How many writers does it take to change a light bulb?

Are you taking responsibility for your own writing? This post looks at what to do when times get tough and offers three tips for making sure you stay on track.

I’ll provide my answer to the title of this post later, but you’ll probably work it out by the end of the next sentence. I think it’s high time that more writers – actually, all writers – took responsibility for their writing.
My first (proper) post on Write for Your Life looked at the concept of the muse. I suggested, a little controversially it turned out, that we writers can be tempted to hide behind this mythical being when things are going wrong – and others agree with me.

But that’s just one of our excuses. Us writers have many more and we’re not afraid to use them. From ‘You obviously didn’t read it properly,’ to the worryingly sex-based-sounding, ‘I’m just not in the mood.’

The writer’s social paradox

The truth is, the craft of writing can sometimes be a very solitary pursuit. And I think that can get to us. It affects our judgement and we naturally look for reasons outside our little writing bubble as to why there are problems at its centre.

Mostly, that’s fine. It’s okay to get grumpy from time to time. Being a writer, well, it can be tough. And I see no problem whatsoever in having the occasional whinge to your partner, a friend, your agent or editor. That’s what they’re there for.

But in the end, you can only complain so much. In the end, you have to return to your bubble, as Joanna Paterson rightly describes it, and face the facts. You are, essentially, alone with your prose. You make the decisions. Your problems are your responsibility.

How to take responsibility for your writing

There are three things that I have to constantly remind myself to do as a writer. They are extremely simple, but all play a vital role in allowing me to take responsibility for my own writing.

And notice I use the phrase constantly. When you’re finding things tough, it’s easy to forget the basics. Before you know it, your grumpiness overwhelms you and the excuses come thick and fast.

Anyway – those three things.

Take all feedback and advice seriously

Most of us ask for and receive feedback on our writing, particularly if we’re having a tough time and we’re unsure about something.

If you ask someone for feedback, even if you wholeheartedly disagree with how what they say, take it seriously. At the very least, put it in a drawer, then come back to it when you’re in a better frame of mind.

I remember one absolute stinker of a response from a tutor on my MA course. It was clear that they hadn’t read my novel past 50 pages and some of the remarks were personal.

I was fuming and ignored the feedback outright. Looking back, there were one or two comments I should have taken on board. But because most of the criticism was inaccurate or downright offensive, I dismissed it completely.

I should have owned that feedback, accepted it as part of the process of writing a novel. I should have taken responsibility.

Have some humility

As Nicola Morgan noted recently, one of the reasons some writers tend not to get published is their extraordinary lack of humility. Some writers, I’m afraid, are deluded about their ability. And they will never improve.

Writers who have humility are aware of their shortcomings and open to feedback. They listen to others and take advice in the right way. When things go wrong, they try to find out why. When things go right, they celebrate accordingly.

Then they get back to work.

Above all, humility allows you to become a better writer. If you can strike that balance between striving to improve and having confidence in your writing, you’re on to a winner. You’re in control.

Be proud of, and own, your success

Finally, don’t be afraid to get all giddy if you have success with your writing. That’s what you’ve worked for.

If you take responsibility for your writing when things are going badly, and you make difficult decisions along the way, then you should be able to give yourself a pat on the back when it all comes to fruition.

And of course, then get back to work. Sorry.

So to answer my question

As you’ve probably figured out, in my opinion, it takes just one writer to change a light bulb. Sure, you can get your pals, your partner or your significant literary other to hold the ladder, but only you can do the dirty work.

In the end, it’s about being responsible for the creative process. In good times and in bad. You’re the writer. No one else.

Share your thoughts

So what do you think? Am I simplifying things a little too much? Is there a detail that I haven’t considered? Or do you think writing is more of a collaborative process these days? Let me know in the comments!

14 Comments 21 September 2010 Reply

One, if he really wants to change!

