One of my all time favorite books, one that influenced both my writing style and my outlook on life, is A Touch of Wonder by Arthur Gordon. Gordon’s stellar writing peppered “Guidepost Magazine” with inspiration for decades. I remember happening upon the book in a seaside store, then finding a perfect spot on the beach to relax where, over the next two days, I read it from cover to cover. As the ocean waves rolled in the distance, I felt uplifted by true story after story filled with humor, struggle, love, and courage.
In one memorable chapter, Mr. Gordon told a story that created such an “Ah-ha of the Heart” for me that it helped form my basic writing philosophy. He wrote of a friend who belonged to a club at the University of Wisconsin many years ago. It was composed of several talented writers, all brilliant young men. They would each read their prose aloud, then take turns dissecting and criticizing each others’ writing so fiercely, they dubbed their writing group “The Stranglers.”
On the same campus, a group of women formed a writing group, calling themselves “The Wranglers.” But instead of dousing one another with criticism, they spent most of their time encouraging one another. They all left the meetings feeling inspired in their writing journey.
Twenty years after these two groups met, some interesting results were found. For all the brilliance of the writers who made up “The Stranglers,” not one member achieved any kind of literary reputation. “The Wranglers,” on the other hand, produced a half-dozen successful writers, including the Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Yearling, Marjorie K. Rawlings.
From this story I drew two convictions:
1. When choosing a writers’ group (or any support group for that matter), make sure that they lead with a positive spirit. Sure, you want honest feedback, but this can be done with grace in an atmosphere of encouragement. If the group has spiraled into nit-picking negativity, get thee to another group. That is, if you value your future as a writer.
2. Secondly, when you edit someone else’s writing, it is often automatic to skip the good writing and correct what is wrong, like the proverbial teacher with a red pen. Because I accept this is how my editing brain works, I usually go through a writer’s chapter or manuscript or a proposal twice. The first time I highlight what needs to be changed to make it better. And then, I go back through and put smiley faces on the parts I like the best. You would not believe how writers love those smiley faces and how they make any critique go down easier.
In a little post-script to this story, I searched and found an address for Arthur Gordon, who was at the time quite up in years (he died in 2002 at 89), then wrote him a fan letter. He wrote me back on an old manual typewriter, saying how much he appreciated the bucket of encouragement, that this sort of reader feedback was fuel for his writing soul. I realized in that moment that no matter how old or accomplished a writer is, inside we’re all a little insecure and in need of positive feedback. A part of us is forever the child, giddy over a star or a sticker from the teacher.
So it behooves us to be positive and kind to each other in our critique. Not only does it make the writing life more fun, but in the long run, it also makes it more prolific and profitable.
What sorts of critique groups have you experienced? How did they make you feel? What kind of critique encourages you to excellence without throwing you into a depressing writer’s block?
13 Replies to “Stranglers or Wranglers? The Super Power of Encouragement”
What a great piece of wisdom, Becky. Thank you for sharing the heart of encouragement, but reminding us of its practical value to help us succeed beyond our wildest imaginations.
Thank you, Anita… I’m so glad this story inspired you as well.
Stranglers and wranglers– Wow! This, Becky Johnson, is the power of a story! I know immediately that I won’t forget it. Oh, to be a wrangler for everyone I meet! Thank you for this!
You are a born Wrangler, Shellie! Love to you…
This is a great example of how productive we can be by supporting and lifting up others. Thanks for these words of inspiration. I’ve been eschewing critique groups in favor of having one ‘ideal reader’ (as well as good editors). But – if I could find one like ‘The Wranglers’, who wouldn’t want to be part of that?
Kimberly, I think that is a great alternative. I’d much rather have one person I trusted to edit than a group of people that I felt unsure about….
Good post, Becky! Very inspirational.
Have a smiley face 🙂 and star * in return!
LOL, Joe! I’ll take that smiley face and star to heart today. Nothing like a little encouragement…
Thank you for this great post. As I was reading, I couldn’t help but feel very blest to be a member of Mountain Christian Writers Group. After attending a few other groups and feeling intimidated at the harshness of critiques in one group and the lack of knowledge and expertise in the other, when God led me to MCCWG I found the perfect blend. It felt like a home for my writers heart. Our members come from a wide range of backgrounds and offer varied areas of expertise. We give knowledgeable, honest, and kind critiques with the goal always being to improve our writing so we can glorify God and lift up others, including ourselves. I am so thankful for our group.
ourselves. I am so thankful to be a p
What a blessing to have found your own group of Wranglers! Truly a joy.
I am a member of a group of men who meet once a month to talk about issues in our lives. The group was initially formed through a local church — separate groups for men and women were created. The men chose to set a rule of just talking, one at a time, with no one offering advice unless specifically asked. The women chose to offer support whenever they felt the need to do so.
Interestingly, the women’s group stopped meeting within a year. The men’s group I’m in has been meeting for close to 25 years. Members have dropped out or moved, new members (like me) have been asked to join.
There is a time for feedback and advice. More often, the need is to be compassionately engaged in what the other person is saying, truly listening so the other person feels heard.
Great posting. Thanks!
I absolutely love this. I had forgotten this story–thanks for reminding me. I picked up “A Touch of Wonder” at a used bookstore at your recommendation through one of your books years ago, and return to it time and time again.
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