Image: Matthew Loffhagen
‘Writing’ is a misnomer, used to group all the different types of behavior that go into a work. That’s a problem, because as a term it focuses on the ‘putting words on the page’ part of it all and leaves out the thinking, the editing and everything else that an author needs to do in order to create something great.
It also promotes the idea of the lone author, struggling by candlelight to bang out a new draft on their rickety typewriter. That’s not how the writing process works, and writers who try to work in that way will quickly realize that something’s missing.
That ‘something’ is other people and all the things they bring to the writing process. It’s energy, inspiration, criticism and even confusion. A great author needs other people, and in this article I’ll be identifying the roles that you need them to fill in order to improve any piece of work. First, though, I’ll discuss how to approach them.
How to lose friends and alienate people
Like any other artist, writers are enthusiastic. Unlike other artists, however, our craft demands time to appreciate. Yes, every art form rewards those who commit to a real study or consideration, but writing demands a longer stretch of time even for casual perusal.
A painter friend can show me their portfolio and I can glance through, giving them some general feedback. A songwriter can play me a few songs and ask what I think. Even a football player can invite me to a couple of games rather than the entire season.
An author, on the other hand, needs me to read every word and understand how they relate to each other. If I don’t then I’m not being as selective as I can be with other media, I’m just neglecting to engage with the piece.
Reviewing an author’s work is a time-consuming task that requires dedication. It’s also something that has implications for the reader. A person’s ability to engage with the written word is often taken as a sign of intelligence, so dropping a book on someone and saying ‘tell me how to improve this’ can put them in a position where they’re scared of looking stupid.
It’s for these reasons that you should endeavor to be as fair as possible to the people who help you write. This can be hard for authors, especially those who are just starting out, as enthusiasm springs from every pore. It’s hard to imagine that someone might not be as excited as you are to scour every page, or that it may take them longer than you’d like to finish.
Finding the people you need to improve your writing is one thing, but keeping them is another. The best way to do so is not to overload them, or take their involvement for granted. You’ll need the people I list below for various purposes, but remember that asking someone to help you improve your work is a real favor. You wouldn’t ask someone to help you move house a week after they’ve picked you up from the airport, and you shouldn’t go to the same person with draft after draft unless you’ve established that they want to help in that way (and even then, look for signs of fatigue).
Once you’ve identified how someone can help you, think about the points in a new project when you’ll need that help. Consider waiting until a later draft to contact your best beta reader, rather than consulting them early on and then needing their feedback again down the line.
Finally, remember that these relationships shouldn’t be one-way. Finding people who help you write often means finding people who write themselves. When you identify someone as one of the ‘types’ listed below, think about what ‘type’ you are to them. Ask what you do in return, and even verbalize this question. Acknowledging that an arrangement is mutual can often guarantee that it will remain happy – it’s a lot less irritating to feel overloaded or imposed upon if you know you’re probably going to be inspiring those same emotions in a few months’ time.
With that in mind, it’s time to move on to the six people you need to find to improve your writing.
#1 The Mentor
The mentor is a figure who makes your own goals feel possible. Note that they’re not a teacher – in fact they may not even realize they fulfill this role in your creative life.
Your mentor doesn’t have to be particularly further on in their ambitions than you; just far enough ahead to make you feel better about your next few goals. They’re a slightly larger friend who’s a little further out onto the ice – as scary as the journey may be, they at least prove that you’re not going to fall through on your next step.
This might be someone who has already been published, or who has embraced an artistic lifestyle that you covet. They may even be in a completely different field, but have advanced in a way that gives you confidence and makes you feel your own success is possible.
Writing and publication are presented as unattainable goals in our culture. We love authors and their products seem so professional and fully formed – it can feel impossible to reach that stage. That’s why a friend who has been published in a magazine, or sells their own self-published work at literary festivals, can be so revelatory.
If you’re still in education then societies can be a great place to find a mentor – many people at different points in their lives, squeezed together in one place, can pair someone who’s just starting out with someone who’s already seen success. If not, then clubs or groups can work in the same way.
Your mentor might literally show you how to succeed, but this is a secondary function. Their real role is to show you that success is possible. Their very presence demystifies the road you want to travel, and often just scheduling some time together can help make success feel that much more possible.
#2 The Battery
The battery is, as the name suggests, someone who fills you with energy. They may be a fellow writer or they may be someone who gets you into the headspace that you find most useful when creating.
Maybe you both share a love of your subject or maybe their life is so interesting that you feel inspired to write a story. Maybe they have a way with language that gets you experimenting, or maybe they’re just so enthusiastic about your stuff that it makes you want to produce another five chapters right then and there.
