This is rank heresy in the church of People Who Tell You How To Write. The doctrine, as I learned it, went something like this:
Seek only criticism. If you seek encouragement, you will find only people who tell you what you want to hear. That way lies egotism, laziness and dreadful writing.
There are two reasons for ignoring this, or, at least, taking it with a giant pinch of salt.
Firstly, a lot of self-appointed critics of other people’s writing are… not very good at it. They tend to have subscribed to a rigid interpretation of supposed ‘rules’ for good writing, many of which they don’t even know how to apply properly, and the results are ridiculous.
This is what Ann Leckie says about rules:
Weigh writing advice carefully. Anything presented as a rule is not a rule. At best it’s general advice presented as a rule. At best. Half the time it’s bad advice to begin with. But always consider advice. Consider it seriously, and if you find it won’t work for the project at hand, put it aside.
Secondly, accentuating the negative is depressing. In every piece of writing there will be good things and there will be things that could do with some more work. This applies all the way from My Immortal (and I’m linking to the TVTropes entry there because it always cheers me up; very funny, very NSFW, also don’t blame me if you lose the rest of the day, you’re welcome) to War and Peace. Most writers know that their writing needs work. Some find it easy to work out what particular work it needs, and how to do it. Some don’t. Either way, random people on the internet (or, for that matter, random people in the library; this applies to offline writing groups too) aren’t necessarily the best source of advice. (See reason one, above.) And once someone has had a piece of writing ripped apart by enough people they’re much less likely to show it to anybody at all. And that way lies sticking it up unedited, and nobody wants that.
I am a member of an online writing group, and it is one of the most supportive, encouraging communities that I’ve ever been part of. People are delighted when you’ve had a good day’s writing and can report a wordcount of 2000. They commiserate when you’ve had a bad day, and written three words, or nothing, or have spent the entire day down a Wikipedia rabbit hole and aren’t even sure you can call it ‘research’. Nobody tells you that Jane Austen wrote with all her family bouncing off the walls so why can’t you. They will find something nice to say about whatever you post. And even a supportive comment can make you realise that something isn’t working. ‘You’ve really nailed the fifties atmosphere,’ for example, when the story’s set in the present day. No, sharing writing with this group doesn’t make me lazy. It makes me want to come back, and to come back with something more positive to report.
Later – much later, when I’ve got a story that’s as close to perfect as I can get it unaided – I bring out the big guns. I email the people I know I can trust to tell me what needs doing and where, and I promise them a bottle of gin apiece, and tell them to do their worst. But the cheerful, uncomplicated support of my online group in the early stages of a project is invaluable in getting the thing off the ground.
5 thoughts on “Unlikely writing techniques 7: find an encouraging writing group”
I’m quite enjoying your “unlikely writing techniques” series Kathleen. Wise words indeed. I don’t know how people do anything that puts them in a state of vulnerability, without having adequate support in place first to tend to the tender-heart times.
And I certainly love your system of support for when you’re ready to embrace critiquing. Perfect!
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Reminds me of when I was about 18 and started a ‘writing class’ through Adult Ed. What the blurb of the course didn’t say was that the writing group had been together for quite a few years and were a tightknit group. I was so out of my depth although I did persevere for a few sessions. I love the way technology has opened up the world. Of course I know there’s a downside too but isn’t there in reality!
That sounds really intimidating!
I’ve met some amazing people online and am really grateful for the different perspectives that the internet provides.
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It was. Totally put me off writing. I was quite shy and introverted but I got past my anxiety and then wished I hadn’t put myself through the experience!
It’s tricky finding the right supporting group, isn’t it? Commenting on either people’s work and receiving constructive criticism can be great, but as you say too much negativity is never a good thing. It is also important to believe in yourself and sometimes just go for it, despite what other people think! Thanks for linking up to #TalkoftheTown