Lessons from Reality TV

Rachelle Gardner

Blogger: Rachelle Gardner

I’m often struck by the similarities between the competition reality shows on TV these days, and life in the publishing environment. The programs bring together hopefuls in an endeavor—baking, fashion, business, movie makeup, singing—and pit them against each other. Along the way, the competitors make friends, make enemies, learn more about their chosen endeavor, and learn about themselves.

The shows are not only fun, they’re full of insights. Here are a few things I’ve been thinking lately as I watch the new season of American Idol.

1. Some people are more talented than they know. Others are less talented than they think they are.

Some contestants come in with beautiful voices that are unpolished; some have hopeless voices but they’re trying really hard. Some have so much enthusiasm you can’t help but like them, and some are so dull that they could have the most accomplished voice in the world but no one would want to hear it. Some have a sense of entitlement (How could you NOT pick ME?) and others are beautifully humble, surprised that the judges would give them a smile and a kind word. In singing, as in writing, it’s difficult to know how good you are without outside, objective input. And the first time you receive it can be a shock—in either a positive or negative way.

2. The judges know more than you realize.

It’s surprising how much the judges can tell from such a small amount of information. You think—how could they possibly make a decision so quickly? They stop the singer after 16 bars; they take one small taste of the cake; barely a glance at the elaborate costume design—and pronounce their verdict. It’s just like when an experienced agent or editor forms an opinion about a written piece from the first page. You wonder how they can possibly have enough information to reach a conclusion, and it can feel a little harsh. But those who have spent years working in a field—learning, studying, honing their instincts—can quickly form an opinion that wouldn’t change even with much more information.

American Idol3. Raw talent is wonderful, but has no value until it is worked and nurtured and developed.

It becomes obvious very quickly on some of the shows, but can be more difficult to grasp when you’re a writer. After all, everyone who is literate can write. If you have the desire to write stories or articles or non-fiction books, it feels like you can just sit down at your computer and voila, your masterpiece! But like every single endeavor out there, it takes a lot of work to get to a point where you’re producing excellent work that’s worthy of people’s attention, time and money.

4. Everyone gets a shot — but not everyone will win.

Some Idol contestants get the “golden ticket” and a golden moment. Maybe my dreams will come true after all. Others receive a devastating dose of reality, when the hard truth hits their soft heart and they’re crushed. They’re receiving feedback whether it’s good or bad, whether it lives up to their loftiest hopes or dashes them to the ground. Does this sound familiar at all?

5. The competition is fierce.

One of my favorite moments on Idol a few years ago was when a contestant looked around and commented, “The talent here is ridiculous.” It’s true, and better to acknowledge it. Often our biggest worry isn’t our own performance but how it stacks up against our competitors. You have no control over them, you can only be the best YOU possible. So take it seriously, because your competition certainly is. Pay attention to the details of mastering your craft. Present yourself as a professional. There are a lot of talented writers out there, and you may be one of them. But brace yourself for the competition aspect of this business—because it’s never going to be all about you.

6. Just because you don’t win in this venue, at this time, doesn’t mean you won’t find success.

There are some fabulous singers that get cut from American Idol because, for whatever reason, they don’t fit the image of a pop star that these record labels feel they can sell. That’s fine—many of them will go on to fulfill their dreams in a venue more suited to their personality and talent. It’s the same with writers looking for agents and publishers. A “no” isn’t a global rejection, it just means, “Not here, not now.” You have to keep searching for your fit.

7. People’s dreams mean everything to them.

Whether it’s writing or baking or designing movie costumes or performing, all of us hold our dreams closely. A bit of encouragement feels like heaven; criticism or rejection can be devastating. Big dreams are one of the things that make life exciting and worthwhile. If you sometimes feel like your dream is so incredibly big and important that you can’t stand the thought of it not coming true, take heart: you are not alone.

What are some ways you’ve found the writer’s life to be like TV competition shows? What have you learned from watching them?

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50 Responses

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  1. Angela Mills says:

    I think a lot of writers, myself included, didn’t realize just how much work goes into a book being published. Young hopeful singers think their talent alone will give them a shot at a career and many get overwhelmed by how much harder it is than they realized. I definitely relate to that!

  2. The most striking thing, to me, has been the sameness of many of the competitors’ offerings on recent runs of ‘American Idol’.

    There isn’t much originality of approach. Among the female contestants, every sound is derivative of the latest diva-voice, while among the males…heck, I don’t know what they’re channeling. Makes the dogs howl, though.

    For most of them, it’s all about being personally distinctive. They make the music their own…in the same way.

    There are a few – very few – who make themselves subordinate to the music. The voice is, after all, and instrument with which the melody is developed and brought to life.