Anonymous 21 September 2010 Reply

[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Iain Broome, Brigid Coady. Brigid Coady said: RT @iainbroome: How many writers does it take to change a light bulb? […] 21 September 2010 Reply

Great article, Iain. I especially agree with you when you say, “Some writers, I’m afraid, are deluded about their ability. And they will never improve.”
I personally like negative feedback. Without negative feedback, you’re less likely to find your mistakes or make improvements as a result from your acknowledged mistakes. I’m not saying that I necessarily enjoy the emotional side of receiving criticism. I don’t. But I realize that improvement will only come with practice and if your writing is honestly criticized every now and then. You can’t know if you’re doing something wrong without criticism. You should also realize that your writing is not perfect and always has room for improvement.

Often times, writers are conceited bastards. 😉 Every writer worships her own writing. Writers think their own work is brilliant! Myself included, some of the time. So, when someone criticizes it, their pride is wounded and they’re quick to defend their work (or in this case, take responsibility).

Trust me, I’ve had my conceited moments. But I always appreciate feedback, whether it’s negative or positive. If it’s negative, I picture it as a learning experience. If the feedback is positive, I may feel giddy, but I also pay attention to what I’m doing right. I try to then use this new knowledge in future articles.

You provide a very insightful post. I believe that the key thing to remember is that, while you should enjoy yourself during the times when you’re successful, you should also be aware of the less successful moments and use them to better your writing.

Don’t be quick to defend your work. Instead, stop to think about whether the criticism makes sense.

Christina 9 November 2010 Reply

Great comment Christina – thank you. And I agree, negative feedback, so long as it’s constructive and actionable, is very valuable. 21 September 2010 Reply

Hi Iain,
I love this post. It reminds me how important it is for us writers to keep things in as much perspective as possible.

Oh, and feel free to send me the contact info for the desparaging remark giver. I’ll make a special trip to the UK and ‘splain the facts of life. 🙂


George 9 November 2010 Reply

Good to know you got my back George! 4 October 2010 Reply

Not that I disagree with you, but I was a little disappointed in the lack of humour. Therefore:
Q: How many writers does it take to change a light bulb?
A: It was a dark and stormy night.

Q: How many writers does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Synonyms: aurora, beacon, blaze, brightness, brilliance, brilliancy, bulb, candle, coruscation, dawn, daybreak, daylight, daytime, effulgence, emanation, flare, flash, fulgor, glare, gleam, glimmer, glint, glitter, glow, illumination, incandescence, irradiation, lambency, lamp, lantern, lighthouse, luminosity, luster, morn, morning, phosphorescence, radiance, radiation, ray, refulgence, scintillation, sheen, shine, sparkle, splendor, star, sun, sunbeam, sunrise, sunshine, taper, torch, window 9 November 2010 Reply

Sorry Jeff!
But you’ve done the business for me, so all is well 😉 7 October 2010 Reply

How many literary agents does it take to change a lightbulb?
None. It’s a really nice lightbulb, they enjoyed switching it on and they loved the way it glowed, but they don’t think this is quite the right evening. Perhaps when it gets darker.

Sorry. Couldn’t resist. 11 October 2010 Reply

Now for a serious response…
Excellent post. Good points, well made. I liked it especially because, if you replaced the word “writer” with (say) “plumber” throughout, it would still be good advice. This is as it should be.

I worry a lot (well… a bit) about the way people – practitioners and otherwise – talk about writing. A writer is not necessarily more imaginative or sensitive or clever or intelligent or perceptive or wise or good or (let’s face it) interesting than a plumber. Certainly not as useful. She/he just happens to be concerned with a particular field of endeavour. Like plumbing it requires a certain set of talents and skills. The latter may improve with time but the talents you’re stuck with.

Let’s not take ourselves too seriously. 100 years from today we’ll all be dust. 9 December 2010 Reply

Yeah a lot of writers are full of themselves

Anonymous 21 July 2011 Reply

[…] previously written about how important it is to take responsibility for your writing. I think the same sentiment applies here. Because we can control our passion, if we put our minds […]

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