Why Writers Irrationally Dislike Their WIPs

A very typical response to a manuscript you’ve written is to at times dislike, or be critical of it. (Or to love it to death, but for now we’ll look at the days you dislike it.) You look at what you wrote and you feel disappointed, annoyed that it bears little relevance to the magna opus you pictured in your head.

That feeling, however, is completely irrational. You cannot compare the typed sentences in your computer to the imagined book in your head. Your work hasn’t been edited, type-set, or bound in covers yet. It hasn’t, in fact, even been completely finished yet. There is no way it can live up to your expectations.

But it’s not because it’s not good; it’s because it lacks the apparatuses of what we think of as a book. If you compare your first draft to a finished book (one that’s been bound, edited, and reviewed) of course your work will seem weaker by comparison. Writers often doubt themselves and the true value of their work because they compare the nascent manuscript not with other nascent manuscripts, but with finished books–finished books that have the “aura” that a book gets after it has been edited, marketed, and talked about in the press.

Every writer at one point dislikes her WIP, and for a simple reason: she’s spent a tremendous amount of time and energy into it, but the manuscript still hasn’t given her anything back. It just sits there. In order to make sense of that reaction, we decide there must be something wrong with it: it’s weak, or it’s bad. But the reason we question its value isn’t out of some rational, genuine awareness of the manuscript’s merits, but rather out of frustration that the manuscript hasn’t returned to us the work we put into it.

This phenomenon happens in life all the time: for instance, a lot of postpartum depression is caused by the disconnect between the mother’s “literal” labor and the baby’s inability to give the mother so much as a smile or a “thank you.” With buyer’s remorse, you spend a tremendous amount of money and time buying a house, and the day you move in, you realize you haven’t gotten anything from the house yet. No memories, no shelter, no nothing. You’re out 10 or 20 or 50 grand, and you haven’t really gotten anything in return.

Same thing with a manuscript. In that in-between, purgatorial period between finishing and selling the book, the manuscript just sits there. You’ve spent months, or even years working on it, sacrificing for it, and meanwhile, the manuscript gives you nothing (for the moment). In an attempt to understand this confusing scenario, the brain starts to play tricks with you. The book hasn’t lived up to the version in your head (the one that’s beautifully displayed on the tables in the entrance to the bookstore), and so you decide there must be something wrong with it.

It is impossible to gauge the true value of your manuscript, because of the “added bonus” that the process of editing, marketing, and displaying your book provide. (This is partly what makes publishing such an inexact art.) Your WIP may seem weak to you, but imagine it with a jacket cover image, a blurb from a famous novelist, an ISBN on the back, and a hardcover spine. It is comparing apples and oranges, and why WIPs–printed out, without the fancy stuff–always seem worse by comparison.

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