Beware Our Biases
Humans have built-in biases for—and against—certain things:
1. We’re biased toward methods practiced by “successful” people, even if the methods have no actual bearing on their success. (Survivorship bias.)
2. We’re also biased toward methods that agree with ideas we already hold. (Confirmation bias.)
3. We’re biased toward what everyone else seems to be doing, whether or not it it’s actually working. (Fear of missing out).
4. And if presented with two methods, we’re naturally biased toward the one requiring less work on our part. Even if the effort-based methodology has better logic behind it. Because humans. (Least-effort bias.)
Any time you see one of those “Seven Secrets to blah blah blah…” ads, they’re counting on a mixture of Survivorship Bias and FOMO to get you to pull the trigger. They want you to think, Hey, there are secrets, and those successful people are willing to tell them to me! And if not to me, then to someone else!
As we’ve discussed before, the one commonality most successful creators seem to share is persistence. And all that implies. (Not just “hanging in there” and remaining static for months and years. But persisting via constantly improving our craft, our creativity, and our knowledge of the business. Working harder and smarter.)
I see people asking successful authors some variation of these questions almost daily: What are your secrets? What did you do to become a successful author? What steps should I take?
So here it is: The big secret is… the words. The words on the page. It’s all about the words, and very little else.
Want proof? Consider the following: When the vast majority of those author first got signed, the only thing the acquiring editors knew about them were the words they had put on the pages now in front of those editors. The words that made that particular submission—out of hundreds—stand out to the point where the editor said “Yes!” That’s all. Just the words.
Of course things outside our control—like luck and timing—also come into play, but even when we take that into account, we still have to have words on the page. Words that move, that connect, that are unique, that will make someone lean more toward “yes” than “no.” (And there are things we can do to increase our “luck,” as discussed here.)
And the great good news is, those words are totally within our control! So much about the publishing industry is beyond us, and I’ll be the first to admit this can make being an author stressful. But when it all gets a bit much, I remember that the one thing I have absolute control over is the writing… and I tear myself away from the vapid vociferousness of social media and refocus on the writing of my next work-in-progress. The words.
I see aspiring writers on social discussing the vagaries of publishing and having long threads about how to game the system to combat the horrible practices someone’s mentioned upthread. And the funniest/saddest part is, the majority of the things they’re all worried about (a major publisher totally changing your manuscript and publishing it without your buy-in, for example*) have zero relation to the reality of publishing.
[*Seriously. Saw this one on Twitter again, just this morning. Wow.]
So not only are you not getting good answers to the issues within publishing with your pub-doom scrolling, you’re not even getting the straight scoop about what those issues actually are.
It’s the same thing with trying to discern the exact steps an author took to get where they currently are. You can devote as much of your writing time as you want trying to learn the tiniest details of some successful writer’s path… but it won’t really help. You’d be way better off reading their work and trying to discern why it “works,” to the degree you think it does. Because everyone’s path is different, the only real commonality (besides perseverance, of course) being this: They eventually got a sample of their well-crafted, emotionally resonant writing in front of an editor who was looking for what they were offering.
That’s the path, right there.
So maybe we should spend, say, ninety percent of our writing time trying to figure out how to write emotionally connecting, well-crafted work. (And maybe a little of the remaining ten percent on getting it in front of the right agent/editor/reader.)
Instead of letting our survivorship bias tell us we should write using the same methods those authors did, to the same daily schedule, with the same crumpets between chapters. That’s the whole fallacy of survivorship bias—it looks at winners after the fact and then declares, “These easily measured differences are what makes them winners!” When the real reasons they’re winners are much more intangible and less easily measured. (Are there any easily-applied metrics for a piece of writing being “emotionally connecting and well-crafted”…? Not to my knowledge.)
Another oft-quoted axiom—“Do the writing, then send it out into the universe!”—was appealing as hell to me, for years. Because I really enjoyed the initial drafting. And because I didn’t really enjoy revising. And because one of my early writing heroes once said something similar. And—especially—because I was lazy. All of which added up to me pointing at this advice and telling myself, “See? I’m doing the right thing!” But the reality, of course, was that me sending out my early drafts (drafts which had been “edited”—scrubbed for SPG errors and obvious mistakes and continuity issues, but no real story-level revising) rarely led to the results I wanted. My biases at play here (“least effort” and “confirmation”) were biting me in the butt, and it wasn’t until I realized the real value of revision that things started to open up a little. (I still remind myself, “Hard right over easy wrong,” during the writing/revising/re-writing/polishing of every book-length project I do, lest I backslide…)
So, biases be gone!
It’s all about the words.
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