Wednesday, September 28, 2011

15 WOW Wednesday: Cynthia Leitich Smith--Your Only Real Competition is Yourself

Our WOW this week is from the incredible Cynthia Leitich Smith, the New York Times and Publishers Weekly best-selling author of Tantalize, Eternal, Blessed, Tantalize: Kieren’s Story, and the forthcoming Diabolical (Candlewick). Her award-winning books for younger children include Jingle Dancer, Indian Shoes, Rain Is Not My Indian Name (all HarperCollins) and Holler Loudly (Dutton). She has also published several middle grade and YA short stories.

Her website at was named one of the top 10 Writer Sites on the Internet by Writer's Digest (so well deserved!) and an ALA Great Website for Kids. Her Cynsations blog at was listed as among the top two read by the children's/YA publishing community in the SCBWI "To Market" column. You can also find her on the Web at Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and LiveJournal.

Your Only Real Competition is Yourself

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

Your only real competition is yourself. Yes, you should read—avidly—and come to an understanding of what the benchmark for publication is in today’s competitive market. Study the voices of the past as well. Storytelling is a tradition that spans countless generations, not a mere exercise in individual ego.

You should read with a critical eye but also a celebratory one and consider what’s possible at the zenith of excellence. For that matter, you should reconsider phrases like “the zenith of excellence.”

Writing and reading are all about discourse. It’s worth knowing where your work falls in the conversation of books, where you’re making a fresh contribution and where you’re thoughtfully nodding to those who’ve come before.

But that’s secondary to facing off against yourself, day after day, page after page, for the rest of your writing life. In your literary art, set against an always-changing publishing landscape, this is where you should focus as a competitor.

Where you should challenge and s-t-r-e-t-c-h and go for the win.

If you’ve been competing against other writers, try instead to reframe them as friends, soldiers-at-arms, brothers and sisters, colleagues and especially teachers.

When I was in my writing apprenticeship, I studied Paula Danziger’s body of work. I read all of her books in the order that they were published.
She always had a sparkle, a kid-friendliness, an understanding of heart and humor. But what impressed me most was how she grew as a writer over time. Not always in a straight line. A book or two may not have been as strong as its predecessor. (Who knows? Maybe they were written in a different order.) But big picture, she pushed herself. She pushed against herself. She taught me the importance of that.

I’m talking about me versus me and what that means to my writing life. I’m talking about you versus you and what that might mean to yours.

It’s about starting over again and again like it matters—making no excuses, holding nothing back. Working in sprints and working in marathons. It’s about giving yourself a sidelong glance and saying, hey, that was fun. Rock on with what you’ve accomplished today. I appreciate your work, the skills you’ve built, and your passion.

Now, let’s write better tomorrow and the day after that and in the years to come.

Ready? Set. Write!


  1. Thanks for the inspiring post. It's so important to set our own goals and challenge ourselves, not compare ourselves to others. And we should be friends and support each other in our journeys as writers. Love your blog BTW.

  2. Thank you, Cynthia. So true, we are the ones who must dig deep and bring out our best. It's easy to be easy on ourselves, but that ultimately produces work that doesn't approach our best. I battle the voice of doubt when I read great books, thinking I'll never write anything that good. But, you're right, I need to embrace those words and use it for inspiration. I need to let those words push me forward and believe in myself. Thanks for a great post.

  3. Thanks Cynthia for this inspirational advice. I agree, everything that comes after the initial idea, letter by letter, is a challenge.

  4. This post is choc full of goodness. Love the idea of creating a support system rather than a competition. Such truth to this. Thanks for sharing your insight, Cynthia!

  5. Well said!!
    I never want to be one of those writers who phones it in, or whose best work was three books ago.

  6. Always great to hear your thoughts. Thanks Cynthia!

  7. Thanks, Cynthia. Your wisdom really resonates. Will come back often to re-read this.

  8. Definitely inspiring to push for higher standards in my/our writing! (And I love those wingy glasses ya got there, Cynthia!)

  9. Thank you Cynthia. I will hear your words here, over and over.

  10. Great advice, Cynthia! So important to remember to keep striving to improve.

  11. I love this advice. We can be our own worst enemy, or our biggest cheerleader. Thank you!

  12. Thank you, Cynthia! Awesome advice. (And when I was a teen, The Cat Ate My Gymsuit was my FAVORITE book!)

  13. Great post. Thanks for the inspiration!

  14. I love this line: If you’ve been competing against other writers, try instead to reframe them as friends, soldiers-at-arms, brothers and sisters, colleagues and especially teachers.

    Reframing, yes. We know how to do that, we writers. If your current metaphor's holding you back, find another one!


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