    They shine.

    Likewise in publishing, I think. To go back a few years, when Tom Wolfe wrote “The Right Stuff” every author of military nonfiction had to sound just like hum. There was a flood of over overblown imitations that took interesting subject matter and made it mind-numbingly unreadable.

    And then, thankfully, Stephen Ambrose came along and like a breath of fresh air through a fetid basement, brought relief and sense back to the genre.

    • Andrew, you made me cackle out loud with this line—”while among the males…heck, I don’t know what they’re channeling. Makes the dogs howl, though.”

      On the serious side, you bring up a good point. When the voice subordinates to the music, its flow, beauty can emerge. I think one thing I take from your post is that writers shouldn’t try so hard to stand out that they end up looking like everyone else trying to stand out. Good food for thought.

      • Exactly, Jeanne!

        There’s a great new song by Skillet (one of my favorite bands), “American Noise”.

        In the refrain is “…cutting through the American noise / you’ve got a voice / let love cut through / the American noise.”

        The message is that we all have voices with which we can make love overcome the “American Noise”. Those voices, individually and collectively, will prevail in their sincerity. No need to copy. Just be you.

        It’s a lovely, and for this post, timely message.

        If you’re interested, here’s the youtube link:


      • GREAT song, Andrew. The video is pretty moving too.

    • Yes, and sameness will always be the problem when we are all bombarded with mediocrity from every side. It is difficult to push past everything you’ve internalized from others all your life, to find your true self and voice.

    • Andrew … got tickled at the dogs, too. And I saw your comment days back about the cat and the violin. I got so tickled. When I was trying to learn the violin, my cat would run up and bite me! And I thought I was playing decently! Ha ha! (for a beginner, that is) Cats don’t lie. Grin. I have to face the fact that I’m not gifted in that area, singing either … writing? Well, I just keep trying.

  3. I’m awaiting a snowfall this morning in my home in the South. While I wait for daylight, so that I can see the snowflakes fall, I’ll say that you make several points that ring true to me, Rachelle.

    I do think that there are many talented writers out there (and I look forward to reading their works). This means all I can do is my best. I like the positive cast you put on that–I don’t like to think of it as competition, but each of us reaching for our personal best.

    And, as you say, part of reaching that goal is honing my craft, and trying even harder with my next effort. And I/we can learn as we go: making mistakes and taking the lessons we learn to heart–in my case self-publishing and realizing how very important, fun, and expensive marketing can be–and then tuck those lessons away for next time we self-publish, or when we are traditionally published.

    Really, it has to be about enjoying the process for what it is!

  4. Annecdotist says:

    Useful analogies here. I think the age of blogs and Twitter makes us all more aware how many of us are competing to showcase our talent, and how variable that can be. But as you say, the first time it’s tested against the “judges” can be profoundly shocking, good or bad.

  5. Denise Willson says:

    Nice post, Rachelle. I’m going to have to pay closer attention to American Idol and X Factor next time my kids are watching. Lots to learn….

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth and now GOT

  6. Do we bring a smile or a cringe? Are we able to honestly self evaluate?

    I always have to remind myself that following God/our relationship needs to mean everything … makes it easier to self evaluate, too. That is one dream that can’t be crushed. It lasts forever … doesn’t fade when our hands and voices become shaky and our minds aren’t as sharp as they used to be.

  7. John Baur says:

    The thing that drives me nuts on Idol is all the entitled, tone deaf teens who weep, “But I want this so much!” The judges should shrug and say, “Apparently you didn’t want it enough to learn how to sing,” The lesson for us is, everyone “wants it.” Who is willing to work for it?

    • John, I don’t watch American Idol (please don’t hate me) but your comment reminds me of the people who want to write a book. They, too, are saying in effect, “But I just want it so much.” Do they want it enough to learn how to do it right–to get past the Simon Cowells of the literary world? Some do, but unfortunately some don’t.

      • John Baur says:

        I know a guy who talks about writing all the time, especially how, when his job contract expires, he’ll try writing for a living. But he refuses to hear me when I say it doesn’t work that way, if you’re not working on writing NOW, waiting until your boss tells you it’s time to go is just asking for an invitation to move back into your parents basement. (I say it nicer than that, but that was the message.) And he assumes that everything that springs from his fingertips will be fine, without the need for rewriting or editing. I can’t make him hear, can’t get him to see. He’s a good story teller, but that’s not enough. He’s one of those people who assume since reading is easy, writing should be too.

    • John, I completely relate to what you’re saying! Yes, they want it so much. But most have no clue how much effort it takes to go from “wanting” it — to making it happen. Great point.

