Should You Keep Your Writing a Secret?

I spent most of 2006 preparing to write a story about an apparently amnesiac young woman who is rescued by three very disparate friends during the Battle of Britain in 1940. Almost from the very beginning, this tale of mistaken identity, murder, and disappearing royalty had me bursting with excitement. I couldn’t wait to begin writing. In January 2007, having logged my customary months of research, outlining, and character sketching, I opened a new computer file and dove into what I was sure would be a wonderful story.

Peopled with intriguing, three-dimensional characters; set during the fascinating and suspenseful period of London’s bombardment at the beginning of World War II; and featuring a tense plot and exciting twists, this story had all the elements of a good story. And yet, not even two months later, the project came to crashing halt, due, in large part, to one mistake on my part.

I opened my big fat mouth.

The Danger of Seeking Encouragement

It has long been my policy never to share my work with anyone before I’ve completed the first draft. But for this story, I decided to make an exception. I was struggling with the beginning, and I wanted a second opinion on the first several chapters. I showed them to someone who was not a writer—someone, in fact, who wasn’t even a reader of fiction—hoping merely that he would boost my confidence by telling me the passages were good enough to pass muster. Never mind the fact that, in my heart, I knew they were good enough; I still wanted confirmation.

Unfortunately, the only thing I got from him was the first three chapters of my story covered in red ink. Most of this person’s suggestions were laughably off-base, and I knew it. But I still couldn’t get his words from running circles in my head. As quick as that, I lost steam on the project. My confidence in the piece and my ability to write it fell apart like an undermined mountainside. I suffered months of utter burnout (something that had never happened to me before), and even after I found the energy to begin a new project, almost another year would pass before my confidence in my writing returned.

Had I refrained from showing off my uncompleted manuscript, had I forced myself to muscle through my problems on my own instead of seeking outside support, and had I protected my infant story from the criticism which I knew all too well it wasn’t yet good enough to face,  it would most likely be a completed manuscript by now. It would have gone through several rewrites, weathered the storm of my own demanding criticisms, and emerged to face the world in its fifth or sixth draft, having been pruned and polished to the best of my ability. In such a form, it (and more importantly, its writer) would have been much better prepared to face the criticisms—constructive or otherwise—that the world had to offer.

Why You Should Keep Your Writing a Secret

Writing, at its heart, is a solitary venture. Anybody who tries to tell you different obviously isn’t a novelist. Save for the relatively few books which are either co-written or ghost written, the first draft of a tale is the brain child of a single person. When a writer offers up his unfinished manuscript for criticism, he is risking that fatal discouragement which can prevent a story from ever reaching completion. How much better to practice the art of keeping your writing a secret?

Sometimes just talking to others about a project can be fatal. Imagine your story is a bottle of precious perfume, and every time you talk about it or show it to someone else, you are taking off the lid and letting out some of the scent. If you let out too much scent, soon you won’t have any left at all.

Pulitzer prize-winning novelist Anne Tyler put it this way:

It makes me uncomfortable for them [writers who talk about their story ideas]. If they’re talking about a plot idea, I feel the idea is probably going to evaporate. I want to almost physically reach over and cover their mouths and say, “You’ll lose it if you’re not careful.”

In his book The Writer’s Idea Book, Jack Heffron adds:

Writing is a private act. It is a way of communicating with our imaginations, our subconscious minds, our secret lives. Bringing in a third party is almost always a bad idea. The sense of intimacy and revelation are lost….

Should All Writers Keep Their Writing a Secret?

I can’t make a blanket statement on the subject, of course. Just because sharing ideas and unfinished manuscripts is the kiss of death for myself doesn’t mean that it will be so for all writers. But many experienced authors share my view on the matter. Usually, authors who are eager to share their work before they’ve brought it to completion (and, granted, the sense of “completion” varies from author to author; for some, completion may be the end of the first draft, while for others, such as myself, a work isn’t considered complete until several drafts further along) are writers who have yet to grow a sense of confidence in their own judgment of their work.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, some people need the encouragement of others in order to gain enough confidence to finish a project. But you should be aware that this is a slippery path. If you feel you must gain the opinion of someone else before you’ve finished a story, try to confine your readership to one or two people at most, and aim for readers who you know will be positive even in their criticism. There’s nothing worse than watching your beloved project come to a screeching halt because you offered it up for criticism that neither it nor you were ready yet to handle. Better to have to rewrite a completed project than to never finish it because someone bashed it early on.

