Positive Writer

Writing through doubt and fear, and you can, too!

How to NOT Let Others Sabotage Your Writing

As a writer, you have a responsibility to protect your writing from others…

Protect your writing from others

There must be something in the air. A writer from my blog recently emailed me about an idea for a novel. It’s brilliant, very high concept, and I told him so.

He was quite encouraged. Two days later, he emailed me disappointed. He’d mentioned my response in passing to his wife, who does not care for fiction or stories. Although she didn’t intend to be unkind, her lack of enthusiasm hurt. He hadn’t written one word, but was ready to quit.

I’m happy to report he spoke to his wife and she’s now on board with his book. I hope he does it.

That same day, another writer told me about a situation where he was telling his friends about his novel. They thought of a really interesting conflict to add, but he was getting bogged down trying to incorporate the new material.

His writing had gone well beforehand. I didn’t know the whole situation, but asked if their suggestions rang true for him. I wondered if this other idea (no matter how compelling) truly fit with his original vision for this story.

He said, no. He already had a similar conflict and was scrapping the other idea to get back to his initial premise.

We MUST Protect Our Writing From Others! (Click to Tweet)

Even well meaning people can inadvertently sabotage your work. Especially, family and friends because their opinions matter most to us.

In the beginning, stories are like ugly babies. They are far from pretty and need the chance to grow up into the stories they’re meant to be. Novels, poems, short stories, nonfiction books and blogs. The possibilities are endless, if you keep your work safe from harm. Look at Writer #2’s friends, they weren’t criticizing him at all. They were excited and wanted to help, but did the exact opposite.

Other writers can wreak havoc on you, too. I have a traditionally-published friend. Her former critique group hammered her week after week about her novel. They said her prose was too flowery, too cumbersome and not commercial enough. It would never sell.

Guess what? She left that group and sold her series for six-figures. It recently hit the New York Times Bestseller List. (The author is A.G. Howard and it’s the Splintered series.)

Those naysayers haven’t come close to achieving such success. Most are still unpublished or have quit writing altogether.

This advice applies to professionals in the publishing industry, too. Just because an agent says, “Make these changes and maybe I’ll represent you.”

Unless those changes ring true for you, do not do it.

More than likely those very adjustments will ruin what makes your story unique and probably won’t change their minds either.

Learn to trust your instincts. Have the audacity to trust yourself as a writer.

Follow King’s Advice for Protection

In Stephen King’s memoir, On Writing, he passes on the advice given to him years ago by his newspaper boss, editor John Gould:

Write with the door closed. Rewrite with the door open. (Click to Tweet)

King further explains, “Your stuff starts out being just for you, in other words, but then it goes out. Once you know what the story is and get it right — as right as you can, anyway — it belongs to anyone who wants to read it. Or criticize it.”

He says it takes him about three months to write the first drafts of his novels. This feels right to him because it’s about the length of a full season of that year.

I really like that comparison — time for your story to grow into something more. You don’t understand your book until the first draft is complete and even then, you may still have more questions than answers.

It’s a p-r-o-c-e-s-s. A delicious, messy process. Some authors say it takes about five drafts to write a book. It might take you more or less.

Zip Your Lip (for Your Story’s Sake)

People you know may ask the inevitable question, “How’s the book coming along?”

They may have genuine interest, or they might be snarky (you know, your silly hobby).

Smile and say, “I’m making progress. Thanks.”

Don’t say anymore. Let it go. If they press you for details, then add, “I’m superstitious. I won’t discuss my story until it’s ready for other eyes.”

If they still can’t take the hint and ask how long that will be, say, “Probably after about five drafts, then change the subject.” Then, get away from them ASAP, whether they are friends or foes.

I can’t tell you how many writers (myself included) who regret saying anything about their projects to others: the title, the concept, what inspired you to write it. Anything.

Writing is challenging enough. Don’t make it worse by letting others destroy your work before it’s ready for its debut.