  8. Shauna says:

    And there is always the scary possibility that Simon Cowell is on the other side of the screen bemoaning your work. Then it goes viral and the whole world gets a laugh. This thought kept me “in the closet” as a writer for quite some time. Thankfully, I have yet to meet anyone as crass as Cowell.

    • I once worked for a chap who looked, sounded, and acted like Simon – and was every bit as smart. It was an education, but something south of fun.

      It’s important to remember that judges (and agents, and publishers) are bound, at least to some degree, by their own prejudices and preferences, and they are not omniscient.

      They are also quick to sniff out pandering, so it’s beholden upon us to simply put our best work out there without an effort to impress a specific judge, and, to paraphrase Paul, “having done all, (let it) stand”.

  9. Ann Averill says:

    “Not here, not now,” that’s the encouragement I took from this post. I’ve thought many of these thoughts as I watched The Voice, a similar show. There is a panel of judges who are artists themselves in various Genres. The talent on The Voice is already the creme de la creme, so, “The talent is ridiculous!” And each judge has his or her preferences. “Not here, not now,” leaves the hope that somewhere there is someone who will be ripe and ready for your special voice as a writer.

    • Yes, I think that’s the main thing to remember. As long as one is willing to put the work into developing their talent, and open their mind to previously unexplored ways of reaching their dream, then every “no” can be viewed as “not here, not now, but somewhere, someday.”

  10. Sandy Cooper says:

    I love American Idol. It’s the only show I’ve watched faithfully for a decade. So, this post really resonated with me. I often watch the show and think, “This is just like writing…” Great job.


  11. I do have a question – given the long lead time in publishing, from query to on-the-shelves, to what degree are agents and acquisition editors using either “trend-setting” or “trend-riding” criteria in their choices?

    Granted there is tremendous talent out there – but I’d really be interested in gaining some insight into this part of the process, and how the talented herd is culled. (Awful metaphor.)

    Not that I’ll try to match my writing to it. I couldn’t follow a trend if I tried. I still wear tie-dyes.

    • Neil Larkins says:

      “How the talented herd is culled” is a great metaphor. I agree with this Idol thing, but I don’t watch that show. I do watch the Olympics and when it comes to culling, the world of amateur sports is it. Look at the number of times one has to compete, going before judges,in order to make that cut. And the years of sacrifice! Makes my moaning about the rigors of writing and seeking to be published sound pathetic. So after watching these young people and seeing how far they’ve come, I get back to my craft, encouraged that despite the odds there are still those who feel they can grab the gold if they stay with it.

  12. There are so many analogies between the writer’s life and tv competition shows. It seems like one is just having the courage to show up: to enter a writing contest, to set an appointment with an agent or editor, to query, to have your book put “out there” for publishers to gobble up or reject. Both face the fear of rejection. It’s what a writer or performer does with that rejection that determines a chance at a future success.

  13. Ed DeCaria says:

    Rachelle, I’d suggest one other parallel to reality TV. You sorta get at it in #1 and #6, but not directly. It is the notion that YOU as a writer are the product as much as your writing is the product. Your platform, your personality, your ability/willingness to perform … they all matter now.

  14. I suffer from Hypo-Imposter Syndrome. I actually thought I was going to get found out at ACFW and asked to leave.
    Stop laughing/rolling your eyes/shaking your head.
    I did. I really thought I was going to be surrounded, and asked to leave.
    Why? Because I didn’t think I was a real writer.

    And what, pray tell, is a fake writer?

    Thursday night, I walked around my temporary hotel room hearing “go home, you don’t belong, go home, idiot, they’ll find you out, go home, you are nothing!!”

    Then the words from my mom, my close friends and my two brothers rang back, louder, “you are meant to be here”.
    But the ones that hammered in my head the most were my husband’s, “I am proud of you, you can do this”.

    So, shakey me walked out of the elevator and into the lobby and saw my mentor, Beth Vogt, standing there. I pointed, one should not point, ’tis rude, and cried like a tween at a One Direction concert. Having your ribs crushed by Beth Vogt is kinda surreal. And she is very good at it.

    And no, going to a swank conference does not a writer make. But being asked about your work sure helps. Why? Because no one says “IF you were a real writer, I’d like this.”
    OR “go back and study your craft”. That implies you actually have some to begin with.
    Even “this isn’t what I’m looking for” gives the validation that someone else IS.

    Singing, makes you a singer.
    Running, makes you a runner.

    Writing? Well, do the math.

