Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Writing Buddies

Most people write more if they are held accountable.  The simplest approach to this is to get someone to regularly ask, "How many words have you written [today, this week, this month]?" This resembles the Weight Watchers weigh in, providing a public declaration that others can respond to (it is hoped, with encouragement). There are online versions of this, most notably through the NaNoWriMo community.
Checking in regularly with a writing parole officer is just what some people need, but some may need to reach higher. For one thing, by just providing a number, it is too easy to cheat. It is too tempting to include what Kristan Higgins calls "writerly things" (think blog entries or notes to editors – instead of things that are words bringing the story forward) in the word count. The words could be on a side project instead of the main work. Or the words could be notes on the story, character sketches or even an estimate of what the writer wrote in his/her head and just needs to get onto paper.
Having a writing buddy makes this sort of cheating less likely because the words themselves need to be turned in. This helps with productivity both because the work is hard to dodge and because quality becomes a factor.
There are other payoffs as well. Encouragement comes at a higher level because the work can now be referred to directly (wonderful description, clever use of metaphor). It also becomes possible to have discussions that include advice, explorations of material, answers to questions and specific feedback.
Just having someone else reading the work – which is driven in part by the need to communicate – has a salutary effect. Along the way, there is real companionship from someone who understands. Writing can be a lonely business, so such a relationship can be invaluable. Besides, you know that when you finish, someone with real investment in the material will be there to say congratulations.
All this, of course, depends on having the right writing buddy. Having someone who is unreliable, working on a different level, negative or doesn't "get" what you write can be actively harmful. With that in mind, here are some criteria for a writing buddy:
  • Find someone who is about at the same level. Since you are reading and providing feedback for them, a person who is working at a lower level is likely to be frustrating and less helpful.  Mentee/mentor relationships have their own charm and value, but they are not the same as the writing buddy relationship.
  • Their output should be similar and they should be reliable. A big asymmetry in workload can feel unfair. Delays in reading and feedback can become an excuse for writing less.
  • Having similar goals may also be important. For instance, a person determined to self-publish might be annoyed by a commercially focused buddy who fulfils genre requirements when they "should" just tell their story. In the other direction, a commercial writer might be insulted when suggestions to add a few elements or cut a scene to fit a market are ignored by someone committed to self-publishing.
  • Mutual respect and trust are essential. This may develop over time, but both buddies need to avoid any violations. A typical problem is a caustic comment. When this is direct, it's bad enough. When it is made to a third party, it's disastrous. When it is made to a third party and the manuscript is shared with that person, the writing relationship (if not the friendship) is probably dead.
  • While there is a need for candor, writing buddies need to keep their criticism positive, generous and supportive. At least in early critiques, it is wise not to point out more than three concerns. The good work needs to be explicitly noted and praised. And overall, any critique must come across as helpful and encouraging.
  • A writing buddy should be a natural audience for your work. They need to enjoy and respect your genre and your style. If they don't "get it" the criticism becomes mechanical at best, scathing at worst. This problem should be evident early in the relationship, but it can even happen with a good writing buddy when a new work takes a different direction. In those circumstances, the writing buddy needs to explain the concern early on (and this honesty needs to be appreciated without argument).
  • There should be good "chemistry" between the buddies. I don't know how to explain this, but, when you are in the situation, you'll know if it's there or not.
  • Ultimately, critiques need to be expressed in ways that are helpful. This does not mean that a buddy's prescriptions need to be complete, clear and actionable. Most suggestions on how to fix writing aren't quite right. But the concerns need to be expressed, in most cases, well enough so a second look is productive.
Having the right writing buddy can become a springboard for more productive writing – both for you and for your buddy. This can be a great benefit in achieving your goals. It also can provide a reward in the enormous pride you'll feel when your buddy succeeds, too. Maybe you'll even get a thank you in the book.
Copyright © 2012 Peter Andrews

1 comment:

  1. Love this, Peter! And it's all so true.