How to Read Your Writing and Not Hate Yourself (with a PORG)
I’ve been a perfectionist for as long as I can remember. Once, when my mother brought home a new guy she’d started dating, I cornered him in the kitchen as he cooked potato kugel. “Are you a perfectionist?” I said. “Because my mom and I, we’re perfectionists.”
That was the barrier of entry, crudely drawn by a six-year-old: if you’re a perfectionist, you can stay. If you’re not, drop the kugel and walk away.
We’ve all heard the platitude “Perfect is the enemy of Good.” Sometimes I agree; sometimes I don’t. I think Perfectionism can be BFFs with Good, because it makes your writing better. There’s no shame in caring a great deal about the work you create.
But when your sharp, critical eye sours into pervasive self-loathing, you’re in trouble. Suddenly, as you read your own words, all you see are the things you hate.
I know this feeling well. It happened to me over the holidays, and for the first time in my life, I found a way to fight the hate and read my work with fresher, kinder eyes. I want to share that way with you.
Consider this a new holiday parable: The Tale of the Pages and the Porg.
In December I received two gifts. One was a package from my publisher with the first pass pages of my debut YA fantasy novel, Heart of Thorns. The other was a present from my sister: a battery-operated Porg from Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
“First pass pages” are a thick stack of typeset manuscript pages sent to the author after the final copy-edit. The author has a chance to read through them and request minor edits—nothing major, because you don’t want to affect page flow.
I was extremely excited to read through my first pass pages. I drove to a little artsy café and ordered a glass of wine, ready to make last changes to HoT before my ARCs (Advanced Reader Copies) went out into the world.
But they didn’t serve glasses at the café; they served plastic cups. So I ordered a cup of wine—that knocked me down a few pegs—and took out a sharp pencil. I sipped my chardonnay and began to read my book.
I hated it.
I thought it would feel magical to sit with my (cup of) wine and read the story I’ve been working on for three years. But it didn’t feel magical. It felt boring. I saw all the things I hated about my writing, my descriptions, my characters. My vision blurred. I thought, “This is getting published in seven months? How embarrassing.”
The café ended up closing early, and they kicked me out—which was probably a good thing. I was not in the right headspace to read my work.
Three days later, I opened a package from my sister to reveal my very own Porg.
The Porgs in Star Wars are sea-dwelling birds on the planet Ahch-To. Chewie roasts one for dinner, then spends the rest of the movie being guilted by the surviving Porg. No matter what you think of TLJ, if you do not think Porgs are adorable, your heart does not pump red human blood.
My Porg is made of polyester fur and came from Target. When you press its belly, it makes the cutest sound you have ever heard, a cross between a chirp and a burble.
It is impossible to hate anything when you are holding a furry, churbling Porg.
I promise these things are all connected.
The P.O.R.G. Method™
That night, as I tossed and turned, thinking about how to read my pages without hating them, I stared into my Porg’s gigantic black eyes . . . and epiphany struck.
Thus it was born: The P.O.R.G. Method.
Put It Away. This decision was made for me: the café shut down. If it hadn’t, I probably would have sat there for hours, beating up on myself and finding more to hate with each passing page. Instead, I drove home and went to bed. A week later, after all the holiday wrapping paper was recycled and my Porg had claimed its rightful place on my dresser, I pulled my pages back out and tried again.
If you’re feeling down on yourself—or hungry—or tired—or you just want to drink wine from a glass, dammit—put your pages away. Choose to read them when you have energy and optimism. Maybe that’s early in the morning before everyone else is awake. Maybe it’s in your favorite library nook, or the room in your house that makes you happiest. Put it away until you can tackle it with gumption and gusto.
Also: Be picky about where and when you read your work. That isn’t just your right as an artist—it’s your responsibility. Choose the best conditions for you.
Own It. There are going to be things you don’t love about your work. Congratulations! You’re a writer. There’s plenty I still need to work on—I have a novel coming out in July, yes, but it is far from perfect. Hopefully every book I write for the rest of my life will be a little better than the last. If I don’t continue to improve, what’s the point? But there is also stuff I do well, little flourishes and touches that make me proud.
I guarantee it’s the same for you. Sure, there are skills you could strengthen; there is always room to grow. You also have gifts that are brilliantly, uniquely, powerfully you. Do your characters leap off the page? Is your worldbuilding rich and resonant? Are you a master of dialogue? Do you have a natural sense of plot and pacing? Is your prose gorgeous?
When you read your work, know that stuff going in. Look for it. Then own it when you see it on the page. Own the places where you need work, your writerly growing pains, but own the places you unequivocally kick ass, too. Own the bad stuff, the good stuff—own that you’re a writer, and a real writer spends a lifetime honing and deepening her craft.
Reward Yourself. I am not above bribing myself. Sometimes, when I’m having trouble drumming up enough enthusiasm to read my work, the best motivation is the cupcake waiting for me on the kitchen counter. Find something you look forward to and use it as a treat for reading ten pages, fifty pages, or the whole manuscript.
Maybe that treat is a cookie or cup of tea, or a walk around the block on a crisp winter day, or a phone call to a friend, or Netflix, or a nice hot bath, or Angry Birds. It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as you choose a reward that feels right to you. Give yourself a carrot for reading your work. Maybe it is a literal carrot, smothered in ranch dressing.
Give It Away. This is a tricky one, because you don’t want to give your words to just anyone: you want to be selective. We all need critique partners and beta readers who are tough on us, but there are also times we need cheerleaders to offer pure positivity and support.
If you find yourself hating on your work, give it to someone who will remind you of all the stuff you do well. A friend of mine peeked at my first pass pages and said, “These look pretty great,” and just hearing her say that gave me the nudge I needed to pick it back up a few days later.
The other thing I did with my first pass pages was hand them to my eighteen-year-old sister and watch her whole face light up when she flipped to the dedication page. She had no idea I’d dedicated HEART OF THORNS to her. My sister is the reason I write YA—she is my young adult—and in that moment, I was reminded why I do this. My book is not perfect. Of course it isn’t: it’s my first book. But she was so proud to know I wrote it for her.
Remind yourself of the people you write for, the readers you are giving your words to. A story is a gift. When you’re mired in your own insecurities and self-loathing, you forget that you are giving people great things when you give them a story. Give it to them fully and wholeheartedly, with no regrets.
My wish for you is that you fall in love with your work every time you read it. But that won’t always happen (see: perfectionism, noun). For all the times you start sliding into hate, I hope you remember to P.O.R.G.
Happy reading, happy writing, happy storytelling.
Now go get yourself a Porg.
This blog post was adapted from Bree’s YouTube video.
Bree Barton is the author of Heart of Thorns, out from Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins in July 2018. HoT is the first book in a fierce feminist fantasy trilogy about a girl who discovers she possesses the very dark magic she has sworn to destroy. If the only words on Bree’s tombstone were “fierce” and “feminist,” she would die happy.
When she’s not lost in whimsy, she works as a ghostwriter, book planner, and dance teacher to teen girls. She is on Instagram and YouTube as Speak Breely, where she posts writing advice and funny videos of her melancholy dog.
Bree is not a fan of corsets.