For live critiquing:
Images: don’t know; didn’t ask
Nonsensical captions: me
For live critiquing:
Images: don’t know; didn’t ask
Nonsensical captions: me
This post originally appeared as part of my column “Brain Hacks for Writers” on the now-dormant online magazine Futurismic.
Do writers who use critique groups do better than writers who don’t? Do writers need mentors? What differentiates a bad writer from a good writer, and a good writer from a great writer? Does it always take time to develop writing skills, or do some people just have them right off?
All complicated questions. Here are some answers.
Born with it?
The first thing I have to tell you may not go down easily if you haven’t come across it already. This is it: you were born with pretty much no talent for writing. The same with me. Also Stephen King, William Shakespeare, and the screenwriter forDude, Where’s My Car? … well, let’s not look too closely at that last example. The point is, virtually all writing skill islearned.
I can understand if this isn’t easily believable. The myth of talent is rampant in our culture: the standard idea is that any time we see someone who can do something really well, it’s because that person is just naturally gifted in that area. It’s an understandable mistake to assume that, but other than in very limited ways, like physical build for some kinds of athletes and range of intelligence for many fields, genetics does not determine what a person will be good at.
What does? Practice: lots and lots of focused practice, with lots and lots of feedback. Toddler Mozart practicing music for hours and hours every day under the watchful eye of one of the most celebrated music teachers in Europe at the time–his father. Tiger Woods got long, intensive golf lessons at a very young age from a highly accomplished golf teacher–hisfather. And so on.
Practice and feedback
I won’t work too hard to convince you of the importance of quality practice here, but if you’re interested (or absolutely disbelieving), try my post Do You Have Enough Talent to Be Great at It?, or read Geoff Colvin’s extensively-researched book Talent Is Overrated or the first part of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. Skill and artistry come from deliberate practice, which is to say practice that is undertaken in a smart way, that presents challenges, and that gets constant feedback.
Getting deliberate practice means pushing ourselves. Just showing up and putting in minimal effort doesn’t get us anywhere, which is why a mediocre accountant can keep books for 40 years and retire not much less mediocre than he started, if he doesn’t actively try to get better with challenges and feedback.
The feedback part is especially crucial. The process of improving our skills in a particular area is essentially one of try-get feedback-incorporate feedback-try again. If we don’t get feedback, then we have no useful information to apply to our next try, and we’re not likely to get any better.
Ways to get feedback
Fortunately, sources of feedback for writers abound. First of all, our own reactions to our writing are feedback, and while that feedback isn’t unbiased, it can be useful. For instance, if I write a story and am excited by what I’m writing–whether it’s coming out easily or has to be dragged word by word from the gaping pit of Hell–then that bodes much better for the work than if I have no strong reaction to it, or only have vague hopes that it might be good enough.
But feedback from others is even more valuable, because other people will react more to the story on paper than to the story the writer is imagining. Every story critique we receive, every family member who sits through reading something we’ve written or starts to read it and then makes an excuse to put it aside, every rejection letter, every personal note scrawled in the margin of a rejection letter, every acceptance and rewrite request, every review, every letter from a reader who loves or hates the story helps tell us how we’ve affected one particular reader–and in the case of editors and agents, that reader’s professional opinion of the impact of our writing will likely have on other readers.
The problems are that every reader is different and that some of the feedback we get isn’t even a faithful representation of what the reader really thinks. A writer I know, for instance, went through a critique group where she was energetically encouraged to submit a book–a book that it later turned out most of the encouraging parties hadn’t even read. Then she switched into a critique group where one particular member seemed to be certain that she had no idea how to tell a decent story, on the theory that his opinion alone was valid to tell what was and wasn’t decent writing. (More on these particular incidents can be found in my article Telling Bad Advice from Good Advice.)
