How Writers Can Develop Better Resilience

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Check out this week’s writing prompt on the blog.

Life is filled with disappointments – the breakup of a relationship, not getting that coveted job or promotion, a cancelled vacation. But I’ve always believed that it’s how we respond to those disappointments that show who we are.

Suffering through one disappointment is bad enough. But a lifetime of disappointments (and rejections from editors) can make us feel like giving up. Fortunately, most of us don’t. Can you imagine if Stephen King or Toni Morrison had given up writing after being rejected?

Over time, those disappointments can serve an important purpose by building up a hard shell around us, so future rejections can bounce off. As Polly Campbell writes over at the Writing Cooperative, resilient writers are also among the most successful.” They learn to bounce back from setbacks and keep going despite the pain of rejection. And as they keep working, they are learning their craft and improving their writing.

“Resilience doesn’t prevent hardship or adversity, but it does help us to reframe the difficulties and move through them faster. With resilience, we become more adaptive, creative and flexible. We are less stressed, more capable. This helps us keep writing despite the setbacks,” Campbell says.

Resilience is an important behavior that writers need to develop. But it takes time. Some of us are naturally better at it than others. But like any other behavior and skill set, it needs to be developed, honed and fine-tuned. Unfortunately, that means going through some rough stretches in our writing careers and opening ourselves to disappointment – over and over again.

But successful authors says there are ways to strengthen our inner resilience beyond the school of hard knocks.

  1. Stay optimistic. It may be difficult to maintain a positive mindset when your work is constantly being rejected or criticized. The most resilient writers are able to do that. Campbell says optimism can motivate behaviors which foster improvement or better outcomes. That means keeping our eye on the prize and not letting it out of our sight. Believing in the potential of your latest work-in-progress may be enough to keep going.

  2. Not everyone will “get” your story. Whether writing science fiction, historical romance or non-fiction, recognize that not everyone will “Get” your story. They may not understand the plot, the characters or some of the action that takes place. That’s okay. There are other audiences what will understand it and believe in it. The most important person who needs to “get” the story is you. If you lose faith in what you’re doing, then you’ve lost the fight. Keep believing in the story, and others will get behind it too.

  3. Celebrate the rejections. As contradictory as that may sound, it actually makes sense. Science fiction author Alex Woolf suggests rewarding ourselves every time we receive a rejection. It’s a way of honoring our efforts. “Rejections are milestones showing you’re on your way to a win,” Woolf says. “Rejections show you are working hard to achieve your goals. The more stories you submit, the more you’ll be rejected, but it also raises the chances to get an acceptance.” One idea is to drop a dime (or a quarter) into a jar each time you receive a rejection notice. Over time, you will have built up a supply of coins that you can take to the bank, or reward yourself with a special treat.

  4. Look for positive nuggets in the feedback. Woolf says we’re programmed to focus on negative comments to the point that we overlook the positive ones. After the dust has settled and you’ve regained your composure, go back and re-read the rejection letter again. Did the editor make any positive comments? Did they make any suggestions for improving it, or invite you to re-submit something else? If so, take heart. Focus on the positive news, implement their suggestions, then be sure to respond with a kind thank-you to the editor.

  5. Remind yourself of your ‘why’. Several weeks ago, I challenged myself to list forty reasons why I write. (I actually came up with fifty, but who’s counting.) If you feel tempted to give up on writing, go back to your why. When we’re disappointed and feeling hurt by repeated rejection, it can be tempting to give up on your craft. But when you remember why you’re doing this and why you love to tell stories, it may be enough to keep going. When you keep your ‘why’ in perspective, you’ll easily bounce back from setbacks.

Whether you focus on positive feedback, celebrate rejections or remind yourself of your ‘why’ of writing, you’ll develop stronger mental capacity to deal with setbacks on your writing journey. The most resilient writers are the most successful. Don’t let rejection and disappointment deter you from your writing goals.  

Tips for Managing Your Writing Expectations

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As creative writers, it’s easy to fall prey to unrealistic expectations. Writers must strike a balance between expectations that are too low or goals that are set too high. If expectations are too low, they may be a product of fears and self-doubt that our writing is not good enough. If expectations are too high, they may reveal an overly optimistic view of talents and skills that haven’t been mastered.

Developing a healthy balance between the two can provide a more realistic vision of your writing. The more realistic your expectations are, the more easily you’ll be able to achieve your writing goals. Here’s how you can manage your expectations as a writer.

1. Assess your skill set. Make a list of all your skills. What are you especially good at doing? Are there certain skills that you need to learn? For example, do you need to learn how to edit yourself? Or do you need to develop a better ear for dialogue? When you assess your skill set, you gain a clear understanding of your strengths and limitations.

2. Assess your writing goals. Think about the types of writing you want to do. Do you want to write fiction or screenplays, or are you happy writing for businesses?  Do you want to be a published author, or do you prefer to write as a hobby? Do you want to be paid for your writing? If so, research places like Writer’s Market for information about paid writing markets. What time frame do you want to achieve these goals? Some can be achieved within a year while others may take several years. Still others may never be realized. You may need to prioritize these goals and set milestones for achieving the larger ones.

3. Check in with yourself periodically. Goals and expectations can change over time. Set aside time every quarter (ideally) or at least every six months to review your writing goals to determine if you are still on track. When you reassess your plan every few months, you can make adjustments along the way so you stay on track.