The writing life is full of cold water in the face. Fiction is too subjective a subject matter for us to hope that we can please everyone who reads our work. Criticism in all its forms comes with the territory, and seeking and accepting constructive criticism is a vital facet of learning and growing as a writer. But, as I was reminded all too clearly during my early months of writing this particular story years ago, we must wait for the perfect moment to open the lid on that perfume bottle. If we leave the lid on as long as possible, waiting until the intoxicating aroma of our story is as pungent and powerful as we can make it, we not only avoid the risk of losing the scent altogether, we will also ensure that the scent is strong enough to linger through the strong wind of criticism.

Tell me your opinion: Do you keep your writing a secret or share it before you’ve finished the first draft? Why?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. I can see this might be true in some cases – but it has been very different for me. As a teen I tried to hide the fact that I was writing at all, but after a while I dropped that. I have two close friends who also have stories whirring around their brain. While writing itself IS asolitary occuation – brainstorming needn’t be. We can talk at great lengths about their stories or my stories, and come away rejuvenated not beaten down. We have solved problems for each other, worked issues out by talking aloud at sympathetic listeners, come up with things by interacting that we wouldn’t have thought of alone. There was even this one time where I had a novel i had started and set aside. I loved the concept but had gotten frustrated and full of doubts – was it even worth the while to write this? If left to myself, I might never have even picked it up again. But a family member happened to bring up a subject matter that my story dealt with – seeing his interest in the concept, I printed out the chapter I had and left it out where he could see it. … It was his amazing enthusiasm that got that story off the ground. Doubts vanished. I never looked back. The story’s not yet published, and may never be. But it is. And never would have been if I had kept it a secret.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      In large part, I think this comes down to personality. Introverts need to protect their creativity; extroverts need to share it. Nothing wrong with either!

      • I’m inclined to think that it also very dependant on the particular story and the particular friend. I can’t imagine the disaster it would have been to share my story with number two of the those friends!

        By the way, I’m really enjoying reading your blog, and that snippet about the unfinished story has made me extremely curious. 🙂

  2. There are only two people I show my finished drafts to, and they’re both some of my best friends. They are both writers too, so we swap writings. One of my friends is really encouraging when reading my stuff, the other is ravenous and critical. Together, they help balance me out and improve my writing. I try not to show them things until I have at least a first draft done plus a revision, or at the very least only if I’m really stuck.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I don’t see any problem in showing *everyone* your finished draft (if you want to). It’s only when the draft is still under construction, so to speak, that I find it dangerous to share it with others.

  3. I had a great idea for a Christian fiction novel and i should have kept my idea a secret. I gave a brief description of the idea and my greatest critic shot it down before it even made it to paper. Now im struggling with myself to write it regardless of critics. Writing is in my blood, runs rampant within me threatens to devour my mind if i dont release it on paper. And so i shall.
    Good advice btw…

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Keep at it! The best thing we can do for ourselves is to get those words on paper despite the critics.

  4. This speaks to me, as someone who used to express my enthusiasm for writing by sharing every little thing I did with my friends. They were generally very positive and supportive, which was lucky for me, because I might have quit long ago if they weren’t. But even that held me back in certain ways. They weren’t writers. Sometimes I would get a better idea, or see that something I was doing wasn’t working, so I would scrap parts or change fundamental things from one revision to another. That would lead to questions as to why I made the change, and my answers never seemed good enough. The reason was often just gut instinct, or finding something that matched closer to the idea I really wanted to portray, but the idea hadn’t been formulated well enough at the start and that’s why it was done differently.

    It’s said that when you put your work into the world, it stops being yours in some way. That is true even at the very earliest stages. Not only were my friends reluctant to let me ‘kill my darlings’, but the process of making that first draft was slowed down because I was afraid of it being too messy. I wanted to get things as close to perfect as I could the first time, and that can be a tough habit to break even without other eyes on the work. I’ve come to the conclusion that (for me personally, anyway) the only way I can get that first necessary storydump onto the page is to keep it away from anyone else. I get tripped up even by positive eyes, much less negative ones.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I never like having explain story decisions to non-writers. We don’t speak the same language, and their criticism can be destructive–especially early in the drafting process. Much better to keep my secrets until they’re fully matured and ready to share.

  5. When I was a student of the creative arts, it was expected that we would share in development as a way of developing our craft; it was assessed. But we were sharing with professional peers, not potential audience. The commentary could get very personal, but if you could bear it, it was worth it, always. I never minded having my flesh torn by those I respected and admired; I trusted them to help me become better at what I did.

    Many years on in my day job, I am also expected to share academic research for review, but the feedback is not always helpful. Some is very useful, but others; instead of carefully considering content, simply rewrite and repunctuate for personal preference, without any change or improvement to the argument of it all. So I am getting used to saying thank you and learning how to seperate the wheat from the chaff.

