Along with visual arts—drawing, painting, sculpting and so on—writing is probably one of the loneliest forms of art.
Most art demands the involvement of more than one person. Most music, whether instrumental or choral, requires a group of people. Theatrical productions usually feature multiple performers; even shows with only one actor require a stage crew. Films demand legions of musicians, editors, producers, sound technicians, makeup artists, prop designers, camerapersons and special effects artists.
Writing is different. The craft of writing can be collaborative, but, unlike other forms of art, it doesn’t have to be. It can be as simple as a writer sitting in front of a computer or notebook and putting her thoughts into words. Whole novels can be written without a single piece of advice or criticism from another person.
However, just because writing can be a lonely form of art doesn’t mean it should be.
Two of my favorite authors, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, were part of a writing group called the Inklings. They met every week in a pub or private room in Oxford, drank beer, smoked pipes, talked about literature and told jokes. Most significantly, certain members of the Inklings read aloud whatever manuscripts they happened to be working on, and other members offered their criticism.
Of course, not all criticism was encouraging. Hugo Dyson once responded to a passage from a manuscript of The Lord of the Rings with, “Oh no, not another f—ing elf!” (Several versions of this quote have been attributed to both Dyson and Tolkien’s son Christopher.) Much of the criticism was positive, however, and famous works such as The Lord of the Rings and Out of the Silent Planet were influenced by the Inklings.
I believe we can learn something from the Inklings. Speaking from personal experience, writing shouldn’t be a solitary craft. Criticism and encouragement from others are invaluable.
We writers tend not to be very good judges of our own work. We tend to make one of two mistakes when evaluating our own writing: we think it’s superb when it’s really not that good, or we think it’s awful when it’s really not that bad. It’s tremendously useful and helpful to receive criticism from other people.
When finding other people to judge our writing, it benefits us to choose people with different skills and interests. Let’s suppose someone writes a young adult novel. The obvious people from whom to seek criticism are young adults—they’re the ones for whom the book is written, after all. However, it will also be helpful to submit the manuscript to other kinds of readers: a fellow writer to point out weak passages, an English teacher to correct grammar mistakes, an experienced reader to check for plot holes.
When I finished The Trials of Lance Eliot, a fantasy novel, I submitted manuscripts to all kinds of people: a high school student, a number of amateur writers, a professional author, numerous college students, several college professors, my elderly grandparents and several others. I received many kinds of criticism, ranging from in-depth literary analysis to superficial proofreading to simple statements of like or dislike—and it was all helpful.
Apart from useful criticism, community offers something writers can never provide for themselves: encouragement.
Pretty much every writer ever has suffered from self-doubt. I can’t count the times I’ve stared at words on my computer screen and thought, “Dash it all, I’m no good at this.” So much of what has kept me going as a writer has been the encouragement I’ve received from my readers.
It’s easy for writers to become fatigued, but a single encouraging remark can go a long way to keep writers motivated. Encouragement and positive criticism reassures writers that, despite their mistakes and faults, they’re doing something right. Their efforts are not a colossal waste of time.
Criticism should always be honest. “An honest answer is like a kiss on the lips,” as the author of Proverbs reminds us. Flattery isn’t helpful to writers. At the same time, it’s beneficial to writers to be encouraged: “An anxious heart weighs a man down, but a kind word cheers him up,” to quote another proverb.
Writers shouldn’t accept all criticism unthinkingly. In the end, they and no others know what sort of work they want to write. However, writers shouldn’t reject any criticism without considering it first. Quoth the author of Proverbs, “Listen to advice and accept instruction, and in the end you will be wise.”
Art comes out of community. Very, very few artists are sufficient unto themselves. Writers are no exception. Almost every writer can benefit from becoming part of a community of readers and writers, receiving useful criticism and being reassured their attempts to write are worth something.