    • Jennifer, I know exactly how you felt/feel. And I think having been a secluded magazine writer … I didn’t know all the writer’s lingo, etc. I interview people, and write about it. So … coming into this book scene … I’ve had a ton to learn. Even on this site … I feel so goofy commenting at times … because I feel like I know so little compared to most. But … I’m learning. And I’m daily encouraged here.

  15. Mary Ellen Wall says:

    I haven’t had TV in the house for about 15 years, but I understand the allusions. Reading the posting and comments, though, it occurred to me I was comparing myself to “Indie Writers” only. As a group, many clearly start writing and think they are publishable writers without study, editing or developing many writing skills. I need to compare my Sci-Fi with Brin and McDermott and so on. That might get me over the feeling I share with Jennifer,that I can’t be good enough to mingle with the established guys no matter how much I have studied and hone my portion of talent. Then I could apply for American Writing Idol.

  16. I agree totally. That’s one reason I enjoy American Idol and a few other reality shows. It seems I learn just from watching them learn. Great analogy, Rachelle!

  17. “The judges know more than you realize.” – I’ll buy that, but I’m trying to figure out what it is that you/they know. I still remember, in my early years before I decided Indie was the way I wanted to go, reading Donald Maass’s book in which he flat-out admitted that, while he knows a lot, he doesn’t know what will generate commercial success. No one does, he claimed. Agatha Christie was rejected for five years. JK Rowling: rejected. The Help: famously rejected repeatedly. Louis L’Amour: 200 rejections. Da Vinci Code: rejected, over and over.

    Not to be a jerk, but I’m really wondering if what the judges know that’s more than I realize is really something I need to worry about knowing.

    – TOSK

    • Actually, no, I don’t think it’s something you need to worry or even think about.

      All the judges know is what they are looking for — what product fits what they need at this moment. That, they can usually determine in far less time than most would think possible, which was my only point.

      Of course, they also know something about recognizing quality in their chosen endeavor. Yes, it’s subjective, yet there are also objective standards by which we can judge most efforts. So the “judges” are well-versed in what those are.

      I don’t always recognize when an Idol contestant is pitchy or off-key, but Keith Urban sure does.

      My daughter is a gymnast, and even though we’ve been on the competition circuit seven years, we still can’t figure out why the judges give her an 8.9 versus a 9.3. Or whatever. The judges see things that we can’t, because of their knowledge and experience.

      • Leah Morgan says:

        Colbie Caillat, Jennifer Hudson, and Hillary Scott of Lady Antebellum are just some of the dismissed American Idol contestants who went on to become successful in another venue.
        Their dismissal did not define or inhibit them. It didn’t diminish their talent or their opportunities.
        Hillary Scott may not have had a stellar solo career which is how she presented herself to the judges, but as a member of a trio she finds a superior expression for her gift.
        Other contestants who’ve actually won America’s vote have floundered in their career despite an astonishing platform.
        Publishers and producers can recognize talent and give guidance but they can’t accurately predict which artists will cause the buying public to make a writer a bestseller or a singer a multi-platinum recording artist. They have to take risks of their own hoping to find that, just as the singer and writer take risks to become that.

  18. The similarity I see between a writer’s life and reality TV is that there are always encouragers along with discouragers. People who see another’s talent as taking something away from their own are threatened and defensive. In contrast, there are people who give tirelessly to others, even when there is no reciprocity. They are the real winners.
    I’ve learned that it’s much better to take rejection (and discouragement)gracefully and with class rather than “flip off” the metaphorical camera because you never know who might be watching.

  19. Linda says:

    I think we who are in that dream stage often think that somehow we’ll be the one who can glide right over all that work part and grab the prize. I am learning the dream must be undergirded with a willingness to put in the time to learn and grow before there is even a chance it will come true.

  20. I started watching Idol from the beginning this year because I’m a big Harry Connick Jr. fan. I’ve noticed he is willing to give advice to the contestants to help them succeed. Not all of them want to listen though. I think one lesson there is we need to be willing to listen to you, Rachelle, and contest judges, and then act on what we’re told. I had one judge give me comments and also links to check out so I could be a stronger writer. I really appreciated the time she took to do that.

    I also appreciate the time you spend preparing your blog to help us. Thanks!

  21. Brandi says:

    I like your similarities between writing and American Idol.

    I would say the publishing industry is like the reality show Shark Tank. Just like the people who come in and pitch their inventions/business ideas to three possible investors, Writers pitch their ideas and lay their dreams on the line to publishers/agents. Some are good ideas and some not so good. Then it comes down to the publishers/agnets to decide if they think the writer’s idea will be a good investment.

  22. You all may have heard it rumored that I have an unhealthy fascination comparing writing and reality shows.

    I can assure you that this is not true.

    It’s not unhealthy at all.