    I’ve always trusted my arts circles to provide feedback that was relevant to their specialisations (e.g.: don’t bother asking a percussionist to evaluate the balance between scene and summary); but I’ve since learned that in other professional circles, some use the review process simply to dominate and shape their relationship with people, and that’s just useless. Unless you’re running with a pack of dogs.

  6. I am on my fist venture as a writer. I have only done poetry and a couple basic short stories. I am still very early in my book, I have been trying to get friends to read it. I felt I needed the push since it is my first. I was afraid of wasting my time on something that was not worth my effort.
    I have slowly started to realize I need no other affirmations only my own desire to write. I will care what others think after it is finished. Even then I don’t think i will care, I will just be happy and proud to have my story out and in book form.

  7. I am only a teenager, but I found my niche in writing. I love to write fantasy, but I learned very quickly to keep my mouth shut. Currently, I have a project that I hold very close to my heart, and I did probably the worst thing possible: I decided to share EVERYTHING with my best friend. She is a wonderful girl, but she is no writer and was beginning to think that this was her project and began to change everything. She had a few good ideas, but now my precious plot is falling to shambles and I’m scrambling to gather what survived. I finally just stopped sharing my ideas and am now repairing the damage. Lesson learned: never share a project that is close to you. I don’t know if my work will ever get published (especially at the rate I’m going…), but I’m hoping that maybe it will when I get older.

  8. I just stumbled upon this post for the first time, but even if it’s an older one I find solid truth in it for many reasons. I’ve been working on the same novel for eight years (started it when I was twelve) and all my friends and family have yet to even know much about it. Until this point, I knew it would be my baby and one day get published, and I didn’t want to spoil the magic of that! Only two people have read through it fully now in its last stages: my editor friend, and one of my closest friends. It takes patience to not share what you’re excited about, but it’s worth it!

  9. When friends or family (who are usually not big readers/writers themselves) inquire about what you’re writing, what is a nice way to decline from having to give them a brief synopsis? I’m in the beginning stages of writing my first novel and I never know how to respond to this question. Frankly, I don’t want to hear their suggestions and advice when I’m still trying to sort out the story for myself, but I also don’t want to alienate them as future readers. Any advice?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      My personal approach is to have a single-sentence explanation of the story prepared. I’ll share that, which is usually enough to sate most people’s curiosity. If they press beyond that, I’ll just grin and say that it’s too early for me to talk about the process any more.

  10. Darn, you’re so right! Sometimes I get so excited about a story idea, or a portion of a freewrite that I tell someone about it. The problem with that is I write better than I talk, (so it comes out far less rosy than I originally envisioned,) and once I’ve shared my story I essentially lose the excitement and desire to write it at all. It feels like it’s over and done with.

    I was beginning to realize this already, but your article really drove it home to me, and made me perceive the need to do something about it. I’m going to have to learn to keep my writing secret too, if I don’t want more of my stories to die premature deaths because of dissipated interest.

    Talking does help iron out ideas, but it wears them out also . . .

  11. I thank you for this post so much. I’m definitely one who suffers from needing encouragement. However, I’m also paranoid about someone stealing my idea. What a mess! Anyhow, I appreciated your post greatly. I hope one day you can write that novel because it definitely would be on my TBR list!

  12. Well, I do agree with your point of view. However, I personally prefer telling people about my ideas and the events of the story. Yet, you should be very careful when choosing the people you’d like to share your thoughts with, and that’s why I only speak about my book to the ones I’m sure will appreciate it. On the other hand, I’m 100% for the idea of not allowing anyone to read your book until it’s finished and ready for publishing. I don’t think I’d allow anyone to read the manuscript, I’d rather send out copies of the actual printed book after it’s published and leave it all as a surprise. I actually can’t wait till that day. I’m always thinking about how I’ll pop the bubble to my family and friends about my book. Just the thought of it excites me. Umm.. I think I’d better go now, I’ve got a novel to write and a grand surprise to prepare.

  13. It’s extraordinarily difficult for me to tell anyone about my writing at all. Showing it to someone tends to shut it down pretty quickly, no matter what they say about it. Recently, though, I’ve found that as long as I keep my original work a secret until I’m absolutely ready, I can write and show people my fanfiction for practice. It helps me because it keeps me from burning out of confidence, and I can still do my own thing. And when people ask me what I’m writing about, I can just give them details about the more public work. It only works for fanfiction, though, and only for specific things like Pokemon that are conducive to sandboxing. I’ve tried doing my own serial webfictions, and they get all choked up before they begin.

