Measure of success / by stephenherronold

There's a story that goes something like this. I can't remember where I heard it, but it's stuck with me because of how true it is.

A comedian is performing at a small local comedy club. He does his act twice, the first set at 7pm (when the crowd is light and concentrating on dinner and drinks) and the second set at 11pm (with a more boisterous and rowdy audience).

The comedian comes in early next evening and has a drink at the bar. As he sits there, sipping his vodka and coke, a beautiful woman comes up and sits beside him. In the comedian's opinion, she's basically perfect. She's the right height, her hair is just the right color and her figure is precisely what he adores. Her smile is even the right kind of crooked.

"I just wanted to say," she breathes in his ear, "that I loved your act last night."

She lays a hand on his leg. His shaking hand puts down the drink.

"I love a man who can make me laugh," she says, "and you are the funniest man I've ever met. I want to take you back to my house, up to my bedroom, and we can make love until dawn. I'll do anything you want, everything you've ever dreamed of. You just have to say yes."

The comedian thinks for a moment.

"Which set did you see?" he asks. "The 7pm or the 11pm?"


I share this story to to illustrate a question that I think all creative folk want to ask. It's not vanity, though it can seem that way. It's a matter of wanting to know what they did right, and what they did wrong.

I battle with this constantly. Clearly, I'm not shy about putting my work out there for people to read. My poems are all over this site and others. I've published stories, short and long, on the internet. Hell, I even published a novel online.

Sometimes I get feedback. Not often enough, though. Mostly it's people saying that they liked what they read. That's nice, but not because they liked it. It's nice because they read it.

What's better are comments like "I really liked the imagery here," or "I wasn't sure what you meant about X or Y." Both of these are great because they tell me what I did right and what I did wrong.

Is it an issue of confidence? Perhaps. Ultimately, I'm not terribly confident when it comes to my creative work. I'm always hungry for reassurance from various folks, especially those whose opinion I value highly. They tend to be people who are already successful writers, or whose writing I respect regardless of any measure of "success." They also tend to be kind of person who tells me why they like or dislike something. They tell me what works and what doesn't, and may sometimes offer ideas about how to improve something I've written. That is pure gold.

However, the very best feedback tells you what's missing without telling you how to fix it. The writer's creativity expresses itself in the fix, something that's nearly as exciting as the initial act of creation.

I've been writing marketing copy for about six years. I was writing long before that, obviously, but the last six years have seen it be a professional path, a career-choice. I now mostly do it as part of my freelance marketing work, but I'm constantly aware of using words to influence people or explain ideas. Using words to sell stuff is fascinating. Sometimes I come up with something I know is good, really good. I don't need anyone to tell me they're good. There are no doubts. There's also neither fame nor fortune, not at my level. It's been very cool to make a living through writing though, even if it's not quite the same as being a more traditional author.

But the fiction and the poetry... that's tougher. That kind of writing is lonely and subjective. There's no client on the other end, no one paying you to write something specific. I don't really have metrics to measure the success of a poem, unlike an email campaign where I can directly see the results of my copy, combined with good design.

The RPG material I've written might be different. You get to read reviews of those books and see what people are saying online. It's nice to read that someone likes a piece of chapter fiction you wrote, or finds some rules elegant. That's a nice feeling.  Plus people vote with their wallet. They actually buy the books, even if that doesn't really make you any money in the end. Like copywriting, it's a hugely cooperative process. You're part of a team dedicated to doing the very best that they can, and you share the success with them. That's what I love most, I think.

Writers need feedback. They need to know what works and what doesn't. They need to know because it makes them want to improve, to write better. Knowing their strengths is not just an ego boost, it helps them focus on weaker areas and to keep doing what they do well.

What do you think? If you're a writer, does any of this ring true for you? As a reader, do you read this way, considering what works and what doesn't? Is that just a side effect of so much time spent writing and editing? Do we, in fact, lose our ability to read "only" as a reader?

Feedback is welcome.