Has your writing ever been sabotaged by others (friend or foe)? If yes, how so? Share in the comments.

This post is by Positive Writer contributor, Marcy McKay. Let her know what you thought of it in the comments.

About Marcy McKay

Marcy McKay wanted to write stories ever since she read about Oompa Loompas in fourth grades. She's the Amazon best-selling author of Pennies from Burger Heaven. Join her on Facebook. Marcy is also a contributing author to The Audacity to be a Writer.

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Like a good friend, Bryan guides you through the process of facing your inner demons, conquering the craft, and creating work that matters. ―Jeff Goins

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  • Very good post. Thank you so much Marcy, I’d like to translate it (in french) and put it on my own website to encourage my audience to build safe bounderies. i have no commercial activity. Can I get your autorization ? Please feel free to visit my baby plateform (in Frrench but part of it is written in english) http://www.alliance-ruthetnoemie.org. Best regards;

    • Hi Annie,
      I’m delighted you like the post and want to translate it. It’s not my say-so, since this is Bryan Hutchinson’s blog. I’ll talk to him and one of us will get back to you.

      • Hi Marcy,
        Thanks for your answer. I am excited for my message reached you. Hope Brian will be ok. I’m looking for uplifding, positive teachings and insights for women involved in the writing process. As I’m following Brian”s post since a while… Waiting for your updates…:)

      • I’m good with it if Marcy is good with it. Seems we’re all good with it. 🙂 Please only in French, though, so we don’t have duplicate content on the web. Enjoy!

        • Thank you so much,Bryan. Don’t worry, I won’t duplicate it in English. Not enough stamina… As soon as I finish, I send you a post to show you my text. Hope I will be able to transmit your energy and enthousiasm on the topic. Have a lot on my website : it’s a baby plaform but I’m working hard to improve it and make very precious connections. Quality, not quantity is my motto. 🙂 See you soon
          http://www.alliance-ruthetnoemie.org
          and my new facebook page : Ruth et Noémie (France)

  • Cindy

    Thank you so much Marcy for the wonderful post.

    • My pleasure, Cindy. Glad to see you here and thanks for your comment!

  • Adi T

    This was great! Thanks for the sound advice!

  • Well this could not have come at a better time! I entered a contest and was reviewed by two people. One, a published author, loved my work and scored me pretty high. She had a few workable changes and was very professional with her task. THE OTHER…well, was nasty! She didn’t say she hated it, but she let me know. So here I had two completely stark reviews. Did my book warrant this??? I wondered. But then I reread the bad review, laughed it off as amateur…..and moved on to the good advice. I know my writing is good! I am a skilled writer and my story is a lovely one. That is what I know and NO ONE is going to bog me down. I will take the advice that is good and warranted, and ignore the others that I find just plain stupid! That is the best we can do as writers. Everyone is a critic…but no one is as hard on us than ourselves!

    • Isn’t that interesting? Same story. One loved it and one hated it. This shows one more time how subjective reading/writing is. And, you’re correct. Everyone is a critic and we’re usually hardest on ourselves.

      Thanks for your great insights.

      • I used this article for the jumpstart of my blog today…so thank you! Would love to link it to my blog….but need your approval! You may check it out at writerdeeva.com. I do quote you but I think this article is so important, would love to have other read as well. Let m know. Thanks. (Sorry to make so public, but wasn’t sure how to contact you. You can respond to me via blog….)

  • politicalatheist

    Thanks Marcy for the great topic.

    I share my short stories with my hubby…much to his chagrin – lol – but he loves me so he listens (even though he’s not a fan of fiction – lol).

    I’m fortunate in that he is my biggest fan and is very supportive of me and my writing.

    Other than him, I keep them to myself until I share them on Scriggler or Wattpad.

    • Sounds like a great plan. There’s no right or wrong to this, everyone must do what works best for them. I’m glad you’ve found the right balance for you!

  • Loved As If

    Excellent post. Thank you.

