Comparison is a nearly ubiquitous problem for humanity, but because I’m a part of and immersed in creative spheres, the way comparison creeps into the minds of artists and writers is particularly apparent to me. It’s also apparent because I’ve fallen into the trap myself, and will likely fall into it again, or come near the edge, in the future. The line between admiration and comparison (and jealousy) is fine and easy to cross. What begins as “wow, this author does such a good job with themes! I want to write strong themes like they do” quickly degrades into “I wish I was as good of a writer as they are,” then “I’m so bad at writing, everything I create is shallow,” and then “I’ll never be as good as other writers are.” And by that point, the comparison hole is so deep that it can takes hours or days to crawl up out of it.
There are lots of ways to prevent comparison—sheer will works, if your will is strong enough; ignoring what others are doing or distancing yourself from social media also works, especially when your will isn’t as strong; finding supportive friends or ways to have a steady stream of encouragement is good and, honestly, beneficial even if you’re on a writing high. For me, however, none of those things have been strong enough or consistent enough to work every time. Sometimes my will is strong, and sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes taking a break from outside input works, and sometimes it doesn’t make a big enough difference. Sometimes encouragement is perfect, and sometimes I’m not ready to accept it so that it can work its magic. But there’s one question that never fails to recalibrate my wrong thinking:
“Am I writing their story?”
The answer is always, firmly, “no.” Not only am I not literally writing what other people are, but my stories, or anything I create, doesn’t come from the same place of meaning and inspiration or have the same purpose. Refocusing on the task before me—a task that is only for me—moves the standard against which I’m judging my writing to a realistic and achievable level. To borrow the cliché, the only person I’m competing against is myself.
A companion question that’s also beneficial is: “do I want to write their story?” The answer is also “no.” What I want in those moments isn’t to write precisely what someone else has, but to capture the meaning or technique or enjoyment that I derive from their writing. In most cases, when I look at the details of another story, I would make changes if I were the author—which is another testament that someone else’s writing, whether we like it or not, is their own creation that can’t be mimicked and has its own unique purpose. No two stories can be compared because no two stories have the same aim.
This doesn’t mean that stories can’t use similar techniques, or that storytelling techniques in general are subjective or pointless. Subversion of tropes for the sake of shock or novelty undermines good storytelling; tropes, clichés, and structures exist for a reason. But those are micro details, and ones where analysis and comparison are beneficial. The macro is where comparison becomes counterproductive and damaging. Learning how to write prose with specific sentence structures is great and feasible; learning how to copy the setting, characters, and plot of Pride and Prejudice, in an attempt to be just like Jane Austen, is impossible (just look at all of the remakes and knockoffs).
It takes balance, and a lot of trial and error, but it’s nevertheless important to remember the task before you: your story. Not someone else’s.