Why the Ninja? And Other Great Questions Your Writers’ Group Will Ask

NinjaWriters are a strange breed. We pretty much live inside our own heads, which isn’t a problem as far as we’re concerned. In fact, inside our heads is a pretty great place to be. Kind of like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, where anything is possible, including eating a three course dinner in the form of chewing gum, or turning into a blueberry as punishment for being greedy (a little something we writers like to call poetic justice).

There is a downside, of course, which is that non-writers don’t always get our compulsive need to take ten minutes to compose a grammatically correct text while they’re standing in front of a wall of cereal boxes waiting to hear which one we’d like them to buy, or our propensity for bolting upright in bed at 3 a.m. and shouting “Yes! That’s how she did it!”
Which is why we writers need to seek out other writers–to convince ourselves that we’re not really crazy. Or, if we are, that there just may be a way to convert all that crazy into an actual career (yes, Dad, you can still call it a career if you don’t have regular hours, a place of work, or any viable income, per se).

A writers’ group is a fabulous place to find that support and encouragement. Connecting with people who have a mutual passion for wordsmithing and a mutual penchant for consuming copious cups of coffee daily–which is critical to maintaining both sanity and an ever-increasing word count.

One of the keys to an effective group is trust. Putting yourself out there as you share your work requires tremendous vulnerability, something we self-preserving writers aren’t that keen on. Remembering that other members only want to encourage you to make your work as good as it possibly can be is the secret to surviving (even embracing) the process.

Another key is honesty. Feedback such as “that’s the most amazing writing I have ever read; don’t change a single thing” is all well and good. Very well and very good, in fact. Only it’s not all that helpful. Something like, “I really enjoyed the dialogue between the butcher and the housewife over the meat counter at the grocery store, but I didn’t get why the Ninja darted out of the back room and grabbed a rump roast before back-flipping his way down the International Foods aisle” is much more useful. Now you can go back and read that scene over, realize that the Ninja, while really, really cool, is in fact unnecessary to the plot, and take him out.

Painful as it may be at times, a willingness to receive constructive criticism and honest feedback from people you trust (and who are always willing to make allowances for the fact that you live life on the outer fringes of reality, especially since they usually share the same postal code) inevitably leads to stronger, tighter, more excellent writing.

And there’s nothing crazy about that.

Are you part of a writer’s group? Have you found it helpful?

Encouraging Aspiring Writers

Photo/CCWCAs a freelance writer and writing instructor, I’m often asked to edit the work of my peers and of aspiring writers. And I love to encourage others to tell the stories that matter most.

Grammar cops. I also appreciate the editing skills of my writing peers, as they wield their red pens and hack on my “shoddy” first drafts. But at times, I observe grammar cops attack insecure, fragile writers, who approach them for encouragement as they tiptoe into the waters of writing for publication.

Now, I’ve been known to whip out my red pen from time to time, when someone asks me to do that kind of editing. But I try to use a little discernment and discretion when a novice writer approaches me with their work.

Aspiring writers. Sensitive, aspiring writers need our empathy, since they trust us with some of their most intimate tales. These newer writers pour out their hearts and souls into their first pieces; we need to handle them with care.

I’ve seen writers spanning from late teens to senior citizens. And I’ve noticed many of them choose topics dealing with difficult life struggles—the death of loved ones, flashbacks of war experiences, or simply leaving home and beginning their own journey as adults. I’m able to empathize with their pain, confusion, doubts, and fears. I recognize their need to tell their stories, trying to make sense out of the rumblings of their minds and troubled hearts.

Levels of edit. I believe it’s vital to discern the needs of a writer, not always assuming they need a grammar cop to attack their work with a red pen. My unsolicited grammar cop comments tend to cause more harm than good. I find it helpful to ask writers to clarify their needs and their expectations of me as an editor. What level of editing do they want?

I also think it’s important to examine one aspect of editing at a time, since I don’t do well at multi-tasking. And although many professional editors may have different terms to describe their levels of editing, my editing checklist for my own work includes three—the panoramic, macroscopic, and microscopic viewpoints. But sometimes, I consider one more level editing, especially with writers who need encouragement—like students, wannabe writers, or hobby writers (i.e. not professional writers).