    A dear friend who has published three books was concerned about the way I was writing my book. It’s a fictionalized memoir. She wanted me to find a safe way to write about anything that might make others uncomfortable or might trigger painful reactions from readers. I spent a year trying to write to her specifications. (I value her opinion.) At one point, she suggested I write an allegory. Trying to write as she

    • Bravo, Drusilla. That’s sooooo hard to ignore well-meaning comments, ESPECIALLY if it’s from someone….published…whom you respect, etc. But you are proof positive of what my posts says. Even that kind of great friend can still sabotage your work.

      I’m thrilled you scrapped her idea that wasn’t working and returned to your original idea. Writers have STRONG instincts. We should trust them more. Good luck!

  • East Kixkittens

    Ha! The group that A.G. Howard was being berated by were just jealous because she had come up with such an awesome concept for a story they really couldn’t figure out what to critique her on, so they went negative about everything.

  • East Kixkittens

    I needed this article!

    I have also had a run in with “block due to outside influence”. When a new writer receives criticism it can do one of two things – completely shut them down or motivate the tar out of them.

    It completely shut me down – to the point where I didn’t touch my story for almost 4 years, and to this day flounder with trying to continue it.

    Writing is a very personal thing, at least for me. Hell, if I am not comfortable at my desk I cannot write to save my life, and add in other people being in the room and you have a recipe for non-productive writing time.

    I think more writers, particularly sensitive types like myself, need to be aware that showing their writing to others or even talking about it to other people (be they family, friends, trusted critique partners, etc.) can open us up to a myriad of troubles if we are not careful.

    • Yep, you definitely understand this post. I hope you will finish your sabotaged story. And, if not that one, then write and complete another. Good luck on your journey and thanks for the honesty of your story. I really appreciate it!

  • Catherine North

    This totally happened to me! I had comments from two agents and a writing friend which left me feeling not only crushed, but confused. I couldn’t understand why they were interpreting my story so differently from how I’d intended it. Maybe I was just an awful writer, I thought. But then, the suggestions they made didn’t seem believable to me either, however open-minded I tried to be.

    Now, after getting very positive feedback from an editor/writing coach who really connected with the story, I understand better just how subjective feedback is. In real life, not everyone ‘gets’ you, and the same applies to your art, because we’re all responding to it from our own perspective.

    I’m a lot more wary now about who I show my writing to, especially in the initial stages, and I try not to be swayed by advice that doesn’t ring true for me, even if it comes from an agent or editor.

    Thank you for another great post!

    • As painful as your experience was, Catherine, I can tell it’s made you both wiser and stronger, as well as more committed to believing in YOUR STORY — regardless of what others say. That’s great!

      Good luck to you in your continued journey to publication.

  • DJ

    My biggest issue is pressure from my spouse. “better get that book done so we can buy a house/get a car/pay off student loans.” (it varies) The plus is that my spouse has such faith in my abilities, she truly believes I’mgoing to make enough for us to.retire comfortably from the profits of my first book/series. The bad part is that the push to get me to write more, makes me write less.

    • What an interesting twist, to this type of “block,” DJ! Not tearing you down, but unintentionally shutting with TOO MUCH PRESSURE of success. It still has the same damaging outcome, but in a different way.

      I’m curious, have you discussed your dilemma with your spouse? Thanks for sharing your story. I’m going to file it away in my memory banks.

  • Jim

    I am so glad that I am not alone. I’ve yet to write my first fiction book but have written several non fiction books. Nevertheless learning fiction is like night and day for me. I know I need to learn a lot and that was the primary reason for joining a paid for forum with an outstanding leader.

    The format was to write short stories every week and have all the students critique one another. I thought it was a good idea for each of us to help each other out. Wrong. Sure there was some conscientious people that gave critiques about my writings. I appreciated that but there are always those onions in the barrel that think they are above reproach.

    I got hit with a critique that shook me to core. So much so I got out of the forum and have never even thought about writing fiction again. Until this moment I thought I was too shy, too introverted, too lame to withstand the critiques of others whom I thought were better than me in writing fiction. Not.

