I believe it was Pulitzer Prize winner Kendrick Lamar who once said, “Sit down, be humble.”
After spending a few years in the writing and editing business, I believe that any and all creators should live by those words. Because nobody likes a jerk, even if they’re talented.
I started writing at a young age, so luckily my over-inflated ego disappeared with my immaturity and naivete about the writing business. The time I stopped believing my sad poem about the 16-year-old boy who didn’t like me back was Art, was the same time I realized I wasn’t hot shit. However, I often come across writers older than me that believe their writing is perfect, untouchable even. They resist any feedback because who could dare change their words?
I’ve even had a writer flat out reject my edits to their grammar mistakes. The usage of a question mark isn’t really debatable. But here we are.
The truth of the matter is a lot of writers take themselves too seriously, and after being praised one too many times, they suddenly develop an ego that balks at even the most constructive feedback.
Here’s the thing: Even the world’s greatest writers have had to take feedback and revise their masterpieces. Even the world’s greatest writers continue trying to improve their writing until their dying days.
Hemingway, who told T.S. Eliot off in brutal ways, also admitted that he was a good poet, and learned a lot from the doctrines Eliot established. Hemingway could be an asshole, but it seems like he was a pretty humble one.
So my question to the writers with over-inflated egos out there is: If Ernest Hemingway could be humble, why can’t you?
Are You THAT Writer?
Though it seems like common sense, learning and improving oneself doesn’t stop when you finish school. But in my experience, many refuse to admit that they need to learn more about writing just because they’re no longer in writing classes. And in even worse cases, some writers believe they don’t need to learn while they’re still in writing classes. They insist they know enough about writing to be more than successful in the field and that the rules don’t apply to them. Question marks? Totally unnecessary.
I’ve been blessed with some pretty fantastic workshops in both my undergraduate and graduate programs, but every so often, I’ve come across a writer who seems to think they’re better than what the program is teaching them.
Here are the overarching qualities I’ve noticed about these writers:
- They get defensive and argue with any feedback, or dismiss it outright.
- They give unhelpful feedback to others.
- They complain to others about the people giving feedback.
- They rarely follow instructions to completion.
If you do that, I’m willing to guess you won’t readily admit it. While self-awareness isn’t always the easiest thing to achieve, there are some more constructive ways to gauge how big of an ego you have.
First, try doing a little self-reflection. Balance how you feel about your writing against how you feel about what others write. If you are part of a writers group, or have peers who are writers, take stock of how you feel about their writing. Not them—their writing. Do you feel like your writing is better than theirs? Ask yourself why. What’s your reasoning?
If you attend writing groups, are you more interested in focusing on your piece, or spending time equally on the group? Do you usually find the feedback helpful, hurtful, or useless? Are you constantly comparing yourself to your peers?
Some other questions to gauge your ego:
- Do you ask for criticism? Even if it might not be positive?
- Even if you hate someone’s writing, are you able to find at least one positive?
- When talking to other writers, do you make it a priority to share a list of the pieces you’ve had published?
You can also ask someone who knows you to rate your ego. Friends might not be completely honest, and employees definitely won’t be honest. If you have someone in your life who you trust to be honest with you, have a discussion with them about your ego and if they notice it’s getting a little big. Hopefully, they will try to help you be better by being honest.
It’s not a question of whether you are a perfect angel writer, or a selfish, evil person who thinks they’re god’s gift. It’s a spectrum. Plus, an over-inflated ego and good self-esteem are definitely different.
The question you really need to ask is: Are you still willing to learn from others? Are you willing to learn at all?
Why Are You Here?
Ask yourself “why” you’re doing something, no matter what the situation is.
One of the greatest moments I’ve ever witnessed happened in one of my writing classes. There was a writer who always came in hostile and openly dismissive toward feedback. One day, after some real pushback, the professor asked them: “Why are you here?”
All the eyes went wide in that room. The writer didn’t respond, hoping the question was posed rhetorically. You’re paying all this money for writing education, and yet you don’t feel you need to learn. Why are you here then?
That question doesn’t just apply to a classroom. It applies to everything.
You don’t enter into a relationship believing you won’t have to change anything about your life, that you won’t always be facing new challenges together. You don’t take yoga classes with the expectation that you’re going to know what poses to do with the other students. You don’t choose a career that doesn’t offer professional growth.
Life is about growth. From birth until your very last day, you’ll learn and adapt to new things. However, if you’re not open to learning even the simplest of skills, are you really living life to its fullest potential?