Peer responses. Some professional writers may not even consider the peer response a valid level of editing, but it can serve as an important phase of the writing process. For instance, this approach might be helpful for some critique groups.

In the classroom, I required my students to participate in peer groups where they would listen and respond to each other’s work. I preferred small groups, where students seemed to be a little less intimidated. I wanted to encourage their writing, not scare them off.

I provided every student several copies of a peer response form. Then, as each writer read their essay out loud, their peers would listen, read along, and record their responses. After each reading, the group would discuss the responses.

One of my favorite writing professors, Dr. Sally Crisp, encouraged me as she taught aspiring writing teachers the value of emphasizing meaning.

I believe that we write to communicate and connect with others, often others we don’t know and may never know. In responding to writers, I like to let them know how their message got through to me. In other words, whether I ‘got it’ or I didn’t. I teach the same principle when I teach collaboration. The right kind of collaboration can be an excellent means of fostering in writers a keen sense of audience.

Dr. Crisp also composed a list of peer response questions and comments that you might find helpful, too.

Peer Responses

  1. How has the writer introduced the essay?
  2. What is the main theme of the essay?
  3. Is there any information that you are wondering about? What might be added to develop the main point more fully?
  4. How did the author conclude the essay?
  5. What part of the essay do you find the most effective? Why?
  6. Suggest two or three things that would make the paper even better.

Who has encouraged you as a writer? 

Being Equipped

Criticism 1Many times, when I meditate on God’s Word, my eyes are drawn to encouraging and uplifting verses like John 3:16, or “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” or “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

And sometimes, as only God can do, He whacks me upside the head with a mackerel as he did during my prayer time the other day when He led me to Proverbs 29:1 (NLT): Whoever stubbornly refuses to accept criticism will suddenly be destroyed beyond recovery.

In the King James Version, this verse reads: He, that being often reproved hardeneth his neck, shall suddenly be destroyed, and that without remedy. Not quite as in my face as the NLT. The Old English makes it a little mushier with having to untie the knots in the sentence.

Not the NLT. It’s like stepping on the wrong end of a rake.

When I began writing seriously, the thing I feared most was receiving criticism. I had always been extremely sensitive to criticism. It came from having a poor self-image and being convinced in my mind I could never be smart enough or good enough. My first reaction was to shut down and then, at the first opportunity, I would go off by myself and brood.

Frustrated Woman at Computer With Stack of PaperImagine taking this attitude into a critique group.

But God, with His grace and favor and wisdom, prepared me. He showed me magazine articles, books, and blogs that talked about receiving and giving criticism. He brought me to my first critique group. There I observed a group of people much more experienced than I give and receive critiques in ways that were constructive and encouraging.

Most importantly, through prayer and wise counsel, He showed me, for the first time, how to see the criticism was not about me personally, but about my words.

Sometimes, it’s still hard to make this distinction. The enemy tries to wedge the door open and tell me negative feedback means I’m no good. But God has shown me, no matter what people think of my writing, I am good. I am His child and, as the old saying goes, God does not make junk.

To refuse and reject criticism is to set myself up for failure, to put myself in a situation of not being published, of developing a reputation of being difficult, if not impossible, to work with. This accomplishes several things I don’t want to happen. People won’t work with me or consider my work because I’m not open about improving it. It hurts God because it takes me out of His plan for me. And it gives the enemy a victory because it takes me out of the will of God and opens the door for him to do even more damage, and, thus, for me to be destroyed beyond recovery.

God’s shown me the purpose of the criticism, how it applies through this verse. The feedback is to help me improve as a writer, to develop and refine my craft, to become a better storyteller. To become a better servant of Him by taking my skills to the highest level possible. To walk in obedience and in the fullness of His plan and calling for my life.

After getting my attention in Proverbs 29:1, He led me to this Scripture, a part of a prayer in Hebrews 13:21 (NLT): May he equip you with all you need for doing his will. May he produce in you, through the power of Jesus Christ, every good thing that is pleasing to him. All glory to him forever and ever! Amen.

He’s equipped to me write and He’s equipped me to receive feedback and instruction to improve my writing so it serves Him even better.

Stranglers or Wranglers? The Super Power of Encouragement

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?