The battery is a great person to hang out with as you’re creating and once editing gets intense. These are the places where enthusiasm can be put to use or needs topping up.
That said, there’s no one personality type that applies to the battery. Their role is in relation to you, so look for whatever attitude gets your creative juices flowing. Your battery may even be someone you hate, and whose successes make you want to go home and write a bestseller – it’s all about how your brain works. Be aware, though, that the person you dislike may have another role to play…
#3 The Rival
The rival is a person who wants to see you fail. This is very different to someone who doesn’t want to see you succeed. The rival is useful because they’re a harsh critic and, while you should keep away from them as you write, they’re the ideal litmus test for quality.
Stephen Gregg, the playwright behind Crush and This is a Test, argues that the rival may well be your most important beta reader.
It’s good to have, among your readers, at least one who doesn’t like you. He’ll hunt ferociously for all your play’s weaknesses. #2amt
— Stephen Gregg (@playwrightnow) March 22, 2016
That’s not to say that the rival needs to hate you with a burning passion – such a person is no fun to be around, and may level criticisms that have no useful application. No, the perfect rival is someone who views you as competition: a writer dealing with a similar genre, writing for a similar audience or competing for similar accolades.
The rival should be motivated to nit-pick your work, hunting down everything they can think of to make it feel less impressive. This is why someone who doesn’t care if you succeed is no good – the rival should be irritated by your successes to the degree that they’ll tell you exactly what to do in order to improve your writing.
You’re not looking for a nemesis, just someone who stands to gain from shooting you down. The rival is best found in writing classes and similar gatherings, where a silent hierarchy is constantly maintained. If you can’t find someone who genuinely wants to find fault then develop a friendly rivalry – writers have to be very close to give truly honest feedback, but a sense of competition can help bring this out of them. It may not be the most pleasant relationship to look for, but it’s one that will take your writing to the next level.
#4 The Musician
The musician is someone who has a different relationship with the artistic process. They’re also just an example; an illustrator, singer or comedian would work just as well. There are similarities to the act of creation that cross the boundaries of media, and it’s useful to have someone who understands these but to whom the specifics of writing aren’t so familiar.
Discussing writing with another author is difficult because you have to navigate your different styles. You might write in first person, your friend in third. You might struggle with dialogue, your friend with description. Sooner or later, general discussion moves onto specifics and you lose the ability to explore a bigger picture. Discussions like this can leave writers at an impasse, each not really comprehending the problems of the other. Oddly, taking one step back can provide you with an ally who won’t have this problem.
This is partly because someone from a different discipline doesn’t feel like they have to understand your specific issue. Writer friends can feel they have to know everything about the craft and, if they don’t recognize your problem, will warp it into something they can appreciate. In contrast, a writer and a musician can discuss things like expressing the emotions and themes of a piece subtly, how to invite a particular reaction from the audience or how difficult it is to workshop a piece, without feeling the need to define each other’s problems.
I’ve said before that writers can learn from other types of artist, and the musician can be a great way to do so. You’ll be surprised at the things you can learn about rhythm, phrasing and establishing context from other artists, all without feeling the need to compete or prove that you know your stuff.
#5 The Stranger
The stranger isn’t just someone you don’t know, but someone who lacks familiarity with your core attributes. It should come as no surprise that we apply what we know about people to how we treat them – it’s a basic building block of discourse – and this can lead to blind spots for artists.
It’s common advice to seek feedback from someone who doesn’t know you that well, especially when looking for beta readers. This is partly because they won’t feel like they can’t deliver honest criticism, but it’s also because this is the only way to catch things in your writing or thinking that will confuse a reader.
The most subtle form of this problem is sentence structure. People express themselves in specific ways which are both idiosyncratic and unique to the places they live and people they know. Someone who knows you will know how you put sentences together, but will know this on a subconscious level. That means that you can write a sentence that only works if read in a certain way and they, being familiar with the way you express yourself, will read it in that way. The stranger, on the other hand, will let you know when a sentence is confusing.
That doesn’t mean the stranger is only useful for editing, though. They can also be useful when plotting a story, questioning things that might be obvious to those in your sphere of influence. It can help if the stranger is from another country, or at least a different area of your country.
As an example, I once gave some feedback on the work of an acquaintance who wrote that a character ‘had only ever seen three hummingbirds in the wild’. To him, this seemed paltry, since his bird feeder was inundated by these birds on a daily basis. To me, in a country where these birds aren’t native, it seemed strange that a character would casually mention that they’d ‘only’ seen such a rare thing three times.
The answer wasn’t to dramatically adjust the character’s viewpoint, but to stress the context of his location – there was nothing ‘wrong’ with the passage, but in the role of the stranger I was able to question something he’d taken for granted. This is something that he couldn’t get from his friends, relatives or even hired beta readers in his area, since they all lived in the same place and held the same assumption.
