Writers, there are some things persistence won’t solve

Publishing text on paperhole

“Never give up. Never say die.” It’s the advice creative writers cherish and repeat most often, which is understandable. Persistence is easy to understand. When a writer stops writing or submitting or looking for an agent, the effect can be directly attributed to the cause. One can fail by not trying.

Unfortunately, when other important aspects of a writer’s endeavors to be published remain unexamined in the belief that persistent submissions alone will achieve the desired results, the outcome is sad to see. Repeated rejections sometimes have an unwritten message to convey: “Become a better writer.”

If the only message received is “Keep trying,” the danger is that a writer can exhaust the choicest possibilities. When “keep trying” isn’t paired with “get better,” then eventually a writer will reach out to an agent, magazine editor, or publisher of last resort—potentially someone who isn’t very good at his or her job. Potentially someone who’ll soon go out of business. Potentially a scammer. All because reductionism’s simplicity is so emotionally appealing.

Here’s the truth. No matter how much praise a writer has received, no matter how long and hard she’s worked on her manuscript, and no matter how far superior her writing is to the work produced by the members of her writing group, there are hundreds of times as many fine writers out there vying for editors, agents, and publishers who will invest time and money in them. There’s no shortage of good writers. The only way to stand out in the slushpile, after having persisted to get there, is to be obviously better and more professional than the competition.

I’m tempted to define persistent with a number, but it would only be misleading. Better manuscripts are more likely to attract attention, but if the author of the manuscript is obnoxious, many agents, editors, and publishers won’t be bothered. I’d rather suggest to writers that they remain constantly open to feedback as they continue to learn about the art and the business of creative writing. The ability to recognize what can be improved is one mark of a superior intellect, and in my book, a superior intellect makes a better writer.

2 Replies to “Writers, there are some things persistence won’t solve”

  1. It must be late, because I’m not sure I can get my mind around the concept of perfection in order to make literal sense of that, but I think I understand the sentiment, Sylvia.

    Apparently, there’s a correlation between IQ or emotional intellect and people’s ability to recognize that they might be able to improve on whatever they’re doing. Here’s the experimental social psychologist David Dunning, as quoted by Errol Morris, on the subject:

    The road to self-insight really runs through other people. So it really depends on what sort of feedback you are getting. Is the world telling you good things? Is the world rewarding you in a way that you would expect a competent person to be rewarded? If you watch other people, you often find there are different ways to do things; there are better ways to do things. I’m not as good as I thought I was, but I have something to work on. Now, the sad part about that is — there’s been a replication of this with medical students — people at the bottom, if you show them what other people do, they don’t get it. They don’t realize that what those other people are doing is superior to what they’re doing. And that’s the troubling thing. So for people at the bottom, that social comparison information is a wonderful piece of information, but they may not be in a position to take advantage of it like other people.

    Erica Goode, in writing about Dunning’s research, said it’s “why the ignorant are blissful.”

    My takeaway? No amount of information or advice will change the fact that a certain percentage of aspiring writers simply won’t be capable of success the way we’re defining it here. To some of them, success might involve self-publishing (including blogging) or vanity publishing. Accepting that particular reality has made a number of companies, including my publisher WordPress.com, immensely successful. If Matt Mullenweg had the time to be bothered, I’m sure he’d be laughing at me right now.

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