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Writers Need Friends and Critics

June 11, 2010 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified June 11, 2010

You’ve written your first book. Or what you hope will become your first book. Right now it’s merely a 90,000 word labor of love sweated over, cried over, cussed over.

Who do you ask to read it first?

Mom will either praise it unconditionally or ask why you didn’t take the job in Dallas that guaranteed $45,000 the second year with raises each year thereafter. She either loves everything you’ve ever written or encourages you in every phone call to get a real job.

Your brother promised to read and give you constructive feedback, but his job and girlfriend and ex-wife get in the way of his free time. Besides, you remember that he never got grades higher than a C in English, not even when he studied Shakespeare and acted out all the fight scenes for extra credit.

Your best friend? She may tell you how wonderful the story is, but can you be sure she’s not just being polite? After all, the Wall Street Journal is her first choice in reading matter. She doesn’t care a bit for science fiction, and you’re pretty sure she wouldn’t know what steampunk was if she herself was plunked down into 1870’s London, computer and iPhone by her side.

So…Who do you ask to read your work? Who do you trust to give you helpful pointers and honest critique? And when you’re bruised from that honest feedback—genuinely surprised that your reader found so many errors in what you thought was a perfect manuscript—who do you turn to for encouragement?

If you’re lucky, as many writers have been (me included), you have a critique partner or a critique group or maybe a loose confederation of writing cohorts who act as reality checkers and sounding board for your story and your emotions.

Writin’ Wombats
I hang out with the Writin’ Wombats, a group of writers who met at a Web hangout called Gather. The site began as a place for writers to share their work, fiction and non-fiction. It’s now more a social site. But there are still many writers contributing great content there.

The Wombats are quick to critique for one another, giving time from their own full schedules to help their friends, some of whom still haven’t met another Wombat in person. Wombats also offer encouragement and support when the rejections pile up or when a reviewer (or two or three) slams something a fellow Wombat has written.

And if one of the group enters a contest? The support is absolute.

Writing is most often a solitary venture. Not for all writers and not in all ways, but for the most part, it’s you and the keyboard—your fingers, your brain, and the gadget that helps make sense of your thoughts.

But writers need support. They need honest critique, not friends who are hesitant about saying they don’t like what they’ve read. Or maybe they’d like to be honest, but don’t know how to translate what doesn’t work for them as a reader into critique that can help the writer.

Writers need both friends and critics. And they’re twice blessed to find a critic and friend in the same person—a writer buddy unafraid to say something stinks when it does and one who knows enough about the frustrations of the writing life to be able to comfort when comfort, more than critique, is called for.

I can heartily recommend that you find a critique partner or group that will be your support. Know going in that you’ll need to be the same in return, someone bold enough to tell your partner or friends when something isn’t working. No writer wants to send his or her manuscript to an agent or acquiring editor only to discover later it was appallingly bad.

So be a true friend—tell your writer friends when their stories need work. If you can provide specifics, that’s even better. And when the writing world seems to be against your friend, be there with the support she needs (chocolate, bourbon, a willing ear). Be a credible critic and a dear friend. And don’t be shy about finding the same for yourself.

Writers need support. Here’s hoping you find some Writin’ Wombats of your own.


Tags: ,     Posted in: A Writer's Life, Recommendations

13 Responses to “Writers Need Friends and Critics”

  1. Dana says:

    I pretty much agree with everything you said here, including the absolute wonderfulness of the Writing Wombats. It’s hard staying sane in the writing world when you’re in your own head a lot of the time… and those critique groups and friends make a huge difference!

  2. What ARE you going to do with those lime wedges, Beth? :-)

    The Writin’ Wombats are the best thing that ever happened to my writing career. I’m tempted to surround myself with yes-(wo)men, but those willing to tell you the truth, no matter how much it stings or how much more work it means you’ll have to do to fix your mess-of-a-manuscript, are worth their weight in platinum (which sells for more than gold). But do have a good supply of chocolate handy before you read their critique.

  3. Beth says:

    They do make a difference, Dana, that’s for sure. We like to think we know everything, but those extra eyes—and the forthright men and women behind them—keep us straight.

    Jamie, chocolate goes well with reading critiques. As does root beer. Yeah, I always wondered what benefit a yes-man had. While I don’t always want someone around me who’s contrary, I certainly don’t need anyone to tell me I’m perfect and everything’s wonderful when I know that’s not the truth.

  4. Hi Beth. I never quite understood the value of Beta readers until 1) I entered a couple of writing contests on, and 2) began to get real honest feedback from the Writing Wombats.

    I think it’s fine to be in isolation when you’re writing a novel, but there comes a time when you need readers and ideally, ones who will critique the work with care and attention. Then, it’s even better when the people doing the critique are willing to support your efforts to get better. I’ll second the comments of all above on the value of the Writing Wombats for all of us who’ve commented so far, but any writer needs both critiques and support, which could be in an online writing group or through face to face interaction. Nice post.

  5. Wanda Hughes says:

    Hi Beth, I’ve never had a beta reader, someone to encourage me or even a friendly reader until I met the Wombats. I can’t say enough about the support, encouragement and love I’ve found in our group. No matter how much I whine I still get good feedback… and I think I whine waaaay too much. One thing know for sure: A writer needs support and real criticism as well as talent and stick-to-it-ness to succeed. This is a great post!

  6. Dale C says:

    The Gather contests and the Writing Wombats have been great helps to my writing, at least partly because they demonstrated how much I still had to learn.

  7. Kat Sheridan says:

    I wouldn’t even BE a writer without the support and encouragement of the Wombats, who have also become dear friends. I’m so lucky that from the very beginning, I had people who told me the truth. And liked me anyway!

  8. Beth says:

    Wanda, I think you hit right on it—support, criticism, talent and stick-to-it-ness. All make us better writers.

    James, I picked the beta readers for my first manuscript with care. I picked one because I thought he’d enjoy the story. I picked 3 because I thought they’d be able to give me solid feedback. But I also picked one to make me feel good—I knew she’d be positive, no matter what she thought of the story!

  9. Beth says:

    Dale, that’s what I like about a continued relationship with other writers—knowing I can and will learn from them.

    Kat, everyone needs friends who’ll pull them deeper into their world. Just so happens that you and the world of writing go naturally together.

  10. Ken Coffman says:

    Like everything else we’re doing, building a group of useful reviewers is something to be built over time. I have a few folks who have help me immensely and that’s a debt that can never be repaid. I am a crappy reviewer because I’ve been through the process many times and have strong passions for what I think writing should be. That’s not very useful for others who are trying to build their own machines. On the other hand, if you don’t have a strong, motivating engine driving you, then you’ll never get your chance to make a mark on the world. If that’s your goal.
    Once your book has only stuff in it you’ll fight tooth and nail to keep…only then are you done. Well, that’s my opinion. Ha!

  11. Vivian A says:

    Honesty is critical, even when we don’t want to hear it. The truth is we get better each time the blade gets folded one more time. Like the samurai sword, hopefully it doesn’t take a thousand strikes, writing needs edits. Improvement comes with each pass and a good critique partner relationship is necessary.

    The KEY is finding the people who give you the honest feedback that you don’t run away from.

  12. Beth says:

    Why is it that we do want to run from feedback that will help us? Maybe it’s ego or not wanting to be found imperfect. Whatever, I’m with you Vivian. Let’s find honest people and willingly accept what they have to say.

    Of course, that’s not taking everything without question. But it does mean giving an ear to their comments.