The Question I Hate the Most

rank me

Over the spring, I began physical therapy to correct some hip pain that was preventing me from practicing yoga, and my single, overbearing thought was: What are my chances of a full recovery through therapy alone?

Each week, my physical therapist focused on having me do hip-strengthening exercises and increasing the level of difficulty. Although unfailingly cheerful and positive, she didn’t give any kind of qualitative or quantitative reassurance, e.g., “I see people like you recover fully all the time!” or “More than 75% of people with this condition will improve within six months of therapy.”

Eventually, by the third or fourth week of therapy, I couldn’t help myself, and I asked the question that I knew was unfair, even if I did preface it with an “out” for the therapist: “I know every person is different,” I began, “but how likely is it that I can make a full recovery without surgery?”

Basically, I wanted to be ranked on scale. Tell me, Ms. Therapist, based on the many hundreds or thousands of patients you’ve seen, where do I fall on the spectrum? Give it to me straight, I want access to your years of experience and I know you can grade me.

But she can’t—not honestly—without making a string of assumptions about me. I know it from working with writers, who ask me to rate them on a scale of 1 to 10 all the time—in terms of their idea or writing quality, the likelihood of publication, and even talent. It’s the question I dislike the most and that I try to avoid answering. It lays a terrible burden on me because what’s being asked is: Tell me my worth. Tell me if I should continue. Is my situation hopeless?

If I say you’re a 1, you’ll be discouraged and maybe give up. Such a ranking may lead you to completely disregard your own agency—your own attitudes, responsibility and discipline—as important factors, all qualities that can turn you into a 10 over time. Maybe the project you’re working on now is hopeless, but the next one is destined for greatness.

If I say you’re a 10, you may feel good about yourself and encouraged to redouble your efforts—and then later on, if you aren’t really a 10, you’ll likely encounter frustration, rejection, and other problems that may lead you to feel bitter or resentful when you’re not treated in the way you expect.

I don’t know how to rank most writers because I can’t say how well prepared you are to overcome the difficulties in the writing life. Your motivation or purpose for writing matters, as well as whatever distractions or obligations are pressing down on you. Plus everyone has potential to improve, to have moments of epiphany, to transform from a writer who’s going nowhere to a writer who is inspired or lucky or both.

My therapist had the smallest of windows into my life. She didn’t know the history of my body and what I’ve put it through (or might put it through in the future), and how hard I might work at healing myself. Maybe I will fully recover, and maybe I won’t—a lot of the story was written before I ever arrived in her office—and my outlook largely remains in my hands, not hers.

But I still understand the impulse, the emotional need behind the ranking question. At times we’re desperate to know: what’s my status in this game? How good do I look? It’s just that no matter what answer we’re given, it is unlikely to satisfy or last longer than the next moment of doubt or failure on the horizon.

Posted in Creativity + Inspiration.
Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (March 2018).

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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23 Comments on "The Question I Hate the Most"

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Lorraine

Great article, Jane! Yes, we can work hard, do all the right things, etc but whether it’s our body, our writing, whatever, there are too many variables too have a definitive answer. The hopeful, motivational words of your therapist, along with your own hard work, can be key to achieving your goal. Like writing, it’s success depends on honing skills, hard work and often, motivational and supportive words from other writers. I’ve got to do the work myself but the constructive support from my writers group helps me immensely. Good luck on healing your body, Jane!

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[…] It’s the question I dislike the most from writers, and that I try to avoid answering—because it lays a terrible burden on me.  […]

Theophania
I had something like this in the office last week. The conversation [full and frank professional discussion] went: A: “We don’t have any information on this.” B: “We can’t just say ‘don’t know; decide for yourself’. The enquirer is relying on us for advice.” A: “But how can we advise when we haven’t any information?” B: “We can extrapolate. We’re supposed to be the experts. If we don’t know, who’re they supposed to ask? We’re the end of the line.” A: “Well, can’t we ask X?” B: “The enquirer is X.” Eventually, when all the wounds had been bound up… Read more »
Phil and Maude Mayes

That is a very thoughtful response – thank you. It made me think that maybe the answer is to a) give a range (“I’d say about three to five”) rather than 4.125, and b) emphasize that this can only improve.

