that your paycheck is a measure of your value as a writer. We’ve all spent too long staring at the bestseller lists, but there’s always a long story behind those numbers. There’s a lot of luck involved, too.
However, success is shaped differently for every writer. Comparing your salary as a freelancer to a well-known author’s book deal is like comparing apples to oranges. It just isn’t helpful, and it’s also not really accurate.
In other words, this type of jealousy is mostly just harmful. Acknowledge it, but don’t indulge it. It won’t serve you in the long run.
If you’re admiring a particular strength in their writing, though? That’s not such a bad thing at all. In fact, quite the opposite. You’ve just found your next steps as a writer.
Be Proactive, Not Pensive
Once you’ve identified this area for improvement, don’t sit on it and continue the negative thoughts about your writing. Instead, start practising. Artists are sometimes told that in order to learn to draw something properly, they need to do it a hundred times. The same principle is true of writing. You just need to work out how to apply that principle and stem the flow of jealousy at its source.
For example, if you’re impressed by a writer’s creative thinking and fresh ideas, challenge yourself to brainstorm 10 fresh and different blog ideas from a single prompt every day.
If one of your favorite writers has a great handle on dialogue, take famous sections of movie dialogue and rewrite them in your characters’ voices.
When I got jealous of another writer’s punchy, well-paced fight sequences, I found a playlist of martial arts videos on YouTube and practised writing short descriptions of each until I could communicate the action clearly. Maybe it was a bit gloomy thinking about how much I hated my fight scenes, but being proactive about it turned it into a net positive.
Start seeing your moments of jealousy as a call to action or a personal challenge — not a self-directed insult. Don’t resent other writers that seem to be better than you. After all, these feelings didn’t stem from you being inadequate. They stemmed from somebody else being exceptional.
Avoid the Second Arrow
A therapist once advised me to stop hitting myself with the ‘second arrow’. When something unpleasant happened and it made me feel bad, that would be the ‘first arrow’. Then I’d go on to feel frustrated and judge myself because I let negative emotions affect me. That echo of negativity is the ‘second arrow’.
You can’t control whatever it is that made you feel bad in the first place, and you can’t choose your emotional response to it. So what’s the use in beating yourself up? It can only make you feel worse.
It’s a Buddhist concept — and obviously quite useful for therapeutic purposes — but you can see how it applies to writers too. You may feel jealous, but you don’t have to feel bad about it.
Of course, it’s not as easy as deciding not to feel bad. As I’ve just said, that isn’t how feelings work! Still, noticing that you’re shooting yourself with a second arrow helps, and there are ways to try and pick yourself up.
For one thing, you should remind yourself that every writer has their strengths and weaknesses, even when the latter aren’t visible. Whoever you’re jealous of is likely just as hard on their own work as you are on yours — and you have a lot of strengths, too.
Make a list of those strengths and read over them when you’re feeling down about your abilities. If you find it hard to identify your strengths, that doesn’t mean you don’t have any. Ask a writer friend for ideas. You might be surprised at how much they come up with.
If you don’t know any other writers, you’re also missing out! Find your people on sites like Twitter, Instagram, or Reddit. There’s a lot of friendship, support, and positive feedback waiting for you, and there’s no better way to encourage yourself and improve.
In the end, jealousy can be both a positive force and a negative one. Sometimes you won’t get to choose which, and that’s okay. Writing is a difficult craft, and we’re all constantly improving and developing that craft. We’re all hard on ourselves sometimes, too.
If you can, interpret your jealousy as a vice. A little spark of it is okay. It can inspire and motivate you, or it can show you a way to sharpen your pen — but only if it’s in moderation. Beyond that, it may just make you sluggish and disheartened. You should force it out of your mind as much as possible.
After all, the writers you’re admiring now didn’t get to where they are by letting jealousy stagnate them. Just as importantly, the writers and readers who admire you now certainly aren’t focused on your shortcomings.