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Publish, don't perish – Instalment 12

What if: overcoming writer's remorse

Writer's remorse: all writers have had it. As soon as we send in an article, we have a flash of inspiration about the perfect hook we could have used to snare readers' attention. As soon as a book is on its way to the printer, we run across the perfect source to shore up its weakest spot. As soon as we turn in a manuscript, we have an epiphany about the perfect section we could have included – had we only thought of it earlier. As soon as we see the final version in print, we cringe at an unfortunate word choice here, an incomplete train of thought there.

It's natural to second-guess ourselves; writer's remorse being merely one manifestation. The fact that we can think, remember, and envision alternative scenarios is part of what makes us human. We've all thought of the perfect comeback to a day's-old insult, dreamed about another path we could have taken and where we could be now. Writer's remorse, though, hits at the center of our insecurities about putting our work – more than that, our words – out there for others to see. In order to overcome our insecurities and go on as writers, we need to gain some perspective on what part of this is really under our control.

Purchasing perspective

Try this exercise: Pick a librarian author whose work you admire, one who has been writing for at least ten years. Read a recent piece or two, taking note of topic, writing style, voice, and where the work appears. Now, go back three to five years and pick another couple of pieces. Look at the same aspects. Last, go back another three to five years. Would you know this was the same writer? How have her approach, her topics, her publication outlets changed over time? Has her distinct voice emerged over time, or was it present from the outset?

Next, pick someone who has been writing for the past 20 years. Look at his recent work, then go back 10 years, 15, and 20. How do you see his work evolving over the years?

Now, just for fun, pick someone who has just started writing recently. Make the same notes about her work. How do you envision her topics, style, voice, and choice of outlets changing over the next five years? The next ten? Keep an eye out for her writing and see whether she matches your expectations over time.

Buying time

Now that we are done dissecting others, let's get back to you and your writing. The above heavy-handed exercise should, if nothing else, show that people's writing naturally changes over time. If you are just starting out, why compare yourself to someone who has been writing for years? Everything you write, everything you work on, helps create your own unique voice and style, helps hone your writing muscles so that your voice can shine through. A simple shift in perception helps move early writing from the category of "mistake" to that of "building block" – as does the recognition that we are generally our own harshest critics.

The best way to sidestep writer's remorse, though, is always to have that next project in mind. When we are busy writing, researching, or thinking about our next article, we have less time to wallow in "could've, would've, should've" from the last one.

Yes, some of us only have one article, one book, or one idea in us; in others, inspiration strikes but rarely. If, however, you have the ambition to call yourself a writer, if you have the need to publish widely for tenure or promotion purposes, if you have a flood of ideas waiting to take shape, you have the perfect antidote. Best of all, your work on that next project, that next article, hones your writing that much more – as your writing improves and your unique style takes shape, bouts of writer's remorse will become fewer and further between.

Remorse for the rest of us

All of us, no matter the volume or frequency of our writing, can battle writer's remorse pre-emptively. Regardless of how long you have been writing or how often your work appears, you are more likely to second-guess your own work when you know you have failed to put in your best effort. Much of the time, our remorse stems from the guilty knowledge that we could have – should have – done better.

If you wait till the last minute and dash something off for a waiting editor, you are sure to regret it in the morning. If you get tired of looking at a given piece and send in an unfortunately rough draft, it will fail to miraculously polish itself up in transit. While not a sure-fire cure, avoiding sure-fire paths to remorse increases our odds of being able to take pride in our work.

A while back, I read a business book whose main point was (in so many words): "Sell like hell, do the work, take the money". In writing, as in business, it can be a lot more fun to sell (to get others excited about our fabulous ideas), and to take the money (or résumé fodder or recognition), than to spend time on the nitty-gritty details of writing. Neglecting this middle bit, though, pretty much obviates the whole point; there is only so much selling we can do before our failure to really do the work leaves the rest right out.

Writing is indeed work! Again, as in business, the key to satisfaction is to find the work that is personally rewarding, interesting and challenging, to do it well, and to expend your energy where it is important and needed.