Lynne Spreen

Ten years ago, I was new and had yet to learn the craft. Had I asked that question, I would have been discouraged by publishing experts. Oh, wait, I was (see: conference Read and Critique; see: premature submission to agents.) But what nobody could know was whether I was bullheaded enough to keep learning and trying. I was. My debut novel won an award. PS I hope you heal well and soon.

Adam Casalino

There’s always desk yoga.

But seriously, this is insightful. There are so many factors to “success” and nobody has a crystal ball.

Melanie Bishop
Wow, Jane, I’m sharing this on FB and my website today. So thankful you put this out there. I know from my own quarter century of teaching creative writing that some of the people who initially exhibit the least talent later exhibit the most dogged discipline and go on to get into very competitive MFA programs, get published, etc. And some of the students who’ve had the most raw talent lack staying power, or are not interested in the long-term, hard, solitary, rejection-ridden work of being a writer. So while I believe a huge part of my job as a… Read more »
Steve MC

This probably isn’t the answer you’re looking for, but here’s how one teacher answered this question, as told by Lawrence Block in “Telling Lies for Fun and Profit.”
https://touch.wattpad.com/16324712-yuffie's-writing-how-to's-do-you-have-the-fire-to

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[…] wisdom from Jane Friedman.  Find the whole post […]

Alonna Shaw
Jane, I love how you paralleled writing with health in this post. I think many writers who put in long hours understand pain and have had visits to the physical therapist. Yes, we are all different in our health journey. (I hope all goes well with your PT.) Your comment is so true, “I don’t know how to rank most writers because I can’t say how well prepared you are to overcome the difficulties in the writing life.” Overcoming the difficulties. Have you used this as a starting point in some of those uncomfortable conversations? I want to ask a… Read more »
Sangeeta Mehta
Thank you, Jane, for writing about two topics that affect so many of us: hip/back pain and this very difficult question. I understand why writers ask it, too—and still dread it! In addition to the terrific stories shared by Melanie and Steve above, I found this piece by agent Kristin Nelson helpful. As she says, “Overnight success is a fabrication created by media outlets because it makes for a good story.” So true! http://nelsonagency.com/2016/05/what-is-your-magic-number/ This article from Writer Unboxed is also relevant. Though I have yet to send it to a writer who’s asked if she has talent, it reminds… Read more »
Mark
Your comment about improvement is important. Focusing on the process rather than the outcome in any craft (or aspect of life) can be liberating. All of the people I know who achieved mastery in any discipline ultimately ended up focusing only on daily improvement and the work at hand. All questions of identity and worth and value fade in that context, which then makes it that much easier to grow. It’s hard for people who are just starting out in any pursuit to make the leap to that perspective, but the sooner you can consciously embrace that simple mindset the… Read more »
James Stack
From a very young age, we are told that we will be graded A, B, C, D, F. From that moment onward it becomes our goal to achieve the highest grade possible. Therefore, it isn’t surprising that we ask to be evaluated on a similar scale. I must admit that I am guilty of having asked this question. Your article makes me wish we could have gone through life receiving encouragement instead of competing for a grade. With that said, guidance is all we need, not a grade or scale. Blessed are the guidance counselors (of which I am not… Read more »
Deanna Cabinian

Great post! I think writers need to be prepared for the answer, whatever it is, that someone might give to this question if they ask it. But as you point out it’s hard to truly assess someone’s value as a writer. The way people view others’ art is ultimately subjective when it comes right down to it.

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[…] Endless books and courses advise people on how to turn their passion into a full-time career, and I meet many writers who say they are (finally) returning to their “passion for writing” after long careers in business, finance, real estate, law, and other occupations commonly chosen for financial stability. Yet, at the same time, such writers ask for an evaluation on whether it’s worthwhile for them to continue pursuing this passion. They seek some external validation that they’re not wasting their time. […]

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