I feel as though I’ve overstated the issue slightly in the title of this post, so let me start with a qualification:
By ‘comparison’, I don’t mean, taking into account the tricks and tools used by other writers. If you’ve come across an author whose style attracts you, maybe because of their use of word pictures, alliteration, spicy dialogue etc., it is perfectly acceptable to try to use those things yourself. That’s to be expected, even encouraged, though you’ll want to use it in your own way and in your own voice, of course.
The kind of comparison I’m referring to as ‘NEVER helpful’ is when you hold your work up against someone else’s to see if it’s better or worse. It’s a trap. A horrible, destructive trap, and almost all of us fall into it. I say ‘almost all’, but that’s only to cover those writers who have either never read a book by another author and the liars.
The truth is, we all fall into this trap. And some never get out of it again, choosing instead to hang up their pen and/or their laptop, and walk away, deciding to do something easier, like studying the Pythagorean School of Presocratic Philosophy (I read that in a book).
But that’s not going to be us! Because we can see the trap for what it is. A trap. Obviously.
Comparing with ‘Better’
Let’s take a couple of illustrations. For example, while writing draft chapter 11 of NT2S&S, I happened to also be reading a book by a very well known author, whose writing prowess far exceeds my own (it was The Shining, by Stephen King, if you must know). There he is writing a gripping story, that tears at your emotions, with only a handful of characters. And then there’s me, digging up what seemed in comparison to be nothing more than a muddy puddle of jumbled mumblings. And right there is the trap: that’s how it seemed ‘in comparison’. While reading the one and writing the other, I was drawn into comparing my draft novel with King’s polished prose. That led to concerns about my character development, the lack of subplots, the stilted nature of the dialogue, the need for better descriptions of people and places, and the yawning holes that desperately needed to be filled with at least an attempt at some decent writing.
That way, madness lies. Madness and defeat. Such a comparison is always going to leave you with a feeling of inferiority and insufficient writing ability, and, if pursued, this will stop your writing in its tracks. It stopped mine for a whole two days before I realised what was happening.
Comparing with ‘Worse’
Another, and possibly worse example is this. Comparing your writing to a poorly written novel. This one I won’t name, but on one of my usual rambling click-fests around the internet, I found myself reading the opening of a novel that was, frankly, awful. Poor spelling, poor grammar, poor grasp of story-telling and poor premise. It wasn’t good, and I had to let it go after the first chapter, as there were other books to be read. But, when I returned to my writing, I found myself plagued – and that’s the right word – with a sense of superiority, as though, in comparison with such childish scribblings, I was some kind of author par excellence, a giant among writers. And there again was the trap: it was ‘in comparison’ that I felt this way. And while it wasn’t going to stop me writing, unlike the previous example, it was likely to do something worse – make me not care about my writing, not bother about my own spelling, grammar, story-telling and premise. Why should a writer of my calibre care about such mundane and infantile thing?
That way, bad writing lies. And bad writing takes a whole lot of rewriting to pull back into shape, and almost none of it can be allowed to survive!
In conclusion then, comparing your writing with any other work, regardless of whether it is better or worse, is destructive. And while you might think, in some weird, pseudo-logical, quasi-psychological way, that comparisons with other writing will spur you on to better writing, either because you want to aim high like the better authors or because you believe more in your own writing (having realised there’s a lot of junk out there), you’re wrong. It doesn’t play out like that. Instead, comparison will crush your writing spirit or it will pump it full of self-importance that leads to poor writing.
It is NEVER helpful.
Let’s not fall into that trap. Again. Not today, anyway.