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March 19, 2013

What a Writer Needs: Humility

Thanks to the new pope, Francis I, variations of the word “humble” have been all over the news the last week. It’s not one that often comes up in popular media, and I imagine that’s largely because the term is misunderstood. But it’s a term that matters, especially for writers looking to make it to the next step.


Humility is not self-denigration; rather, as Erasmus says, “Humility is truth.”


No one wants to be the guy who boasts about his accomplishments, only to find that no one else is as impressed as he himself is. At the same time, what use is it to so underestimate your work that you never give it a chance to see the light of day?


The key to real humility is knowledge—objective knowledge of the quality of your work (see You Really Do Need an Editor) and realistic knowledge of the competition.


If aspiring authors saw what I saw every day as an assistant at a literary agency and at a publishing house—reading manuscripts and writing rejections every day—I have to believe most of them would take more time to polish or even rewrite their manuscripts before submitting them. In your own home, on your own computer, to your family and friends, your manuscript probably looks phenomenal. But what happens when it journeys out into the world to fend for itself? Are the characters really fleshed out? Do the logistics of the story make sense? Did you proofread—like really, really proofread? Have I heard this story before? Will anyone else want to hear it? Is it going to stand out, or is it going to blend in?


Practically, how does one get that perspective, without working or interning at a literary agency or a publishing house?


Step One: Join a serious writers’ group. If you write children’s books, check out your local chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). If you write for adults, get in touch with local colleges and the professors of their writing workshops. Post an ad on campus or in a local paper.


If you are starting your own group, be discerning of how you grow your community. You might ask for writing samples or have trial workshops before you solidify the group. Not everyone needs to write within the same genre, but everyone does need to be equally committed to the group. Set standards for when work is to be submitted, how often you will meet, and how feedback will be provided. Don’t be afraid to stick to your guns. Make sure your fellow workshoppers are aware of what they’re getting into and are prepared to contribute.


For me, at least, the act of getting the words down on paper is a solitary activity. I need time and space to dive into the world I’m creating. But once the words exist on the page, it’s time to involve a community I trust to help show me my strengths and weaknesses—and to encourage me to grow through both. A good leader can take advice while continuing to make her own choices. Be the leader of your own craft.

  1. […] in her power to identify the issues she can’t see herself. Rather, the humility (remember how important that is?) it takes to receive critical feedback over and over and over again is what’s going to […]

  2. […] What I took as a blow to my pride is something I should be very grateful for. Constructive criticism (and everything she suggests is constructive) is, for a writer with her head on straight, the greatest gift to receive. Of course my manuscript isn’t perfect yet. If we can edit out some of the easy reasons for an editor to pass later on, let’s do it and give this thing its best chance. Here is another example of how important humility is for writers. […]

  3. […] Scieszka, as he passed her the baton of National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. Humble as she is, Paterson said that every time she finishes a book, she thinks that’s it, the last one. […]

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