4. Seek a second opinion. If you feel stuck and you’re not sure where to go next with your writing, it might help to get the perspective of a friend or two. It may be that you aimed too high with your writing or your expectations are too low. They can provide valuable insights into your approach. For example, if you lack self-confidence, they might point out some of your strengths that you can capitalize on. Or if you are painting an overly rosy picture of your writing life, like writing an 800-page novel in the next six months, they can provide needed perspective so you can see if that is a realistic goal.

5. Challenge your inner critic. Writers are naturally born with an inner critic, a voice that tells them their writing stinks. When you notice that voice in your head, stop for a moment and challenge those thoughts. Who is really thinking them – you or someone else? Counter with a positive affirmation in return. For example, if the voice keeps telling you that no one will like your story, counter it by pointing out all the times when someone DID like your story. Keep countering that critic with success stories of your own until that voice is silenced for good.

Or put a sign on your wall: “Inner critics not allowed while creative genius is at work.” Or something similar. The sign serves as a constant reminder that what matters most is your opinion, not someone else’s.

6. Expect rejection. No matter what kind of writing you do, rejection is bound to happen. Someone somewhere will be reviewing your work, and not everyone will like what you write. Rejection is a natural part of the writing process. Rejection can help you reassess your writing project to see if it still works. It can help you look at other avenues for publishing that you might not have considered. If two editors didn’t like your piece about making your own food for cats, then maybe a third editor will. Rejection can be disarming at first, but it can also fuel your motivation to keep trying.

7. Let go of the need to be perfect. When you first begin writing, you might envision what your final piece will look like. Then as you begin writing, you realize that your piece is nothing at all like you imagined. Perhaps you write a dozen or so drafts before finally giving up. First drafts are supposed to be crap, says essayist Anne Lamott in her book Bird by Bird. Know this and accept it. First drafts help you unload the ideas from your head to the paper before you can craft them into a story. If you try to be perfect as you write, you will never accomplish much. All you will have to show for your effort is a waste basket filled with crumpled sheets of paper.

Unrealistic expectations are often the result of feelings of inferiority or idealized visions of writing success. Neither of them are satisfactory. Keep your expectations realistic by periodically assessing your skills and emotional mindset.

The Writer’s Guide to Overcoming Rejection

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Rejection is one of the most painful experiences a writer can go through. It’s also a normal part of the creative process. Because without rejection, we would have no impetus to improve our work.

At least that’s what we like to tell ourselves, right?

When rejection happens over and over again though, it can feel like a giant boulder slamming down on your head. You may grow weary of all the effort you put into your work only to have it rejected. You may wonder if a writing life is worth all the rejection, and you may begin to doubt yourself. You may even be tempted to give up on writing altogether.

But don’t give up. If you have a story to tell, you need to tell it. Keep going. Keep writing.

Whether you’ve been turned down for a job, overlooked for a promotion in your company or received a rejection notice from a publisher, rejection hurts. It will always hurt. But there are ways to deal with the lingering emotional turmoil so you can make the most of the rejection and use it to fuel your future endeavors.

So how can writers move past rejection? There are several steps you can take to not only cope with rejection, but use it to fuel your work.

1. Take a time-out. After you’ve been rejected, it might be helpful to take a time-out to re-settle yourself emotionally. Getting rejected is painful, especially if you’ve toiled for weeks, even years, on your latest masterpiece. But rather than get back to work, take a break. Do something else for a couple of days — read a book, do yoga, take a hike, work in your garden, clean house, or visit a museum. Do anything that will clear your heart and mind before getting back to work.

2. Write about your rejection. Don’t dwell on the rejection. Sometimes writing about your rejection experience can help clear your mind and body of the emotional turmoil rejection leaves behind. Write about it in your personal journal, or write a personal essay. In fact, it doesn’t have to be anything anyone else will read. But by writing about it can help heal a wound before it festers beyond repair.

3. Talk things over.
If you don’t want to write about your experience, talk it over with a friend, spouse, or a colleague – someone close to you who understands your need and desire to write. Writers need to surround themselves with a strong emotional support system so they’ll always have at least one shoulder to cry on, one person to listen to your angry rants, and one person to celebrate when you accomplish your dream.

4. Don’t reply back to the rejection source. This is important. Responding in anger is counterproductive and will likely make you feel worse, writes Angela Tung in the Huffington Post. She suggests that sending an angry reply can hurt your chances of being published later on by this publication. They may not want to work with you. However, there is one exception to this piece of advice. If the editor offered some helpful tips to improve your piece, you can reply with a gracious “thank you.” If the editor took the time to provide feedback on your work, it means they liked your writing enough to give you encouragement. Take their comments to heart.

5. Work on another project. If you’re like most writers, you may have several projects going on at once. While the initial project is on hiatus, pull out another piece you’ve had on the back burner and give it another read. After time away from it, you’ll be able to look at your work with a fresh eye.

6. Review the editor’s comments. Once the emotional dust has cleared, review whatever comments you received from the editor. If they took the time to provide feedback or make suggestions, they clearly felt your piece has some redeeming value. Review your work again, this time with the editor’s comments in mind. You’ll find more often than not, their suggestions are worthwhile.

7. Get back to work. That might mean rewriting your piece or it might mean finding another publication to submit your piece to that might be a better fit. With rejection behind you, you can roll up your sleeves and get back to writing with a fresh eye and renewed energy.

8. Don’t quit. Keep working. Keep writing. Don’t let rejection deter you from your writing. Instead use it to fuel your work.

All writers experience rejection. It’s a normal part of the creative writing process. Rejection, and any feedback that comes along with it, is meant to help you become a better writer. Use it to your advantage.

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