I think it goes without saying that most authors, whatever their capacity or subject matter, want to write well. I think it also goes without saying that this is, in and of itself, a good thing. But there are constructive and destructive ways to to this, and I want to talk a little bit about one of the things that differentiates the two. Click below the break for my thoughts on the matter.
In my last post, I mentioned that I'm reading a book about the science and psychology of victory, Top Dog. I'd like to summarize a couple of the studies cited in that book with you all, as an introduction to my point.
First, there's a study that was done by Drs. Adam Alter and Joshua Aronsen wherein they administered a fairly difficult test to 124 Princeton underclassmen. Half of the students were given a test labeled "Intellectual Ability Questionnaire," and were asked some "demographic data" questions before taking the test which were designed to stress them out. The other half were given the exact same test, except that theirs was labeled "Intellectual Challenge Questionnaire" and they weren't asked the demographic questions until after taking the test.
The first group averaged a 72% score; the second averaged 90%.
Second, researchers Geir Jordet and Esther Hartman analyzed the percentage of missed penalty shots in soccer games under various circumstances. For the non-sporting, on a penalty shot the kicker stands 12 yards away from the 24'x8' goal to make the kick, with no player except the goalie (who isn't allowed to move until the ball is kicked) between him and the net. Essentially, any solid kick within a yard or so of the outer posts is unblockable at the professional level. And the data reflects this: on average, professional soccer players make 85% of penalty shots.
The researchers then looked at two specific scenarios. First, penalty shots to settle a tie where the player's team is down by one, and if they miss their team will lose the game. Second, penalty shots to settle a tie where the player's team is tied, and if they succeed they'll win the game.
In the first situation, the pros succeed only 62% of the time. In the second, that number leaps to 92%.
It would be easy to look at these studies and say, "people do worse under pressure," but the data shows a more nuanced point than that. A soccer player going for the winning goal is still under enormous pressure, after all, and the questions asked of the Princeton underclassmen weren't gimmes. Rather, what those studies show is that, if a person focuses on what they'll gain by succeeding, they'll typically perform better than if they focus on the costs of failing.
In general, fanfiction writing lends itself to a positive mindset. There simply isn't very much pressure on an aspiring fanfic writer, beyond any that they place on themselves; there's no outside expectation when an author sits down and starts pounding out their Flutterdash shipfic that it'll be excellent, or even readable. That can lead to its own set of problems, but it has one very important positive effect: it gives authors permission to fail. Even as these writers are trying to make something worth reading, they know that if they fall short... well, so what? It's a liberating feeling, knowing that there's no penalty for writing a terrible story beyond (maybe) a negative comment or two, and it frees authors from worrying about costs and lets them focus on what they could gain: self-satisfaction, e-fame, or whatever it is that motivates them.
But sometimes, that permission can evaporate. Plenty of ponyfic authors have become extremely well-known (by fanfic standards), sporting thousands of followers and stories with tens of thousands of views. Some are able to keep plugging away with the same mindset, but others struggle with the attention. I've seen more than a couple of amateur writers who, not too long after brushing with fanfic popularity, found themselves so obsessed with what would happen if they wrote something "worse" than the stuff that had earned them that popularity--so obsessed with the costs of failing--that they couldn't produce anymore. They no longer felt they were allowed to be mediocre, even bad, and as a result, their writing ground to a halt.
Many, many professional writers, from Steven King to Steven R. Donaldson, have talked about the importance of giving themselves permission to write poorly, to have bad ideas, and to make mistakes. This is an important lesson to learn for any writer, amateur or professional: if instead of trying to writer well, you're trying not to write poorly, you set yourself up to fail. To borrow a sports analogy, if you're "playing not to lose" instead of "playing to win," then it's awfully hard to eke out a victory.
Changing a mindset can be difficult, but one thing that's worth remembering for all fanfic writers is that, well, you're writing fanfiction. There's no pressure to succeed; great writing is an unexpected bonus, a cherry atop the authorial sundae. Yes, it should be striven for, but its pursuit should never become a negative. Just like the soccer player going for the game-winning goal still tries his hardest, but knows that the game isn't over if he misses, writers should try to create something great, but know that if they fall short, it's no great loss.
If this sounds a little strange coming from my mouth ("Wait... isn't this the same guy who picks apart and rates fanfics for fun?") then consider this: when someone writes a terrible fanfic, I don't read it. Or occasionally, I'll start it, realize it's not very good, and put it down. What's the cost to me of someone writing bad fiction on the internet? Nada. This is all separate from both the issue of people who are genuinely apathetic about their own writing, and of people who think their writing is amazing despite all evidence to the contrary, mind, but the point is that a person who tries to write something good and falls short hasn't done me any harm. But a person who takes a swing and creates something worth celebrating... well, it is worth celebrating. And that, not fear of inadequacy, should be what drives an author.