  14. I don’t show my work either for the same reason. I gave an early draft of a screenplay to a “writing coach” who didn’t understand the concept of constructive criticism. He was just downright nasty and had nothing good to say about it. I should have spent more time interviewing him before I hired him. I would have realized that he was a negative, angry, critical person. When it is time to get your work reviewed, take your time and find the right person.

  15. I guess I’d be an extreme example of this. I started writing my story when I was in my teens. Filled a steno book (by hand – this was in the 1950s) but couldn’t get my scenes to flow by themselves, let alone into each other. Asked my mother if she could help. She picked up the book, flipped through it, said “It’s rough,” which is what I’d told her in the first place.

    I picked it up a couple of times, altering little things here and there, but it wasn’t until a good 30 years later that I happened to visit a RWA meeting where Jayne Ann Krentz was speaking that I learned what was wrong with it. She looked at the first few pages (typed by this time) and told me I had a synopsis – the skeleton that now needed the flesh.

    I finally finished the first draft (edited as I’d gone along and shown to writers’ groups I joined, only to meet and become friends with a writing coach. Now I’m rewriting from scratch – when you write your daydreams there’s not enough conflict. And the story still keeps finding places that say “Change me, please.”

    At least now I know I’ve finished it once, and that I’ll be able to use much of the later parts of the book I originally wrote. Still, it seems much harder this time around as I’m beginning to understand story structure – barely – and trying to figure not only how to say what I want people to see/hear, but how to get the story elements (plot points) to come out at the right spot in the book to fit the formula.

    • Urrggg. Trial and BIG error has helped me decide what suits me best – and that is a writers workshop based on good, solid constructive criticism – as long as egos and competitiveness aren’t part of the mix. With good critters you can all benefit hugely from objective and valuable feedback. There’s nothing like that where I now live, but I’m a very happy person writing alone and won’t be sharing anything with anyone – apart from a one-sentence overview if someone asks! – until it’s ready for editing.

      My previous writing has all been short stories with which I’ve had success, but I’m now wanting to do the long-distance and your site has appeared in my life at just the right time. Serendipitous indeed! I need guidance and direction for the prospect of the long haul, and that is what I’m finding here. Thank you!

  16. The only person I tell about unfinished work is my mom; she’s the one who taught me to read after all. Everyone else gets a back cover blurp, unless they’re part of my research.

  17. I’m glad to find this. I know that one day I will have to show someone my work if I ever want it to be published, but the thought of sharing my personal, self created world and characters I love and care about (even those I love to hate) is really intimidating. I have been worried about getting opinions on it from day one even though it is nowhere near complete. I know I’ll be able to one day when it’s ready and to hear that it’s okay to wait until then is extremely reassuring.

    I KNOW my story isn’t ready to see the light of day yet. With just one blog post, a huge weight has been lifted from my shoulders.

    While I have never let anyone read anything from it, I did recently share this world with my husband. He doesn’t know very many of the characters’ names. He doesn’t know very many details of the story or its world, but he knows enough to have begun asking me questions that have been really helpful. And he asks a TON of questions. I kept my writing secret COMPLETELY for years because I grew up in a house where just about everything I did was criticized. Because of this extreme secrecy, the writing was slow and my husband didn’t even know WHAT I was writing until fairly recently. I’d say about a year ago. Since then, he has been dying to know and now that he knows it is a fictional story and I’ve let him in a little, those questions have been endless.

    Through sheer curiosity, he has made me think about points in my world that hadn’t occurred to me before or given me another viewpoint on basic human behavior in different scenarios. It’s been especially helpful with basic world building. It’s also been helpful in getting me past that self consciousness I feel about writing in general.

    I’m glad I finally let someone in a little, but even he won’t be allowed to read it until it’s ready to be seen. I think I found my comfortable point as far as sharing goes.

Trackbacks

  1. […] via Should You Keep Your Writing a Secret? – Helping Writers Become Authors. […]

  2. […] spending months preparing another historical-fiction adventure, Weiland began writing her novel like a boss. Life was […]

  3. […] the only reason we hesitate to share. You’ll find plenty of advice telling you to keep your story a secret, with good reason. A few years ago, I shared a piece of writing with someone who had minor […]

  4. […] been through the whole process now, I would certainly do things a little differently. However as this post points out, sharing your writing can have very destructive […]

  5. […] but needed some closure on.  I know this last step was hard for some of you that figured you can keep your writing a secret, but sometimes showing your writing may help people understand you better as a person which is key […]

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