Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Things Writers can Learn from Watching American Idol

With American Idol in full swing again this season, I thought it would be a good time to tweak an article I wrote a couple years ago for the blog, Writer's Rest, and post it here.


American Idol is all about following your dreams. And we writers know a little something about following dreams, right? The only difference is American Idol contestants use their voices in the physical sense. And writers use the voices in our heads. And where AI contestants are going for the record deal, we are going for that book contract.

Pretty much the same dif.

So as I've watched American Idol, I've thought of a few things that we writers can learn from watching the show.


Some people think they’re good at something but they really suck. And I mean that in the nicest way. Singers, writers…there’re bound to be a delusional few in the bunch. American Idol proves it in the horrible auditions where people are honestly surprised when they don’t get put through to Hollywood. And the rest of us sit home laughing hysterically at the television set.

I have known a couple of writers who I highly doubt are meant to write, except maybe in their journals. These people will probably never get paid to write but they are convinced that writing is what they’re born to do. I’m all for using your God-given talent. I believe in pursuing your dreams. But somebody needs to start teaching us how to realize how to quit when we’re ahead. A lot of disappointment could be prevented. Of course, that would also ruin good TV. Fox wouldn’t like that very much.


Extra input is good. I'm one of those who thinks adding a fourth judge was a good idea. Kara is a music business expert and fabulous singer who brings some sense to the show. So far, I've found her thoughts to be pretty dead-on and helpful to the contestants. Not to mention, we can actually understand what she's saying.

As writers, it's always good to get an extra opinion or two from experienced writers or published authors who know what they're talking about and can offer advice on how to make your work better.


There will always be someone to pat you on the back. Paula is very good at this. Even if the singing is atrocious, Paula can usually find something good to say. That’s just Paula. She’s too kind to be cruel. And that’s why contestants love her. Even if she does leave them scratching their heads.

Most beginning writers gravitate toward critique partners who insert all kinds of smileys and “love it!” comments in the margins. And, don’t get me wrong, we all need encouragement and attaboys now and then. But more seasoned writers know that it’s the harsher critiques that produce growth. Which brings me to…


There will always be someone who says your work is dreadful-simply dreadful. Simon tells it like it is. Which doesn’t necessarily mean he’s right. Sometimes we agree and sometimes we don’t. But his words usually sting, nonetheless. So maybe his mother never taught him to soften the blow by saying something positive first. But, you have to admit, the contestants seem more interested in what Simon has to say than any other judge. Even though it hurts.

What writer hasn’t had someone slam their work? Who hasn’t gotten defensive over a harsh critique? I know I have! It’s not fun. But it’s part of life. And as soon as the pain from the sting lessens, we’re able to take a step back and consider whether the comment or critique has merit. If it truly does, that harsh comment, more than any other, will make us better writers.

NOTE: Arguing with the harsh judge or the critiquer does not sit well with anyone. This only makes you seem difficult, unteachable and unprofessional.


Ridiculous isn't always a bad word. When someone (Kara) says “that was ridiculous,” it means it was really good. But if a critique partner says, “that scene was pretty ridiculous,” you should probably put on your editing hat.

Learning to differentiate may take some time.


It’s all about song choice. You hear the judges on AI say it again and again. “Bad choice of song.” “Great song choice.” “Dude, that wasn’t the best choice for you tonight.” In the same way, we writers sometimes choose a genre completely out of our element. If we’re good at writing chick lit, for instance, trying our hand at historical might not be a good move. Not that it’s always wrong to step outside of our comfort zone and try something different but we need to know ourselves and our styles well enough to know what works and what should be left well enough alone.


If you’re truly talented and work hard, your dream really can come true! It’s the ones who see criticism as a challenge, work hard to hone their craft, and have real talent who make it big. Many contestants that got voted off of American Idol went on to sign music contracts and are extremely successful today.

It’s true, the competition is fierce. For both singers and writers. But the one thing you hear published authors say again and again is that they never gave up. They kept pressing on, learning and growing. It sometimes takes a long time (many years, in fact) but it can happen.

God created us with a purpose, a passion and a promise. The first two are ours to discover. The promise is that if we’re operating within our God-given purpose and passion, He’ll do the rest. Sometimes (okay, often) not exactly how we expect Him to. And that’s where faith comes in.
Like the success stories of small-town people who made it big on American Idol, I am inspired when I hear about writers’ journeys to publication. I’d love to hear the story of how you went from unknown to published author. And someday, God willing, I’ll be the one leaving my story.

Hey, I’m hanging onto my dream.

6 comments:

sherrinda said...

Excellent blog!!! I love the AI analogy and it is so true that we must keep following our dream, taking the criticism and honing our craft to finally realize our dream come true.

Nicole O'Dell said...

Very interesting and timely! I had to laugh at the Paula-leaving-us-scratching-our-head comment. She's a trip!

Dara said...

Great analogy! Even though I don't watch AI, I do know enough about it to understand it :)

Pamela Cade said...

Good post, Lynda. I'm not too excited about AI this season. None of them really stand out to me.

Cindy said...

I enjoyed this post. It seems like a lot of other bloggers (including myself) are using the American Idol contest as a metaphor for the challenges writers and authors face. But I loved the way you expanded on it and broke down each idea. Thanks for the post!

Essays said...

It's true that there are a lot of learnings from any reality tv shows nowadays. As part of the an essay writers group, I know the challenges that each writer must face everyday, just like any contestant in American Idol. Nice way of writing dear. The analogy thing is effective.