On Survivorship Bias in the Writing World, or: What Kind of Advice Have I Been Taking?

On my Labor Day run today (well, perhaps “run” is too ambitious a term. It was more of a slow jog/heave), I caught up on some back episodes of one of my favorite writerly podcasts, Writing Excuses. 

While many of the episodes focus on sci-fi, fantasy, cartooning, and other things that don’t entirely pertain to my world as a poet and literary fiction writer, I can’t help but love the enthusiasm and obvious talent the discussion group brings to their episodes. Among the casts I listened to this morning was a discussion of the concept of “survivorship bias”: the seemingly logical but potentially detrimental tendency to assume that because a strategy resulted in success for one, it must be the way in which all others will achieve success.

For example, let’s say I want to become a high-fashion model (try not to guffaw. This is all hypothetical!). I read a book of “how-I-got-discovered” stories, in which every model explains that she was discovered by a scout while sitting prettily in a Starbucks, sipping a skinny latte. If I assume that I too will be discovered if I spend enough time in Starbucks and drink enough lattes, I miss the point that I am a) getting a skewed look at a limited sample size, and am not learning about the other ways people have been successful, b) not hearing any of the stories of the people who are still sitting in Starbucks and are not being discovered, c) not accounting for other factors, such as sheer chance or good timing.  

The same goes, Writing Excuses explained, for the literary world. Face it: how many times in recent days have we heard success stories of writers who began as self-published authors, managed to get a great number of word-of-mouth-driven sales, and then inked big publishing deals with a major house? And how many writers assume that self-pub is the new path to success and therefore grimly march through the self-pub process while expecting similar results? The same thing might even be said for the dreaded MFA program debate: if successful Writer X didn’t get an MFA while less successful Writer Z did, then MFAs must reduce our chances of success, as they are terrible talent-killers that devour otherwise promising authors (or so the line generally goes).

I wonder what smaller ways we writers contribute to survivorship bias. When I was new to the world of submissions, I often heard advice such as “don’t submit to online journals; only the printed page says that you’re a serious writer.” I took that advice from people who seemed to have a good level of publishing success, and I followed it. But why did it take me so long to think about the fact that there are many, many wonderful online journals that have a broader reach than a small-circulation print journal? Why didn’t I realize that online publication was a good way to connect with a large pool of readers?

The more I think about the dubious advice I’ve accepted, and perhaps even given, the more I wonder what other tenets of the authorial rule-book I may need to reexamine. Might some of the things that feel icky or counter-intuitive about publicity, for example, feel icky for a good reason? Are the kinds of unique formats in which I like to work–the novel in poems, for example–more viable for a commercial readership than some publishers  would have me believe? Might there be ways to bring poetry to the public eye that conventional wisdom says will never work?

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5 Replies to “On Survivorship Bias in the Writing World, or: What Kind of Advice Have I Been Taking?”

  1. I’ve also wondered about bad advice I may have given to other writers when I had less experience. I hope those people were able to put it in perspective along with wisdom they received from other writers. From a recipient’s point of view, though, whether I follow advice has a lot to do with what my conscience tells me–I may not know whether something will work, but I at least know myself well enough to understand if I’ll be comfortable doing it.

  2. In addition to my own fiction and poetry writing, I also do a lot of book reviews and author interviews. But I’ve been told by some of my literary friends that spending too much time on other authors takes away from my own writing. However, I’ve found that it has increased my visibility in the literary world and also has allowed me to sing the praises of very worthy writers who might not get the coverage they deserve. In the end, I love writing whether I’m creating my own stories and poems or discussing other authors’ books.

  3. Joe, I too wonder about that. I mean, I don’t want to discount the benefit of experience, but how much can we expect others’ experiences to reflect our own?

  4. Daniel, I too think that reviewing is a great use of time. Giving others attention is great literary karma, and it’s a great way to know what’s going on in your genre!

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