The stranger doesn’t have to be geographically distant, just different enough to see the flaws in your logic. The lack of a stranger leads to things like rich characters whose behavior reads as disgustingly wasteful to working class readers, or characters whose hobbies or lifestyle prove impenetrable to the layman.
You can bet that Andy Weir made good use of a stranger when writing The Martian – the novel focuses on the hypothetical science of surviving in space, something the writer had to a) understand in great detail and b) explain in such a way that it was clear and enjoyable for the uninitiated.
Since strangers should be so different in outlook, they’re often best found online. The net is brimming with writing groups and platforms, so find someone whose work you respect and try to strike up this kind of relationship. It shouldn’t be hard, since you can offer the same service in return.
#6 The Realist
The realist is the opposite of a stranger – someone who understands you on a deep, substantive level. This might be someone who can offer you support, but if you’re looking to improve your writing then they’re also someone who can identify recurring behavior or themes.
Most writers quickly encounter the phrase ‘kill your darlings’. This warning from William Faulkner instructs writers to beware the aspects of their stories that they particularly enjoy, whether this is a specific character or a technical decision like writing lots of dialogue. This can be hard to enforce in your own writing because, by their nature, these are the parts you love.
A realist knows you well enough to spot these things for you – the turns of phrase that you rely on too often or the habit of indulging in long character introductions. Outside of writing, they know if you’re prone to seeking out beta readers before a piece is ready or pushing back deadlines indefinitely.
It’s difficult to be a realist, as it necessitates speaking inconvenient truths to someone you care about. The only way to create a realist (if you’re not lucky enough to stumble across one) is to find the person who can fill the role and ask them to do so. Let them know that this is something you need and that, while they don’t have to ‘look after’ you, you’d benefit from them identifying trends in your work that are obvious to them as a friend.
You can prepare your realist for this role by sharing what you already know to be your weaknesses – deep down, all authors know something that they do too much; a character archetype they fall back on too readily or poetic language that outstays its welcome.
Editors can catch many things, but unless you’ve established an ongoing relationship, they can’t know that you’re using the same plot elements for the third book in a row. One sure-fire way to get a realist is to do just that – establish an ongoing relationship with a professional editor. Otherwise, it’s about finding your best friend and telling them that no-one else can do the job.
Be aware that it’s not always pleasant to hear your realist call out elements of your writing. Deep truths can be the hardest to hear, after all. Because of this, it’s a good idea to schedule a specific time in the creative process to consult a realist, or for your friend to only take on their realist role at a prearranged stage. This helps you benefit from the realist’s feedback, but stops their attention from becoming daunting.
Combining and contrasting roles
I mentioned earlier that you should plan how you consult each person so as not to turn their role into a burden, but this is also important for you to get the most out of their help. Some roles are always welcome – the battery, for example – while some need to be consulted at specific stages to help you hone your craft.
Understand, also, that you have to be ready to use the rewards of each person to their full. Spending time with the battery, for instance, requires some free time afterwards for you to actually use your new energy. Likewise, you might need some dedicated time to consider the stranger’s feedback before you act on it.
It’s important to appreciate that the benefits of each role may come with drawbacks. Criticism is the lifeblood of editing, but it can be poison to the creative urge. Hearing some constructive feedback from a realist is something we all need, but if you worry it will put you into a negative frame of mind then be ready to contact your mentor afterwards to place constructive criticism into the context of your wider goals. If a rival’s feedback is going to be useful but infuriating then spend some time with the musician, who’ll appreciate your emotional reaction without getting hung up on the observations themselves.
As with any method of improving your writing, the people I’ve described above aren’t magic. Their effectiveness will depend on how you use what they can do for you, and your ability to get the most out of it will depend on preparation.
Swiss army knives
As you may have already guessed, some of the roles above can be adopted by the same person. There’s no reason a musician can’t also be a battery, or a mentor can’t double up as a realist. Just keep in mind that asking someone to be two things may blur the line between them; if a best friend is going to be a battery and a realist then it may be hard for them to switch between the roles, or for you to ignore their behavior in one role when you require the other. If this becomes an issue then it’s time to decide which role you need more and have them pull back their remit.
Finally, don’t forget that you’re probably one or more of these roles to someone else. Just as you want the best from your writing, they want your help, so do as much as you can to give them what they need. It’s often a good idea to discuss these kinds of relationships, as you may be able to formalize how you help each other, or work out a way to do even more.
For more on what other people can do for your writing, check out Why Beta Readers Are Vital To Your Success. Or if you’d like to accomplish more without depending on others, try Four Secrets That Will Turn You Into An Objective Editor.