Still, it’s essential to get some kind of outside feedback on writing, even if that feedback is only rejection slips, acceptances, or sales figures–with more feedback being better as long as the writer can keep up with it. But it’s also essential to realize that no single person can give complete feedback on any piece of writing. A person can only pass along an individual reaction and, if that person is an experienced professional in writing or publishing, conclusions based on professional experience–which can also easily be off. For instance, J.K. Rowling’s agent had to spend a full year finding a publisher for the first Harry Potter book because publisher after publisher kept rejecting it: their experience told them it was too long to sell. They were right, in a way: the recent successes for that age group were much shorter books (although it’s hard to say if that was in part self-fulfilling, that no one would publish longer books due to the conventional wisdom that longer books wouldn’t sell). Like everyone, these publishers have individual tastes and limits to their knowledge. No one opinion can be comprehensive.
Yoda, Gandalf, Donald Trump
Which brings us to mentors, who can be incredibly helpful or the worst possible influence. After all, if a mentor has very high credibility then we tend to put a lot of weight on whatever they say, whether they’re saying that your story is great and should sell to a major market (Orson Scott Card, speaking to a writing student whose story sold immediately on being sent out) or San Francisco Examiner editor who reputedly rejected Rudyard Kipling with the words “I’m sorry, Mr. Kipling, but you just don’t know how to use the English language.” If the mentor has low credibility, then we tend to disregard what they’re saying unless it completely agrees with our own already-formed opinions, but a high-credibility mentor can create beliefs about our work that may or may not be any help to us going forward. One writer I knew wrote a piece of flash fiction that was praised highly by a seasoned pro. The writer, preoccupied with the high praise, rewrote the piece over and over for years as it grew into first a short story, then a novelette, and then a novella. To the best of my knowledge, he never did sell the final version.
The worst mentors, though, are those with high credibility but little real experience. For instance, while some college writing professors are excellent mentors, others may have no successful experience of their own in the kinds of writing that interest you. For instance, if you want to write historical romance novels, what’s the value of feedback from a professor who doesn’t read romance and whose own publications are limited to intensely experimental fiction published in tiny literary magazines? We won’t even talk about a writing teacher whose work hasn’t been published anywhere significant at all.
But if we imagine for a minute a mentor who has good credibility and whose comments tend to offer a lot of insight that the student doesn’t already have, it quickly becomes apparent how useful one can be. Someone who really knows what they’re talking about can set the record straight very quickly and accelerate the process of becoming a better writer. At “Uncle Orson’s Literary Boot Camp” in 2001, Orson Scott Card talked to me and the 19 other participants about actively coming up with ideas instead of waiting for inspiration to strike, and then had us use different strategies to come up with those ideas until we saw that we could conjure them on demand. At the Writers of the Future Workshop in 2003, Tim Powers talked about the importance of using the senses in writing (for example, he recommended knowing where the light was coming from in every scene), and that good advice has stuck with me, too.
Fortunately, mentors also come in convenient book and blog form. Books like Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel, Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages, Orson Scott Card’s Characters and Viewpoint, or Stephen King’s On Writing (other suggestions in comments are welcome) deliver an enormous amount of useful information that can prevent having to learn their lessons through years of trial and error, or worse, never learning those lessons at all. But this isn’t feedback per se, just ideas that we can incorporate into our own attempts. Feedback from ourselves and others will eventually tell us how successful those ideas were.
The real magic starts happening once we write and send our work out into the world–to a friend, to a critique group, to a magazine, to an agent, to a mentor, or anywhere where it can be praised, scoffed at, devoured, or ignored. Card theorized that writers have a million words of garbage to write before their writing gets consistently good, and this might be a pretty good rule of thumb–something along the lines of Malcolm Gladwell’s assertion (which he does a good job of backing up with evidence) that regardless of the skill, it takes about 10,000 hours to become really world class (not just professionally competent) at something. In both cases, the pages and hours are practice, and practice is more effective when it’s more challenging and when it includes more and better feedback–so that the length of time and the amount of work between where we are now and where we want to be as writers becomes shorter the better the quality of our practice and feedback.
Photo by /Sizemore/
A few weeks ago, Deborah Walker wrote a blog post commenting on my Futurismic article “Critique, Mentors, Practice, and a Million Words of Garbage” in which she asked for (and got) readers’ thoughts on the importance of feedback for her writing. One of the commenters, Joe Romel, protested that “the difference between Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson isn’t hours spent practicing, okay?”
