Writing By Committee


Writing— fiction or any other kind— is a lonely business, and we have to have a certain amount of self-confidence in our work. If our Lead character is an elven android, we have to get stubborn when other people want us to transform our Lead into a neurotic werewolf or an Amish schoolgirl.

But lonely writing, and the self-confidence it needs, is not what we learn in schools. I remember from my own school days what happened when Teacher gave out a writing assignment. The chattier children all consulted one another about the assignment. What does Teacher really want? Does this count as doing the assignment? And, inevitably, they consulted with one another about their work. I’m writing this, is that okay? No, it’s weird, you have to change this into that.

The result of all that consulting was that the assignments of the chatty children got more conformist, more conventional, more bland and boring. Which is what you need to get good grades in school. Nowadays, it also prevents arrest of children whose imaginations run toward weapons and crisis.

Not all the schoolchildren of my past were the chatty, consulting type. I remember one boy in the ninth-and-tenth grade classroom at San Jose Christian School, who turned in a story about American POWs in a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp that was a bit close to being Hogan’s Heroes fanfiction. I’m sure that if he had consulted anyone he would have been discouraged. Fanfiction wasn’t a thing in those days; people just called it ‘plagiarism.’ But I envied the kid and wished I had the courage to write something like that. Of course, my imagination would have turned out a Star Trek/Hogan’s Heroes mashup. Maybe with a little Batman thrown in.

As grown-up writers we still are not absolved from the writing-by-committee, thou-shalt-groupthink mentality. College writing classes, writing workshops and critique groups, which common amateur-writer ‘wisdom’ says we need, all enforce the idea that our writing becomes magically better when we have a peer group of ‘enforcers’ to keep us in line.

But what really happens when we submit our works to our peers for judgment? We get condemned to an endless cycle of futile rewrites until there is nothing of originality or of risk left. And if we submit the rewritten-to-death work to another group of our peers, we will have more input about more things we just have to fix in another rewrite…. We end up violating Heinlein’s Second Rule: You must finish what you write.

Writer Dean Wesley Smith had a cool way of getting around the writing-by-committee temptation. He’d write something for a workshop or writing class, and immediately submit it to a publisher. Often it was the stories that his peers hated and picked-to-pieces that were the first to sell to publishers.

No great writers ever produced their great novels through groupthink or writing-by-committee. They had the courage to write, alone, and stand up for what their minds produced. Even if they were like Kafka and wrote about a guy turning in to a bug.

FOLLOW ME ON TWITTER: https://twitter.com/nissalovescats I follow back. Unless you tweet pictures of private parts or something.

RECOMMENDED READING:

Heinlein’s Rules: Five Simple Business Rules for Writing: Dean Wesley Smith

Killing the Top 10 Sacred Cows of Publishing: Dean Wesley Smith

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