  23. Kelly says:

    There are so many similarities between singing shows and writing. I have often thought about it. Great blog title! A successful writer once told me that it usually takes a writer 5-6 books before they are good enough to get published. Not always, but often times it takes time to learn, practice and become the writer people will read. Also, Stephen King points out to just write, write, write because you love it! I’m a novice on my first novel, but I am looking forward to discover how improved my writing will be by book six. Enjoy the journey! You have to put in your 1000 hours!!

  24. Merran Jones says:

    Great post as always Rachelle. Thanks.

    I can really relate to this one, not because I watch American (or Australian in my case) Idol, but because my husband auditioned once, years ago. He has an amazing voice (I’m really not biased, his voice is quite astounding) but he wasn’t suitable because he didn’t have the right image, wasn’t quite the right fit. A real “not here, not now” situation. Years later, he’s still plugging away and making it his own way and really getting somewhere.

    As a young, unconfident writer, he inspires me to keep going. And even when I get a rejection, I know that it simply wasn’t the right fit for that story at that time.

    Good luck everyone. Keep writing!

  25. I love this post! We feel most alive when we step up and put ourselves
    or product the line.

    The hardest part is not assuming that our risk will equal reward. Cultivating our skills carries a satisfaction of its own – perhaps, this is why reality shows also show us what happens in between each week’s performance. Navigating the highs and lows of honing one’s craft can be just as exhilarating as a standing ovation or high score. Sure, the payout if different, but still has value.

    Rachelle, I love one of your comment: “If we don’t enjoy the process, what makes us think that we will enjoy the results.”

    I hope to sell a lot of books one day. That’s a hope. However, that’s not under my control. However, I can control is the time and effort into becoming the best writer that I can be.

  26. Bonnie Jean Feldkamp says:

    “Others are less talented than they think they are.” I read this the first day you posted it. Then, this morning I bolted upright from a dead sleep thinking,
    Oh, No! Is she talking about me?

    The insecurities of the creative life.

  27. katrin says:

    I edit a lot of new writers and always take the responsibility very seriously: They are looking for a “yes” or a “no” from me (approval, encouragement), when all I can give them is a maybe. Sometimes the writing is just awful, but if they can hear my critique and are willing to work, who is to say it won’t sing someday? Sometimes the work itself is lovely, but there’s some other hurdle that has to be overcome. I find myself unwilling to say any work is hopeless, and equally unwilling to say any work is a guaranteed winner…

    And here is a post I wrote comparing writing to the X Factor! “Projective Vomit, The X-Factor and Writing” https://www.grubstreet.org/grub-daily/projectile-vomit-the-x-factor-and-writing/

  28. Leah Morgan says:

    I made the same connection when Harry Connick, Jr. pointed out to a contestant that a dream can’t be crushed.
    It will survive discouragement and grow from instruction and correction.
    If a goal is so easily dismissed by criticism then there’s not enough passion there to fuel the life of that reality.

  29. Kristine White says:

    I loved the analogy. I never would have thought of writing in the same line as American Idol, but I see it now. Great comparison, Rachelle.

  30. P.A. Wilson says:

    Great insights.I think the best one is that there is a lot of talent out there. This year on AI, they keep repeating something that I think is important. We’re looking for the whole package.

    One thing that happened this year I find links tightly with the publishing world is the singer who withdrew because she knew her genre was gospel. How many of us indie authors have withdrawn from traditional publishing, not because we’ve been rejected, but because we know that world is not for us.


  31. LS Wagen says:

    Wow, I never thought there was any comparisons at all between American Idol contestants and authors, until I read this. I thought it was crazy trying to make it in the singing profession. Never felt the same way about my writing, and self-publishing!! I never quit my day job, however, and I never had a lot of support for my writing from my siblings. What do they say? Familiarity breeds contempt.

    My parents always believed in me; however. My friends, and co-workers always said they would review my books on Amazon, but never actually got around to it. I have however, worked as a technical training writer, and resume writing for a living, but I am finding it hard to make it as a nonfiction, and fiction writer. It’s hard to rise above the noise. Lots of competition. Maybe this will change with some more marketing, and advertising. Good luck to you all!!!

  32. Rhonda Hayes says:

    I loved this post, Rachelle! I never thought that I would admit it, but every time I watch American Idol or The Voice, I can’t help thinking about myself and my writing. Thank you for making me feel normal. Rhonda

  33. I think that’s why I like Idol so much. It’s about dreaming big and maybe one day you’re living the dream. I just hope I’m not the writer equivalent to the person everyone is like “didn’t someone ever tell them they really have no talent?” Or have I been told. I get the whole “Your story intrigues me but it’s not for me.”