When Helping Hurts!

The overused knee brace

One of the things I’ve noticed over the years of moderating the National Novel Writing Month forums is the wide variety of skills, talents, and abilities of the participants. From published authors like Brandon Sanderson to the first-time novelist who has never written for fun before, you will find writers who are seeking or offering different things to the community.

One sort of writer that stands out to me, though, is the kind that lacks all trust in their own ability and seems incapable of solving even the most basic of problems on their own. They reach out to the rich community hoping for help and support, but seem to get addicted to that resource. They become hobbled by the easy availability of those who seem to know more than they do. They seem addicted to asking questions about the tiniest details of their work. Nothing is original and all details of their novels are decided by popular consensus.

How do you grow if you never trust in your own abilities? One of the toughest skills a writer must learn is how to make their own decisions. I have seen too many good writers crippled by their constant need for validation and support from others. Writing is generally a solo art; the proliferation of the internet has opened doors to us that our spiritual ancestors could never have dreamed. We have become used to the social nature of the beast.

I have known writers who become absolutely crushed by the feedback of their beta reader. When they get negative feedback, or receive none at all, they are paralyzed by this lack of positive feedback. They become addicted to fan fiction communities (where near-constant feedback is the norm) and abandon their own original work. Like the athlete who uses a brace too often, and weakens the muscles instead of healing an injury, writers must learn not to lean too heavily on their own support systems.

If one ever hopes to succeed at being a writer — whether or not professional publication is your goal — you must find your spine and learn to stand on your own two feet. It’s a fine balancing act– don’t ever be afraid to reach out for help if you need it, but you must understand that your own writing must stand on its own and all that feedback means nothing when it’s time for the editor to look at your precious manuscript. It’s you who has to trust your own instincts and put in the blood, sweat, and tears needed to whip it into shape. Your critique partners, beta readers, and other support people may often have feedback that doesn’t fit with your vision. It’s okay not to include it all! I’ve run my novels through critiques before. Much of the feedback was vital, but some just didn’t fit. I didn’t use it all.

The point is that you must learn to accept some things, and do things without needing your hands held at all times. You will never grow into a writer without understanding how to work through plot problems, how to characterize, or just how to work the audience. Can you learn these things from others? Absolutely! Working with others is a critical part of the growth process.

But when it starts to hold you back, you may need to sequester yourself from all that support for a while. Don’t allow the easy access to support to become your crutch preventing you from learning to walk on your own!

Have you ever become too reliant on feedback? Have you found that the easy availability of support sometimes holds you back, or are you more balanced in your approach to feedback?