    Now I know better, now I will write what I want to write with fiction. This has been a relief more than you can imagine. thank you so much for your insights into writing.

    • Catherine North

      Jim, I really wanted to respond to your comment, because I also spent years thinking I was too shy, too introverted, too sensitive, etc to be able to handle critique. I kept hearing that you had to grow a thick skin to be a writer, and it seemed like I couldn’t do that, and I felt ashamed and embarrassed. But at the same time, I knew I wanted to write and to eventually be published.

      I’ve found critique groups don’t work for me, and I’d rather rely on one or two trusted people who like my writing and who I can trust to be honest but kind. I appreciate that if I do get published, I’ll have to face whatever reviews are thrown at me 🙂 However, I’m building up my confidence one step at a time, and I definitely feel much more positive and resilient than I used to, knowing that I’ve written stories other people can connect to.

      I’ve also learned that once you get beyond the basic craft of writing, most of what people say about your story is just opinion, or whatever’s true for them, from their perspective. So like Marcy says, take the advice that works for you and ignore the rest. Good luck, and I’m willing to bet your sensitivity makes you a great observer of people, which is an awesome trait for a writer!

      • VERY kind of you to reach out, Catherine. Great advice from a woman who knows….

    • Wow, Jim. I’m sorry you’ve been beaten up by critiques. I think many of us can relate. You’re not too shy, too introverted or too whatever. You’re a writer — period.

      Yes, we need critiques from others. Yes, we need to hear what needs to be fixed with our work, but it soooo must be the right people…at the right time.

      I do hope you’ll return to fiction. I believe you want to — I hear it in your words. Good luck!

  • This is spot-on. Every emerging/beginning writer needs to read this article.

    • Thanks, E.J., but I would respectfully submit this doesn’t just apply to emerging writers or beginners. I saw the same thing happen to an author friend who’d traditionally published SEVERAL novels, then her agent sabotaged her a new and different sort of book.

      They ultimately parted ways and it took my friend a few years to return to the page. Granted, life experience happened, too…elderly parents, a child in crisis, but still. I feel this is something ALL writers should be vigilant about with their work.

      • Marcy, didn’t mean to imply that. I just think emerging/beginning writers are inherently more ignorant of this, falling prey to the delusion that the more opinions they get, the better. I fell prey to it, and it was a hard lesson learned, but I’m grateful I learned it at the beginning and not later.

        • I just want to clarify for OTHER readers, in case they didn’t know this is something ALL writers need to ALWAYS be aware of.
          And you’re right, it’s a difficult, painful lesson, but we usually come out stronger. Thanks for responding, E.J. Good luck to you.

  • RobynBradley

    This is a tough one. One the one hand, we writers need feedback from someone, right? On the other hand, just as you so eloquently said, it has to be the right someone.

    That’s the challenge–finding that person who understands your talent, your vision as a writer, your voice, and who then provides constructive feedback that celebrates those things while pushing you to be a better writer. I’m struggling with this right now, finding that person.

    Did you catch the article about John Green’s editor, Julie Strauss-Gabel? http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/12/business/media/the-barbed-pen-behind-the-best-sellers-of-young-adult-fiction.html?_r=0 THIS is what I seek (even though I admit it terrifies me a little).

    I absolutely agree with your strategy about not talking about your work until it’s done. I always keep my lips zipped when I’m in drafting mode.

    Thanks for the great post, Marcy! 🙂

    • Wow, Robyn. INTERESTING NYT article. John Green editor is clearly tough, but look at this quote about her: “When Julie buys a book, she’s not buying the book, she’s buying an author for their career.”

      Sign me up. Someone like that knows how to bring out the best in a writer and they KNOW it, even if her words sting at first. Thanks for sharing that article.

      • RobynBradley

        Exactly. That’s what I want. Where can we sign up? 😉

  • I’m glad you found the right balance in sharing your work, Lujain. How LUCKY you are.
    Isn’t that COOL you have Splintered?! The whole series is a fabulous read. A.G. Howard is a dear friend and I high recommend everything she writes.

