“I can’t help it,” Anjali told me, in our confidence coaching session. “I’ve listened to all the critiques, I’ve done loads of classes, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I suck.”
Almost every other writer who has come to me for coaching has said the same. Knowing they need feedback about their work, they’ve sought criticism from writers and instructors, which has helped them to raise the quality of their work. But after numerous critiques, their confidence drops. They begin to give up, slowly but surely. Many lose the will to keep honing their drafts.
This is a huge problem, and I’ve been there myself. Fifteen years ago, when I first arrived in the U.S., I had to exchange my U.K. English teaching career for an H4 visa. This meant I had to be financially dependent on my then-spouse. In other words, it was illegal for me to earn. I knew it would be years before I could get a green card, so while my spouse was at his high flying job, I threw myself into the craft of writing. Though I wrote round the clock and attended serial writing classes, it would take me a year to receive my first offer of publication. Prior to that, I believed I was a terrible writer. It was only through my writing buddies that I learned I actually wasn’t.
As writers, regardless of forms or genres, a top priority must be to keep doing the work. But we also need honest feedback. Everyone does. And we need to know that our work shows promise.
Sure, you can find a confidence coach who specializes in writing. In fact, I offer such coaching myself. But if you need lots of sessions, this can become costly, and not all writers have the cash.
An alternative is finding your own writing buddy (or buddies). This might be someone you meet in a writing class, or at a group, or a single workshop. It’s up to you how you find the right match. Just make sure that they, like you, want to create a warm and supportive environment, in which you help each other to grow as writers.
Then you’re ready to start:
Always be critical — including when you’re positive:
I sat on contest finalist panels numerous times when I worked at Narrative Magazine, under my old identity. It was inspiring that, as panel members, we discussed in depth what was working in the nominated pieces — as well as what wasn’t. Yes, great editors do actually look at your work in this way! They think just as critically about what you’re doing well as they do about what needs improvement.
The reason some believe positive feedback is just hot air is because that’s how it’s often delivered.
When critiquing, we have a tendency to be global about strengths (e.g. “This article has lots of great points in it!”) but are specific about editing suggestions (e.g. “I’ve noticed your sentencing isn’t very varied. Let me give you an example….”). Critical comments are considered, evidenced comments. They show rather than tell. They prove whether or not we can rely on the feedback. As anyone who’s studied a great author will know, it’s vital to be critically rigorous about good writing. By being confident and knowledgeable about our own strengths, we can become more daring and original. We can also make more fully informed decisions about our work.
You and your writing buddy can experience this together.
Structure your sessions around positive, critical feedback:
I suggest starting your buddy feedback sessions by talking criticallyabout what is really working in your buddy’s piece. Push yourself and each other, since this may be a challenge, at first. You may well have been trained to look critically at suggestions for the next draft, but not at strengths. Remember:
· If something’s working well, say why, and give examples;
· If something’s beginningto work well, say why, and give examples;
· If you love something, say why you love it. If you don’t know why you love it, express your feelings and acknowledge that you’re both going to learn something by talking this through and looking closely at the text.
Once you’ve finished this process, you can move onto constructive criticism, in order to help each other to improve the next draft.
Ask “What can I learn from you? What can you learn from me?”
Once you’ve shared this constructive feedback, consider what you can learn from each other’s drafts. This is a chance to be personal about your processes. Ask:
· What inspires each of you about the other’s piece or excerpt?
· What does their piece or excerpt teach you about your own work?
· What does your piece or excerpt teach them about theirs?
· Are there any aspects of your buddy’s draft that challenge you to look at yours differently? And vice versa?
· Do either of you have fresh ideas about how to approach your own manuscript(s)?
This process can give you ownership of your own possibilities. Questions like, “How could I do this differently?” or “What would happen if I _____?” are more likely to arise when you’re having these discussions. And that can enrich your writing. Also, working communally in this way can give you self-esteem as a pair or group, and that can help you to make the most of your sessions.
Make non-craft writing goals central to your meetings:
Succeeding in your writing isn’t necessarily about being published, and in my experience, the writers who realize this are less likely to be hampered by rejections. To prioritize this, let your non-craft goals be part of your meetings too. At one session, you can each write down your goals for the next session, knowing that these will be reviewed next time. Make your goals achievable, in order to encourage success. These goals could be anything that helps you progress, but here are a few examples:
· To write a certain number of words/pages;
· To write for at least ___ hours, this week;
· To read at least ___ pages of an author who inspires you;
· To edit ___ pages for adjective use/pacing/dialogue;
You can also have publishing-related goals too, of course. (For instance, for every rejection slip you receive, your buddy can buy you both a cappuccino.) These work very well, too. But having production or commitment goals that you both check up on at the following meeting can be powerful for your sense of momentum and seriousness.
Remember to be positive about these too, however. If either of you doesn’t make a goal, have a discussion about why, rather than punishing each other, and adapt your goal for the coming week, making it more achievable.
Having a writing buddy (or buddies) can be powerful for your work — and, equally as importantly, can give you support and community. Often, as writers, our fears are related to our isolation, even though we can’t always see it, at the time. The writing buddies and groups I’ve had have been central to my work. And when I’m offering confidence-boosting coaching sessions, the reason I’m there is thanks to them.