August 21, 2021

Learning From Writers Just Like You

writing tips

We’re continuing our series on building your writing self-efficacy, your belief in your own ability to accomplish your writing goals and dreams. Last week we talked about finding your small writing wins (i.e. mastery experiences), and today we’re talking about learning from writers just like you—what Albert Bandura called vicarious experiences.

Here’s a question for you: How do you know if you’re a great writer?

You might start by asking—well, what makes a great writer anyway? Do I know any great writers? What do I like about their work? 

That’s exactly the point. For most of the meaningful work we do—like writing—there’s no objective measure of quality that can be reached. Great writing takes many forms. We have no choice but to look at what others are doing and judge ourselves by their efforts and outcomes. 

Obviously, social comparison has its inherent downsides, and I’m sure if you’ve been on social media at all, you know them well. It’s unhealthy to compare ourselves to others whose lives look unrealistically perfect and see ourselves as always coming up short.

But Bandura found a surprising truth about social comparison: Watching people like us succeed at what we are trying to do can actually inspire self-efficacy!

Writers Just Like You

“Seeing or visualizing people similar to oneself perform successfully typically does raise efficacy beliefs in observers that they themselves possess the capabilities to master comparable activities.” - Albert Bandura

This is the key: finding writers who are just like you.

If you’ve never written a book before, it doesn’t make sense to compare yourself to John Green or J.K. Rowling or Glennon Doyle. Instead, you should look for models who are in a similar situation as you - they have a similar platform (even if it’s none!), similar writing experience, and a similar drive to write, and they’re having some success. They’re working at and reaching the same goals you want to reach.

This is where joining a writing group (like Hope*Writers!) can be incredibly powerful. As all of you in your writing group pursue those small writing wins we talked about last week, you’ll get to benefit by watching them be successful. A writing win for them is a writing win for you, too!

Writers Who Used to Be Just Like You

I just told you not to compare yourself to John Green or J.K. Rowling or Glennon Doyle… but what if you knew that Glennon’s writing career started with her just sending little encouraging notes and reflections to her friends, before she even had a website? What if you knew that J.K. Rowling taught English as a foreign language in Portugal? What if you knew that John Green used to be a hospital chaplain and considered going into the ministry?

I found one of John Green’s small writing wins, a clip of him on NPR’s All Things Considered in 2004, before his first book, Looking for Alaska, was published in 2005. In it, he tells a poignant story of his failures as a hospital chaplain.

Listen to the clip here.

It’s helpful to remember, and to read stories about, the writers we know and love before they were the writers we know today. Many of them started out not so different from you! If they can do it, you can, too.

Although Bandura writes that mastery experiences—finding your own small wins—is the best way to build your self-efficacy, vicarious experience can buffer us up when we struggle at first to find our own writing wins. If you at first fail at trying something, but you see your friend succeed, it may provide the motivation you need to keep trying until you succeed. This is a big driver for competitive people! 

So my challenge for you today is: find your models. Find the writers who are just like you (or who used to be just like you) who are seeing success and crushing goals in their writing life. It’s well known that you pick up the habits and perspectives of the people you spend a lot of time with—so spend a lot of time with them.