You Don’t Need to Be Great — You Just Have to Be Good Cover

You Don’t Need to Be Great — You Just Have to Be Good

When he was 12 years old, Stephen King received his first rejection slip in the mail. It was “the only personal response I got over eight years of periodic submissions.”

When he saw the personal note at the bottom, he was thrilled — until he read it: “Don’t staple manuscripts,” it said. Ouch.

Doing what 12-year-olds do, Stephen pounded a nail into the wall above his desk, poked the rejection slip on it, and kept writing. “When you’re still too young to shave, optimism is a perfectly legitimate response to failure.”

By the time he was 14, the nail could no longer support the weight of all the slips, so he replaced it with a spike — and kept writing.

Another two years later, he finally started getting nicer, more encouraging notes on his rejections. “This is good. Not for us, but good. You have talent. Submit again.”

“Those four brief sentences, scribbled by a fountain pen that left big ragged blotches in its wake, brightened the dismal winter of my sixteenth year,” Stephen says.

It would be another ten years — a grand total of 20 since he started writing — before he would catch his big break.

But since that fateful day in 1959, he never stapled a manuscript again.

According to Stephen King, there are four kinds of writers:

  1. Bad writers
  2. Competent writers
  3. Good writers
  4. Geniuses

This pyramid of artistic proficiency comes with good and bad news.

“I approach writing with two theses, both simple. The first is that good writing consists of mastering the fundamentals (vocabulary, grammar, the elements of style).

The second is that while it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.”

You are a competent writer. As such, you hold the potential to be a good one.

If you were a bad writer, you wouldn’t be here. You wouldn’t have any fun writing. You wouldn’t feel drawn to it. Heck, you probably wouldn’t even like reading.

If you were a genius, you definitely wouldn’t be here. You wouldn’t want nor need any advice — and I’d feel pretty stupid for trying to give you any.

No, no, you’re neither of those. I see you. I know who you really are.

You’re a competent writer — but you’re afraid you’ll never make it. You seek reassurance.

I’m an optimistic guy. I love positivity. But I only have so many “there there’s” in my bag each day. So does Stephen, by the way.

“I’ll be as encouraging as possible, because it’s my nature and because I love this job. I want you to love it, too. But if you don’t want to work your ass off, you have no business trying to write well — settle back into competency and be grateful you have even that much to fall back on.”

I mean, what do you expect? The guy wrote for 20 years before getting a check in the mail. Is that really the person you want to complain to? No.

What you actually want from that person is some of that “timely help.” Some advice that’ll help you with all the hard work and dedication. Instead of fretting and asking, “Will everything be okay?” we should say, “Come on! Gimme something! I want to go from competent to good!”

Look, I know it’s scary. Humans are terrified of social isolation. It doesn’t come natural to us to speak up when no one asks us to. What if we get shunned? What if we’re cast out?

But if we take an honest look at our fears around creativity, they seem — mostly — ridiculous. A stranger left a bad comment on your blog post? You published one of six million articles today, and no one read it? Boo hoo.

Rejection comes with the trade. Luckily, today, it doesn’t cost a penny, and it won’t affect your everyday life. If you don’t like your comments, don’t read them. Close your laptop, and go about your day. Turn off your wifi. Write offline. This is not rocket science.

You are a competent writer. With preparation, training, and patience, you can be good.

Shouldn’t that be encouragement enough? 12-year-old Stephen would jump on his bed if he knew. What a relief! What a reason to sing!

You don’t need to be great — you just have to be good.

If that’s not motivating, then I don’t know what is.

It’s Mother’s Day. 1973. The phone rings. Stephen is home alone.

“Are you sitting down?”

“No,” Stephen says. His phone hangs on his wall. He barely could if he tried.

“The paperback rights to Carrie just sold. Four hundred thousand dollars.”

For maybe the first time in his life, Stephen loses his voice. The only thing that allows him to find it again is the idea that this must be a mistake.

“Forty thousand dollars?”

“No, Stephen. Four hundred thousand dollars. $400,000.”

Recounting the tale, Stephen says: “I didn’t fall, exactly, but I kind of whooshed down to a sitting position there in the doorway.” Okay, Stephen. That works. I might do that too.

$400,000. In 1973. That’s about $2.3 million today, in case you’re wondering.

You don’t need to be great — you just have to be good.

It took Stephen King 20 years to be good. But he never lost faith in the next rung on the ladder. He knew he could go from competent to good. And he always trusted that that would be enough.

A few years later, Stephen went through a box of old manuscripts. He found the one he’d sent to the editor who first encouraged him to submit again when he was 16. He rewrote it on a whim and sent it back in.

“This time they bought it. When you’ve had a little success, magazines are a lot less apt to use that phrase, “Not for us.””

You don’t need to be great — you just have to be good.

You’re a competent writer. And your journey is only just beginning.