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?

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