There’s a problem with doing something well: Once is rarely enough.
When you do something well, two things can happen:
- Other people begin to expect more of you, and
- You begin to expect more of yourself
For a writer, this can be great. A well-done piece deserves the admiration it receives, and you should be proud when an article, poem, essay, story, or book comes together.
But unless you’re one among the rare breed of author — and I mean really, really rare — who can launch a career from one great piece, a single successful publication will not a sustainable income make.
Setting Unreasonable Standards
So after your first great piece, you sit down to write the next one. Immediately the demon of comparison shows up on your shoulder.
What if it’s not as good as your first published thing? What if you don’t live up to the expectations for quality writing you’ve set for yourself?
On some level, you try to tell yourself, “Everything will be okay if it’s not ‘perfect.'”
So you let something slide. Relax a little on your vigilance to push the quality to its extreme.
But if your first high-quality product was noticed by the public, you can bet that any dip in quality will be noticed, too. You set a high standard that others now expect to see in your work, and when they don’t see it, they will let you know.
Setting Reasonable Writing Expectations
What’s the lesson here? How do you keep yourself from being caught in an endless loop of writing better and pushing yourself to the limit every time?
Well, you don’t.
Some people think they can avoid this challenge by settling for a lower quality piece and set low expectations at the beginning. But ask yourself: Why would you expect to get readers if you lower your standards?
Readers have fairly low tolerance for writers who treat them like fools. If you’re offering mediocre or low quality, they won’t be back for more.
With lower quality writing, you’re less likely to engage as many people to begin with or bring back the ones you engage with the first time.
So what to do?
Quality Writing Tip #1: Do your best.
One man’s trash is another’s treasure and all that. If your prose is clean and error free, and your plot is well structured with thought-out character arcs and a solid narrative, readers may forgive historical inaccuracies, use of clichés or bland characters and world building.
Do your best, and be prepared to hear that your best wasn’t “perfect.”
Present the reader with a polished package, and they may overlook some areas where it could be improved. Or, at least you’ll receive feedback on what to improve for your next piece.
Quality Writing Tip #2: Use feedback.
Don’t just “receive” feedback, use it.
If you received praise from readers, and you want to know why they thought your book was high quality — ask!
This might take the form of social media polls, reading your reviews and comment threads, or sending out reader copies of your work and asking for specific advice.
Use what your readers say to recognize at least four things your readers generally agree was high quality about your writing or the book in general, and identify at two areas where you can push the quality to higher levels in the next poem or manuscript.
Quality Writing Tip #3: Look for quality to emulate.
Maybe you really admire colorful metaphors or quirky descriptions and world building. Maybe tight and minimal sentences are what you strive for.
Read books from some of the great writers in your genre or historical time period and pick out examples of what you think makes their writing great.
Work to structure your sentences the same way, use metaphors or descriptors similarly, or mimic the dialogue style that you find engaging. Whatever it is that you enjoy about reading their work, use as a model for your own craft.
Quality Writing Tip #4: Be patient. Quality takes time.
Be prepared to tackle your manuscript in multiple revision iterations.
Maybe one day, you revise the entire thing with a focus on word choice. Then, the next day, you do a read-through and edit to focus on historical accuracy. Stay focused on the areas you’ve marked for improvement and special attention. Be patient.
You might be midway through your outline and realize you need to do additional research or watch a movie that people recommended as a reference. Do it.
Don’t let the pressure to put out a follow up to your first well-received work push you to a hasty release of the next piece.
If you’re honestly working to improve, you must work as hard as you did the first time, so you can reach the level of quality you’ve already set for yourself. Then, push at least 25% past that. Work harder than you’ve ever worked before; the improvement will show.
Once you become recognized for your skill, enjoy it. But don’t stop.
No one wants to be a one-trick pony, and compromising on your writing quality ensures you will be.