Monday Motivation: The simple secret to writing success
Trolling through the internet, I came across something called “survivorship bias”. Have you heard of it? Wikipedia puts it very succinctly:
“Survivorship bias or survival bias is the logical error of concentrating on entities that passed a selection process while overlooking those that did not. This can lead to incorrect conclusions because of incomplete data.”
Examples? Well, take an almost literal one: centenarians are invariably asked what they attribute their longevity to. Their answers are many and varied, ranging from, “I have a small glass of red wine every evening,” to, “Never ate meat! Pure poison!” to, “Speak up, young man!”
Of course, there are many thousands of vegetarians who died in their forties, fifties and sixties; and, I daresay, an even greater number of wine connoisseurs who never made it out of middle-age. The bias here, as you can see, is that your sample consists only of the survivors.
So now think about successful writers. One of the questions they are invariably asked has to do with their writing practice: when do they write, do they write in long-hand or on their computers, do they plan their stories before they begin, or do they invent freely as they go along?
And on and on. We are all fascinated. Some of us believe that one or other of these prescripts are secrets to great writing. Hemingway, after all, used a 1926 Underwood Standard Portable. If I sought out a 1926 Underwood Standard Portable might I not, somehow (woo! woo!) channel him?*
But more seriously, are there now habits and practices that successful writers employ that we might profitably mimic, and so increase our chances of success?
We swap anecdotes about fortunate writers who did something or other that led to them landing a juicy contract, or provoking a bidding war between publishers. I have a quiverful of such stories, which provoke either envy or impatience whenever I recount them. (I understand both responses.)
But all of this gossip suffers from, yes, you guessed it, survivorship bias.
So when next you read a report about some stellar writer who attributes his success to… avoiding meat, or drinking a glass of red wine every day, or sitting in front of his typewriter and bleeding, remember what the truth is:
Success comes to writers who write compelling stories well.
* This is, in fact, the fanciful speculation of a character in a book being written by someone we’re working with on our Mentorship Programme. It’s a lovely story.