68. About Writing: Attitude

There was once a young man whom I’ll call Socrates.

(For the record, this was not the same Socrates as the one who pretended to tear out my heart or the one who gave me an RNA or the one who invented the Socratic method. This is a different Socrates.)

Socrates was a creative writer. A couple of years ago, we had a discussion about our writing projects. It turned out that we had both written fantasy novels and were in the process of revising our work. When Socrates heard about my novel, he offered to read it and offer feedback. I accepted his offer gratefully and gave him a manuscript of my novel.

A few days later, he handed me the manuscript of his novel and told me he was looking forward to hearing my criticism. This came as a surprise to me. I didn’t mind criticizing his novel, but he hadn’t asked for criticism and I hadn’t offered it. He simply gave me the manuscript and expected feedback.

It occurred to me that Socrates might have offered to read my novel only for the sake of obligating me to read his.

Nevertheless, I believed creative writers should stick together. If another creative writer wanted my criticism, I was happy to give it. Thus I plunged into the novel Socrates had written, marking his manuscript with mechanical pencil and thinking about what feedback to give him.

It was not a good novel. The novel had its strengths, of course, but it also had many weaknesses. The most glaring of these were myriad misspellings and grammar mistakes: the sort of errors a spellcheck program wouldn’t catch. Apart from typographical errors, the novel had a number of significant problems.

When criticizing a piece of writing, I believe it’s important to be honest and kind. Honesty can be carried to the extreme of disparagement. Kindness can be carried to the extreme of flattery. Neither disparagement nor flattery are helpful to a writer. As I read the manuscript of the novel, I tried to think of criticisms that would be helpful to Socrates.

I finished the manuscript and sent Socrates an email in which I commended the novel’s strengths, pointed out a few of its faults and suggested changes that could be made.

Socrates replied with an email in which he thanked me for my feedback, responded offhandedly to a few of my criticisms and promised to return the favor by giving me feedback on my novel. (He never did.) Regarding his own novel, he mentioned his intention to “go and work on it once more before I try to find a publisher.”

To be honest, I was left with rather a poor impression of Socrates as a creative writer. The mediocre quality of his writing had little to do with it. When I began writing, the quality of my writing was unspeakably awful. Every writer has to start somewhere, and that somewhere is usually pretty bad. As Jon Acuff once observed, the road to awesome always leads through the land of horrible.

No, my poor impression of Socrates came from his attitude toward writing. In our exchanges, I noticed several problems with his attitude—problems that are common among writers—problems of which I myself have often been guilty.

Writers shouldn’t use other people

It’s extremely important for writers to seek help from others. There is a difference, however, between seeking help from someone and using someone. In my exchanges with Socrates, it seemed that he offered to read my manuscript only to manipulate me into reading his. Writers should never consider other people mere tools or resources. The writer who criticizes my manuscript isn’t a feedback machine. The readers who follow my blog aren’t a statistic. These people are human beings with feelings and opinions and gifts. Treating them as mere tools or resources is wrong.

Writers should respect their readers enough to give them their best work

It’s not a huge deal, but I prefer not to read a manuscript full of typographical errors. I would have enjoyed the manuscript Socrates gave me much more had he taken the time to make sure it was at least written correctly.

Writers should be willing to accept criticism, especially when they ask for it

I received the impression from Socrates that he didn’t really care much for my criticism. I wouldn’t have minded much, except for two things. First, I had taken a lot of time to read his novel and give the best feedback I could. Second, he had asked specifically for my criticism. To ask for it, and then not to accept any of it, seemed a little rude. Writers shouldn’t blindly accept every bit of criticism they receive, but they should at least consider it—especially when they’ve asked for it.

Writers should help each other

Socrates offered to read my novel and give feedback, but he never did. Granted, he may have forgotten or been too busy, but our exchanges seemed unfairly one-sided. If writers accept help from others, they should also be willing to give help.

Writers should be realistic

When Socrates informed me that his plan for his manuscript was to “go and work on it once more before I try to find a publisher,” I had to shake my head. Even if his manuscript weren’t full of typographical errors, he would have had to revise it at least a few more times before it was even close to being presentable to publishers. Then he would have to begin the arduous process of finding a publisher: research the market, find an agent, write a novel proposal, find a publisher, sign a contract, submit the manuscript for editing, make necessary revisions, format the manuscript, promote the novel and so on. Writers mustn’t be daunted or discouraged by the difficulties of publishing, but they mustn’t be unrealistic either.

If it seems like I’m being pretty harsh toward Socrates and his attitude toward writing, I need to point out that I’ve made all of his mistakes myself. I’ve used people. I’ve given other people less than my best writing, been unwilling to accept good criticism and refused to help other writers. As for being unrealistic, I’ve been ridiculously naïve about the quality of my writing and the difficulty of publishing.

Here are two more mistakes I’ve made.

Writers shouldn’t assume their writing is awesome

Writers have a tendency to fall in love with their own writing because it’s exactly the kind of thing they enjoy reading. I like wry, thoughtful writing. I also like fantasy fiction. My novel happens to be a wry, thoughtful fantasy. It’s the sort of novel I would enjoy reading—but it may not be the sort of novel everyone else in the world would enjoy reading. Writers need to follow the Apostle Paul’s good advice: “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment.”

Writers shouldn’t assume their writing is awful

Writers also have a tendency to give up because they assume their writing is bad. Sometimes it is, and they need to keep practicing. Sometimes it isn’t, and they need to keep writing well. It’s difficult for writers to assess the quality of their own writing, which is why seeking help from others is so important.

It’s essential for writers to have the right attitude: to persevere, to be humble, to be willing to seek help, to be willing to give help and so on.

Have you struggled with any of these attitude problems? How do you deal with them? Let us know in the comments!

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