  • Ms Hanson

    Perhaps I’ve grown callouses or just filter out the negativity radiating from stunted souls. As Mark Twain said,”I can live for two months on a good compliment.” Spending the holiday season traveling around my native state a couple years ago, I collected several compliments which still reverberate inside my skull, and which I pull out as a shield whenever someone lobs a sneaker my way.

    One woman sharing an elevator at an ocean resort said “You have a wonderful voice.” Another told me “YOu have a great attitude, bubbly and positive…will take you a long way.”

    Uttered by a newly single mom at a holiday gathering at a secluded retreat in the mountains was my favorite ever. Ingaterra turned to me amidst the revelry and stated quite plainly: “I want to be JUST LIKE YOU!”

    I carry that one in my heart as the best Christmas present ever.

    • Love the Mark Twain quote. Keep writing and keep your confidence high…

  • Ooooooh, read them and LOVE them!

  • Marcy, this is such an important post, and you nailed it. I try to never discuss details of my work with anyone until I’m confident in my progress, and the more important a project is, the more quiet I am. I find it hurts my process to talk too much, and that’s not counting potential damage regarding well meaning – or not – friends and family.

    I’m so glad you encouraged that writer you mentioned, and I really hope he moves forward with his high concept novel!

    • Great to see you here, Dana. It sounds like you really know to mums the word with your work. Wise woman.

      That writer IS moving forward with his high-concept novel and I hope he succeeds. I hope we ALL do!

  • Sadly, yes, my writing has been sabotaged by another. Early in my writing career, I was a member of a crit group. Two members were awesome, the third…not so much. I submitted a chapter with a very unique idea entwined in the writing and this crit partner disparaged it. A few weeks later we were critiquing her work and she had taken my ‘unique idea’ and incorporated it into her story. I was devastated. I lost a lot of trust in my fellow writers after that and it took me years to trust again…actually I’m still uber careful who I share my stories with because of that one incident.

    • Wow, Dee. I’m so sorry that happened. Obviously, the writer did like your idea since she took it for herself. Events like those are PAINFUL, but I’m glad you learned from it + are more cautious as to whom you share your stories.
      I hope you don’t let that woman win. I hope you keep writing and sharing your stories…with the right people, when your work is ready.

      • You know what…I was crushed at first but I learned from it and for that, well, the experience was worth it. It’s not stopped me from writing just made me more cautious.

        Thank you so much for sharing your article–it helps me feel less like a timid child afraid to show other writers what I’m working on and more like a writer who values her own work.

        • Isn’t it interesting that something that feels HORRIBLE at the time, can later turn out to be a blessing in disguise? I love that.
          Writing can be such a lonely, solitary process. I do like connecting with other writes, so I feel a little less alone in my process. TY!

  • My writing has been sabotaged on numerous occasions, but not by anyone who has read my stuff. In fact, I self-pubbed a book, The Quantum Suicide of Schrodinger’s Cat, which dealt with time travel, paradoxes, and the like, that was the direct draft (no edits!) from my one and only NaNoWriMo session. It’s on Amazon, but it really hasn’t sold. My mother, though, who is most definitely not a sci-fi person, said she “got it” right away! Miraculous! 🙂

    No, the biggest saboteurs for my writing have been the professionals who talk about what publishing means today. These are the people who write books on how you must make a “platform” first, the details of a book proposal, and other things that just let me know I don’t have the time in a day to deal with all of that, hold down a 7:30-5 job, and deal with everything else life throws at me. These are also the traditional publishers and those who have experienced them who bemoan the fact that, once the publisher buys the book, it’s no longer yours at all. (That includes a writer friend who had a book on Amazon, reviews via Story Cartel, and a publisher who disappeared with the rights, the money, and the permission for Amazon to drop the title.)