I agree with Joe: it’s not just raw hours that count; it’s hours of deliberate practice (see “Practice versus Deliberate Practice“). In the Futurismic article, I talk about how Tiger Woods got his start in golf: his father, a professional golf coach, began training him before the age of 2. Tiger got in not only hours on the green, but crucially, tons of expert feedback. By contrast, Phil Mickelson started golf as a toddler too, but under the tutelage of his own father, Phil Mickelson Senior, of whom the best I’ve found said is that he “could play a little golf.” Both grew up and rose to the top of the golfing world, but Woods rose higher. More time on the green? Maybe, but Woods also had much more expert instruction from the beginning.
Compare this to Mozart’s and Salieri’s stories: Mozart was instructed from toddlerhood by his father, whose musical instruction was renowned across Europe; Salieri began learning music at a young age (though likely a few years later in life than Mozart) from his brother, who was a professional violinist but not especially experienced at teaching music or composition. Both rose to among the most well-known musicians of their time, but one vanished in obscurity until he was vilified in a movie about the other.
Applying this to writing, I think the point is not just to write a lot (which is certainly essential to becoming really good), but to get a lot of feedback of the best possible quality.
This relates directly to first readers and critique groups. As Joe says:
Anyway, I’ve done first readers and crit groups, and…well…meh. If you’re lucky enough to find a really good reader, whose opinion you trust and who will be completely honest with you, then great, but otherwise…well…meh. Same goes for critique groups.
Learning from readers who aren’t particularly in tune with what you’re trying to write or from writers who haven’t yet become very good themselves is not likely to be ideal, although it’s better than no feedback at all. It’s also essential to be actively interested in getting and using feedback. I admit, when I hand a story over for critique, what I’m really hoping for is that the reader will rush back to me, breathless and in tears, and insist that I recognize that the story is the best thing ever written in the history of the short story. Sadly, the result sometimes falls a little short of that–but at that point, if I’m going to learn anything, I have to switch from praise acceptance mode to self-examination mode.
My recommendations for feedback for writers are
This is more or less what I do myself, and so far so good, though I’m no Mozart or Tiger Woods (well, yet anyway).
Photo courtesy of NASA
Encouragement Without Information
A writer I know had joined a critique group and finished a novel. She was pretty sure that the novel wasn’t ready to send out yet, but this particular critique group was all about encouragement, and they told her she was just not feeling confident enough, that the novel was great, that any problems would be easy to fix, and that she should start querying agents about it right away. Reluctantly she did, and some of the agents were interested, and one asked for a partial (a small number of chapters–requests for partials usually mean there’s a chance the agent might be interested).
But the writer still felt that the remainder of the book was profoundly broken, and none of the friends in the critique group had any suggestions for improving the book.
“Almost immediately after I sent the partial,” she says, “I learned that most of the people who had read my novel and pushed me to submit it–whose opinions of the novel had given me the confidence to submit it at all–had never actually read what I had sent them. None of it, in some cases.” The book really wasn’t ready.
When Opinion Is Misunderstood As Fact
The same writer joined another critique group, one member of which had a published novel out and some other writing success. After getting some encouraging feedback on a particular story from some members, she got this critique from the published novelist: “You’re hiding behind your [air quotes] ‘beautiful prose’ because you don’t know how to write a decent story.”
That same story later got some very positive feedback from good markets where it almost made the cut. Another of the writer’s short stories sold recently, after a mix of critiques from people who in some cases loved and in other cases hated the piece.
I’m not suggesting that critique groups are bad, though of course they can be. Critique groups have been key in improving my writing, and in fact in practically any area of life–writing, parenting, relationships, cooking, finances–I can point to advice I’ve gotten that has been absolutely invaluable. But there were also pieces of advice or feedback that I carried around and replayed in my head for decades, only to eventually discover that they were not good advice and were leading me the wrong way.
Some Ways to Test Advice
Here are some key things to watch out for when getting advice, regardless of how kind the intention is. (And despite these examples being about writing, the ideas apply to any kind of feedback or suggestion.)
Photo by laughlin