Deadly sin of over-confidence: managing your ego

Now, I usually don’t brag. I really don’t. But, in this post, I’m going to do so, openly and without shame. Through my entire elementary school career, I was the spelling bee champion. Yes, I was. Without question. I didn’t just win some of the weekly spelling bees. I didn’t win most of the weekly spelling bees. No. I won them ALL.

But, before I could truly wear the golden crown of the Spelling Bee Queen, I had one more hurdle to jump. At the end of the 6th grade year, our class needed to take on the other 6thgrade class in the grand championship. For this stellar event, the spelling bee did not take place in our classrooms. No. We would be on the stage. The BIG stage . . . in the library.

I didn’t practice, of course. Didn’t need to! Instead, I spent my leisure time with friends, knowing my victory was secure.

The good news is that our class left the other class in the dust. We creamed them. And, after a while, only two people were left in the competition. Me – and my good buddy, Dale. Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. And then, the unthinkable happened. I misspelled a word. What that word was, I cannot say. I have blocked it from my memory. But, in just one quick and tragic moment, my perfect record had been tarnished, my hope for the sparkly tiara snatched away.

Don’t let over-confidence hurt your writing

The Search Guru discusses the dangers of being overconfident in your writing

Over-confidence. If there were a set of deadly sins for writers (and for competitive spellers, apparently), over-confidence would surely be on the list. I shared the spelling bee story because it’s the earliest time in my life that I recall allowing over-confidence to cause me to make a bad decision (I didn’t practice!) but it’s certainly not the last. Over-confidence is a special danger for writers, because we obviously already have enough ego to believe that the whole world needs to hear what we have to say. But, what exactly is over-confidence and how can it cause problems with your writing?

When you’re over-confident in your writing, that’s another way of saying that you’ve fallen too much in love with your own words. So, the quality may not be what you imagine – and you’re blinded to that reality. This can cause an editor to refuse your article, the webmaster to reject your guest post, your readers to mock and tear apart what you publish on your own blog. It can cause a client to receive work from you that isn’t up to par, which can damage professional relationships. You can even lose clients when you don’t have a realistic way to appraise your own writing. Is it really worth it?

Strange as it may sound, writers can make more mistakes when they know a subject well, rather than when they’re first learning about the topic. When still in the learning process, perhaps the ego isn’t as strong and a writer is willing to admit that he or she doesn’t know everything about the subject. Maybe he or she asks more questions, double-checks more information.

On the other hand, when a writer knows too much about a topic, he or she sometimes forgets to put a key fact or two down on paper because “everyone knows THAT” and the flow of the writing is disrupted, the main point lost. (If you don’t believe me that this happens, try telling a writer who is excellent at math that not everyone knows that TXP squared divided by the color yellow = 6.)

Here’s one strategy that can help, at least on a broad level. Print out your article. Summarize the most important part of each paragraph in the margins. If you read just the summary sentences, does the article hold together? If not, then you know that something fairly substantial is probably still in your brain and not yet in your writing.

Watch for a follow up post on this subject soon.

Here’s another strategy, this time for when you’re finding it too painful to delete part of your work. If you write something that you absolutely love – but it doesn’t fit into the overall purpose of a piece of writing – save it for another day. If it’s worthwhile, it will eventually find a home.

Be sure to put your writing aside for a while, perhaps a day, perhaps a week. However long it takes, deadlines permitting. Then return to it with fresh eyes and do your best to honestly evaluate where it is strong and where it needs more work. As much as you can, separate yourself from the work, even imagining that someone else wrote it if need be, so that you can remove your ego from the process. Double check your facts, especially the spelling of proper names, plus dates, dollar figures, statistics and quotes.

For those of you who regularly read this blog, this may sound like a broken record, but it’s an important point: consider getting feedback on your work. It really can make a huge difference. Here are tips on how to form a quality critiquing relationship; how to accept feedback without feeling defensive; and how to know when to accept or reject a particular piece of feedback.  Who knows, this might be a start of a fruitful mentoring relationship. Meanwhile, continue to sharpen your proofreading skills.

Not enough lion and too much lamb

I can’t count the number of times I’ve talked to a writer with ability and talent who doesn’t fulfill his or her potential because of a fear of looking foolish, of not being “good enough.” And, I wish that I could say that there is nothing to fear, that you will never put a piece of writing out there that people will ignore (which is hurtful) or ridicule (hard to decide which is worse). I don’t know a way to avoid that risk. If I knew, I’d tell you because I hate to see it happen to anyone.

To get more insight, I talked to Ralph Keyes, author of The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear, and I will address the issue of under-confidence in an upcoming blog post.

Bottom line: too much ego is harmful. Too little confidence is limiting. The challenge that all writers face, then, is a way to maintain a balanced realistic perspective of their abilities, which should continue to grow as time and attention is given to the craft.

Have you ever become too confident in your own writing? What were the results? How did you fix the problem?