When the Real Learning Begins
I hate to say it, but rejection really helps curb an ego. Luckily, when you’re a writer, rejection happens a lot.
I’ve written about what I’ve learned from rejection before, and how it doesn’t necessarily mean you suck. My experience with rejection, and failure in general, is that it doesn’t shut me down, but shows me that I have a lot more to learn.
And then I actually learn.
I am of the philosophy that success offers diminishing returns on learning. Now, when I write something that doesn’t get developmental notes for revisions (I specify because there are always misplaced commas), of course my ego gets a boost, but I haven’t grown as a writer.
Learning happens when you admit you need to learn. And it often happens with the help of those willing to teach you.
It’s almost like a recovery program. You have to admit you have a problem before you can take the necessary steps to rehabilitation. Only, improving your writing isn’t a life-or-death situation.
How to Learn Without Feeling Bad About Yourself
Challenging yourself doesn’t mean setting yourself up for failure, and being humble doesn’t mean denying your talent.
Just like some writers have an extremely big ego, other writers like to take it to the other end of the spectrum. Yes, rejection is a good kick in the butt and reminder to stay humble, but rejection also doesn’t have to be the only way you learn how to be better.
I’m not saying you should go back to school and get another degree. That can be bit much for some people. But as I said above, learning doesn’t stop when you finish school. For some, school is the best method of learning.
If you’re not a do-it-yourself kind of learner and would rather be in an environment that fosters growth through collaboration or regiment, then there are hundreds of classes and courses you can take to learn any and all forms of writing. Besides the in-person ones you might be able to find locally, places like Teachable and Udemy have a database of courses you can take. Heck, we even have a couple on our website.
The great thing about online courses is that there are ones you can do completely on your own, with a support system, or just with the guidance of an instructor. So, if you’re not a fan of collaboration, or you want to learn at your own pace, you aren’t limited by situations that won’t help you grow.
Hire a Coach
Along the lines of taking a course, hiring a writing coach can be a great way to learn with an expert who will dedicate their time only to helping you. A writing coach, or coaching service, can also be used to become a better writer while actively producing content. The coach will provide edits to your pieces, notice patterns or areas for growth, and help you achieve growth by offering practical solutions and examples. If you’re more of a learn-by-doing type, a writing coach will definitely make you do.
The crux of this is that, like getting another degree, this isn’t the most cost-effective of learning methods. If you don’t have a stable income or aren’t super serious about writing, one of the other options might be a better place to start.
Offer to Give Feedback
I’ve found that one of the most effective ways to improve one’s writing is to give feedback to or teach other writers.
The opportunity to give feedback can come from a variety of places. If you have friends who write or create, reach out to see what they’re working on. If you’re in a course with other people, you might naturally be giving feedback. If not, offer. If the course is less intimate, but there’s a support group via forum or social media, post an offer there or respond to someone who’s looking.
Just don’t be a dick about it. This isn’t “let me lecture about something great I do with my writing that they should try”; it’s about offering criticism or support that is constructive and practical.
My rule for feedback is to find one good thing to say about the piece for each not-so-good thing, and if you have something you want the writer to change, offer a solution.
If you go straight into the bad stuff, no one is going to want to listen to it, and if you only say “I don’t like this” or “change this” without elaborating on why, or with what, you’re basically just stroking your own ego. We’re trying to get away from that.
When you have to come up with a solution for the writer, you’re coming up with a solution for yourself as well. Maybe you notice that their characters sound stereotypical, and you’ve received that note before too. If you can notice it in someone else’s writing, and offer suggestions on how to improve it, you’re also helping yourself.
Read and Practice
While this is common advice for improving your writing, there’s a damn good reason for it.
The more you read from writers you like (and even the ones you don’t), you’ll start to intrinsically learn structure and style, and absorb what makes their writing so great. Then, you can put it into practice … and practice … and practice … and practice.
Like I said, learning is lifelong.
In the grand scheme of things, not being humble may not make or break your career, as we have so regretfully seen in the world recently. But it could hinder your relationships and halt any upward growth in skill and, most likely, passion.
If you’re not motivated to continue learning in your field, if you feel like you have nothing left to learn and everything to give, are you really all that passionate about it?
If being humble about your craft is something that’s truly difficult, it might be time to re-evaluate your dedication to the craft.
You could also just be going through a phase.
Putting yourself out there via classes, competitions, submissions to journals or websites, or just low-stakes writers groups will help give you perspective on what else is out there, what aspects of your writing have room for improvement, and that you’re not perfect.
And hey, maybe that eventual rejection letter will give you the ass-kicking you need to simply sit down.