The Three Great Myths of Writing
by Joan Marie Verba
For a long time, many people thought that they could get warts from
handling frogs. Now we know that this was a myth–something “everyone”
thought was true, but which had no basis in fact.
Writing, too, has its own mythology. In writing, as in everything
else, mythology is perpetuated for a reason. People use myths to explain
phenomena they do not understand, or to deal with realities they do not
wish to face, or to avoid confronting the fact that events are often random
and unfair. Because myths have such powerful uses, myths are seldom
questioned, and people become very upset when their cherished myths are
challenged. But myths, because they are untrue, can cause people who
believe in them to feel hurt or lost or confused when they rely on these
myths to guide their actions.
That is why I believe that writers should become aware of the myths that
exist in our profession. In my experience, I have discovered three myths
which I believe are particularly misleading, and are worth further
Myth #1: If your writing is good, you will have no trouble selling
your stories; if you are not selling your writing, it means your stories
are no good.
This myth has a factual basis. A lot of writing does get rejected
because it is poor. But the myth, as repeated by many experienced writers,
is that good writing guarantees acceptance and, conversely, non-acceptance
surely means that the writing is poor. To debunk this myth, researchers
have recently taken classic novels–The Yearling comes to mind as an
example–and submitted them as manuscripts to publishers. These were seldom
recognized by the publishers, and almost universally rejected. The reason
is that publishers nowadays are less interested in the quality of writing
than they are in the commercial potential of the writing. If the publisher
thinks the writing will sell, even if the manuscript is flawed, the
publisher may be inclined to buy it. If the publisher thinks the manuscript
will not sell, the publisher may not take it no matter how well it is
written. This, for instance, explains rejection slips which say, “good
writing, we just don’t want to publish it.”
Myth #2: Once you sell a book, or several short stories, you will not
have any trouble getting an agent, and you will not have any trouble
selling any more of your own writing.
I recently read an interview with an award-winning author who said that
she was not able to get an agent until after she sold her fourth novel.
Another author, a friend of mine, also worked out her fourth book contract
without an agent, though she was able to get an agent for her fifth. I know
a third author who has had five novels published, but for the past three
years has not been able to find anyone interested in the two novels she has
written since then. And I recently read an account from a writer whose
first book sold tens of thousands of copies who reported that she did not
have an agent for her first book, and has had trouble finding an agent for
With so many counter-examples cropping up, this myth is beginning to
lose its hold, though it still persists. My guess is that those who
perpetuate this myth are the lucky authors who were able to find an agent
after (or even before) their first book came out, and had no trouble
finding a publisher for any novel they wrote thereafter. Such authors do
exist, but I suspect they are not as numerous as mythology would have it.
Myth #3: If you follow the advice of experienced authors, you are
certain to get published.
I recall the advice that the late science fiction author Robert Heinlein
had for writers: write, finish what you write, and keep sending the
manuscript to publishers until it sells. Experienced authors tend to add
other advice: study the markets, improve your skills, and so forth. This
third myth is very seductive because the advice is sound. But the fact is
that novices can read and follow every word of advice that experienced
writers print and still not get published. The problem is not simply that
no method works for everyone, and to say that writers must find a method
that works for their particular situation is too superficial. The problem
is that many writers who give advice imply–if they do not say it
outright–that any writer who follows their advice will absolutely,
positively, get published….now, if not sooner.
This leaves novices who follow such advice beating their heads against
the wall in frustration. (“But I did everything J. Doe said in the
article ‘How to Get Your Story Published’ and I still have not placed my
story.”) Novices will be helped, instead, if they are told that writing is
a complex task involving a lot of intangibles and random variables (or, in
other words, luck). Authors need to be told that no one piece of advice
will guarantee acceptance; at best, following good advice merely increases
the probability of publication.
Writing, as a profession, is tough enough without well-intentioned
authors passing along useless myths. A writer who has a stack of unpaid
bills on one hand and a stack of rejection slips on the other is not helped
by being told that if the writing is good, it will sell; or that once the
first story is sold, there will be no problem selling the next one; or that
if the writer just follows J. Doe’s advice, the acceptances will start
rolling in. Encouragement and reassurance need to be based on a realistic
appraisal of the obstacles writers inevitably face. Writers can and do sell
stories. Good writers can and do get rejected. Writers with track records
can and do have problems placing succeeding stories. Advisors can and do
fail to give suggestions that work.
I suspect there are other myths making the rounds, but either I have not
yet come across them, or I have not yet found out that certain statements I
have heard are myths. I am interested in hearing from anyone who has other
myths to report (that is, myths that writers tell other writers, as opposed
to myths that the public has about writers). Myths about writing may never
disappear, even if exposed as falsehoods, but at least those of us who love
frogs should be able to handle them without fearing that we will get warts.
© 1994 by Joan Marie Verba.
Permission to copy this essay is granted provided the copyright notice
(previous line) is included.