    • Hey Joe,

      By the way, I LOVE the title of your book. Very quirky and compelling. It’s hard not to get disheartened sometimes with all the advice from talking-heads about the “only” way to publish.

      Fortunately, there are many paths to publication today. All we can do is the best we can do, with the time we have. I hope you’ll continue to write and share that work with others.

  • I was in a writer’s group and found that I wasn’t pushing forward with my draft. I was rewriting the beginning again and again. I finally quit and that’s when my writing took off. I was able to listen to my work without others’ interfering. You are so right, a person needs to be alone with the work and take it as far as they can. Then find an editor or people who can be first readers. (I’ve found writers to not be a good source of editing.) Another thing I did was I hired a professional editor who helped me overcome the bad habits creative writing school instilled in me.

    • Your comment reminds why I always write my first draft alone. I don’t start sharing it with others until I have a complete (crappy) first draft. At that point, I have enough idea of what the story is to be able to start taking it to my weekly critique group. Even though, if their suggestions do not ring true for me, I don’t use them.

      I’m glad you’ve found what works best for you and trusting your intuition.

      • Yeah I did. I stay away from writers critique groups because they have become what animal trainers call a “poisoned cue”. There’s too much pain around them. My formal workshop training sent me backwards in significant ways.

        I have been alerted to a group of writers who read published works and talk about those. Now that sounds right up my alley and a chance to make friends with other writers without putting vulnerable work in front of them.

        • Wonderful, Katie. I’m glad you’ve discovered what works for you and your process, as well as what does not. Good luck on your continued journey.

  • Helen Upshall

    this is helpful I feel I too have a bit of a (crappy) first draft almost going along. Marcy Mason McKay. But yes writing alone is a good idea I think thanks everyone

    • Hi Helen,

      Take heart. Most everyone finds their first draft to be less than what they hoped. Keep at it, revising, editing and rewriting…that’s when the real stories come alive. Good luck.

  • What you say here is so true Marcy! It is so easy to get discouraged and lose hope when you are being critiqued by your close friends and family. But the fact is that they are only a small part of those who will be reading your writing and so you should not get discouraged by their comments though you should think about what they are saying sometimes.

    On the other hand, when people are trying to help you out it quickly becomes overwhelming. A friend and I have been working on a story together and sometimes people will try to tell us that we should add this or that in but we do our best to stick with OUR story. Not to be mean, that’s just how it has to be.

    • Hey Writer Dude, Jonathan!

      You don’t sound mean at all, just experienced in the fact that sometimes outside help isn’t so helpful. We must stay true to OUR visions of our work.

  • Susan Barker

    I should have read this article a LONG time ago. I felt my draft was XXcrappy, but I’m seeing by other comments, maybe I’m just too hard on myself and need to continue with the story. Thanks very much.

    • Yep. The food never tastes as good to the cook who slaves away in the kitchen all day.

  • Bob Ranck

    “. . . it rings true for YOU . . . . ”

    Marcie, that is the touchstone of any story, particularly the story inside you that MUST be written. That’s the only way to write that will work, as most intelligent readers can sense a fraud. Insincerity robs a story of its power and authenticity, and you don’t have to be a seasoned editor or veteran reviewer to get this.

    George Orwell’s “Down and Out in Paris and London” is an excellent example of ringing true – “Burmese Days” is as well, except for the final scene in that one; the “suicide” ending is hollow, and just about any reader senses the fraud of that gimmick.

    The author must have a decent command of and respect for the language. All that remains is a story to tell. One that “rings true” to the author’s rational senses will make it through to the readers’ as well.

    Thank you for this great post. It is a stimulating reaffirmation of my own long-held opinion that there is more to writing than fear.

  • It is so easy to become hypersensitive to “rules” people have given you that even when you acknowledge it doesn’t ring true for you (possibly didn’t ring true for them, they were just looking for something to say), you have a hard time of ever making it feel natural again. I’m working on a last final go through before submission and I swear every single thing anyone has ever said to me is running through my mind, including the contradictory ones. So not conducive to the process.