In Which I Suggest That You Don’t Check Your Ego At The Door

I was on a panel at Killercon last year, and I came out with an unpopular opinion concerning writer’s groups.  Don’t always check your ego at the door, I said.  Sometimes it isn’t worth it. 

You can see the expressions that R.J. Cavender, Sam W. Anderson, and Brad C. Hodson are wearing. (Actually, I’m just lucky that they’re looking so serious in this shot.  They are such fun, delightful guys!)  Still, there’s a knee-jerk reaction to such a sweeping generalization, and here’s why.

Writers have egos.  You know it. I know it. In fact, there’s an e-card going around that addresses that general idea.

It fits quite a few writers.  We created the work, we populated it with people, and so we know what’s best, right?  Not always. That’s where a wonderful writing group comes in. You want to be with people who have a good eye and are trustworthy.  That is when you check your ego at the door.  That’s when you sit down and say, “Hey, here’s my work.  Tear it apart; I can take it.”  It isn’t easy. Especially if you don’t feel that the group understands your work or they don’t genuinely have your back.

You guys know that I’m absolutely mad about my writer’s group. They’re family.  We invite each other to blessings and birthdays and nights out.  They have my back in the real world as well as the literary one.  With them, I absolutely put my ego aside. But we’ve been together for three or four years, for weekly face-to-face meetings that last an average of three hours.  We have earned each other’s trust.

But say that you’re with a new group, or what’s worse, an assigned group.  Perhaps your teacher or the guy in charge of the city writer’s group just slapped you in with a bunch of other writers.  Your ego?  Your belief in yourself?  Wrap it around you like armor. You might need it.

I’m not saying that you don’t listen.  I’m not suggesting that you are in any way disrespectful, because that’s unacceptable.  But this group doesn’t understand you yet, and their suggestions might not be gold.  I can’t tell you how many times I see somebody offering critique after critique that essentially rewrites the original story.  It stamps out the voice and intensity.  It’s no longer a story by Author A, but a new story by Author B.  However, that only happens if Author A allows it.  I know sometimes the temptation is there to simply incorporate the changes, especially for new or rather insecure writers.  But don’t.  While you don’t want to be a self-absorbed jerk, you do need to stand up for your work sometimes.  Then while the world is mad at you, you have your ego to keep you warm at night.  😉

I realize I’m not explaining this as clearly as I’d like.  Shall we talk about it in the comments?  Shall our delicious writerly egos go after each other (kindly, of course) with foam swords and arrows made of Nerf?

6 Comments on “In Which I Suggest That You Don’t Check Your Ego At The Door”

  1. I absolutely agree! I tell my students during peer reviews, it’s okay to disagree with your review partner, but it isn’t necessary to say so. If I ever disagree with something a crit partner says, I still accept it in the spirit of helpfulness. And I still consider it very carefully. But not every single thing a crit partner tells you must be followed to the letter.

    Anyway, yes, I agree. 🙂

  2. As shocked as my mug may look, I agree completely. I’ve always looked as critiques as someone simply saying “This doesn’t work for me.” Rarely do I implement their changes but, instead, look at that area and ask “why didn’t this work for them? Was it just them? If not, what could I do to make it work better?” The emphasis being on what I could do – in my voice and with my style and sensibilities, not theirs.

    I think a good chunk of critiques just boil down to a difference in taste. Author B will always do things differently than Author A. Sometimes that insight is invaluable. Other times it’s simply a different way to tell the story – not the better way, just a different one.

    Then there’s always Author C to watch out for. Author C just wants to rewrite everything solely for the sake of rewriting it. Author C sees all stories as a puzzle that only he has the answer to and will never be satisfied that the story didn’t turn out the way he wanted it to. Author C should mostly be ignored.

    Then there’s Author D, but he mostly drools alot and listens to Bananarama on loop all day. Step away slowly and, whatever you do, do NOT touch Author D’s “He-Man” action figures.

  3. Though I do like the idea of changing our critique method to include foam swords and armor made of tinfoil and duct tape, I will chime in with my own “hear hear!” for this post.

    Critiques with a good writer’s group are like doing run ups for test flights of experimental aircraft, or making demos in the music world. Putting a story through its paces with people who know your voice and style, who can weigh in when it’s working, and when it’s not.

    Having a few trusted and trustworthy people articulate with specificity their criticism or praise of your work can catch some of our little bad habits, or the occasional sloppy/hasty writing.

    You want others to point out where they percieve fracture points in a story, even if you assess those weak spots and find that they are fine.

    Let’s face it, sometimes the advice just isn’t in line with what you envision or desire for the work. It’s ok to basically say “well, I won’t be changing it to THAT.” (Silently, as you wait patiently with grace during critique… right?)

    No one is writing your story for you. We all might have wild and crazy ideas what we would do if we were writing it… but it’s yours.

    So write on, you crazy diamond

  4. Tony, that’s great advice. I especially love “accept it in the spirit of helpfulness.” Now back to your Bananarama. 😉

    Hi Brad! I’m sorry; I was going to give you a heads up that I was using the Killercon picture before it actually went live, but life got away from me. I apologize! But yes yes YES. Great write-up on some of the different types of authors. I agree completely.

    Mason, I’ve seen the carefully neutral expression that you use when we’re giving you a critique that’s waaaaaay out in left field. You’re a star, and the Illiterati Huckleberry. Thank you.

  5. I really like this post because there’s DEFINITELY a line. It’s a kind of discernment that I still struggle with, but I’ve definitely learned the value of knowing a “write your own damn story, then” critique (that sounds mean; they’re always well-intentioned) from a “oh yeah, that isn’t clear at all” critique. I need a reminder occasionally–still trying to get the balance just so!–so thanks for the post.

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