There is a cultural mystique surrounding writers, which includes the images of tortured artists, solitary creators, and idle dreamers. Most of this is completely irrelevant to the practical effort of writing. This is both an industry and a lifestyle, but the particulars vary between individuals.
One crucial facet of writing involves the diligent application of thought to words. This takes time, it requires focus, and it demands a limit to distraction. For most, this means spending a great deal of time away from people. Add into the equation the necessity of reading extensively and the hours spent in one’s own head become even more significant.
Writing, especially with the intent to publish in any form, improves significantly when other people are involved. Professional support, paid and unpaid, is a recognized boost to any business. Why else would networking be so deeply stressed as a professional skill? Where writing is concerned, this can include fellow writers (in your genre/in other genres, highly published/unpublished, local/distant, self-published/traditionally published, etc.), editors, publishers, agents, beta readers, critique partners, cover artists, illustrators, marketing experts, etc.
Personal support, however, becomes a sticky situation since we often turn to permanent relationships for confidence, acceptance, and quality social time when away from the writing desk. One cannot make a blanket statement that all writers are shy, introverted, and unapproachable (this is one existing stereotype), since neither introversion nor extroversion determine the prevalence of creative traits. The simple fact is that a writer spends free time on their own writing and reading. In societies where attention is at a premium, loved ones can struggle to understand and support someone who invests their attention on something invisible to everyone else (at least until the book is finished). Roger Rosenblatt wrote a marvelous article on this unique and challenging dynamic: The Writer in The Family.
The following are a few simple tips for what you can do to improve relations with the people in your support systems. To borrow a concept from The 7 Habits of highly Effective People, cultivating a positive support system requires you to focus on your Circle of Influence. You cannot change the opinions of others, but there are some things about your behavior that will encourage positivity around you (and your creative work).
Check In with You
A support system (of either kind) is only as helpful as you allow it to be. Even in the best groups, you get help when you ask for it. If you request honest feedback and the results throw you into a mess of emotional trauma, then next time ask yourself if you’re emotionally ready for whatever will come. This is the same if you’re asking for marketing advice (they may suggest things you’re uncomfortable doing), editing (it may take more drafts than expected), or querying agents (rejections happen all the time, often without explanation). Take time to figure out what you’re actually ready to accept and decide what is most important. Ego? Or good material?
When addressing your needs, being honest with yourself doesn’t mean debasing yourself (though the previous paragraph may sound that way). Honesty also means raising your vision for the project. Remember again what you love about it. View again the kind of work you want to share with the world. No matter what members of your support system recommend, you make the final decisions until it’s sold. Don’t dig in your heels against a good suggestion just because it’s difficult or will take a long time. If it’s in the best interest of the project, then the effort is worth it. Just make that decision for yourself.
While no one can compel another person to support them (even paid professionals have their choice), your choice to support others first makes for more positive connections. The principle of reciprocity in relationships is no hard and fast rule, and service should never be done with an expectation of certain payoff. When you see a fellow writer in need of advice, a reference, or even an honest critique, consider whether you can appropriately fill this need. If it costs little time, or the resources to help them are readily available, don’t embarrass yourself by demanding an exchange. This discourages positive relationships from forming.
If, however, the favor they’re asking will take several hours, intensive research, or special skills, an exchange of favors is by far the more appropriate offer. This shows respect for their work. You’re willing to devote focus to their problem, you’re interested in their success, and you value their opinion on your work. This also shows confidence in your own worth, as you’re not giving away your valuable working hours for nothing.
In relationship psychology, five positive interactions to one negative creates the “magic” praise to criticism ratio. As a rule of thumb, especially when offering constructive criticism, adhere to this rule. This doesn’t mean you need to make up five things the artist did well before you get to that burning hole in their plot, or the glaring grammar issues throughout their paper. This is best used when considering the whole email, phone call, or text message. Potential positive interactions include a polite greeting, expressing interest in them personally, sharing a positive comment, discussing mutual interests, or expressing gratitude.
When offering the meat of the critique, many writers, groups, and communities encourage a “sandwich method”. The concept is simple. Offer a genuine compliment, give the main criticism, and finish with another positive. This has positives and negatives unto itself, and has fallen out of favor with some groups, but the prevalence of the method testifies to the effect positive interactions have in protecting a critique-based peer relationship.
Maintaining positive relationships takes effort and time. Remember, you are the steward of your own support system. If a person or company ceases to offer sufficient support, or is taking more than they’re giving in terms of positive interaction, then it is completely within your power to trim them out of the system.
This is not to say you should end these relationships. Some people in your system may be family, old friends, or carefully selected networking contacts. To remove an individual from a support system means only to seek positive support, professional aid, or personal encouragement from another source. Support for your craft is only one facet of your relationship with these people. If your sibling and their spouse are going through a rough time, they might no longer be the best person to enlist as a test reader. If your editor has recently been less than professional in keeping their promises, respect yourself enough to look for someone who will be worth your money and your time.
For ideas on cultivating (or begging) support from confused family members, or for tips on becoming a networking dynamo, check the Link/Resources section. Good stuff in there today.
Building Supportive Relationships: