Be an Inkling

Lemming Critique

Do you invite others to critique your writing before you publish it? If you want to be successful, you definitely should.

I never cease to be amazed at how presumptuous some writers are. I’m referring to those who deny their work could be improved by having others offer suggestions for improving it.

When I reflect on the fact that C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien subjected their own work to the critical eyes (and ears) of their peers, I realize I must do no less.

Just as their involvement in the Inklings made them better authors, in the same way our participating in writing or critiquing fellowship is vital to our advancing in the art.

Lewis recognized this early in life. Long before the birth of the Inklings, he exchanged “works in progress” with his lifelong friend, Arthur Greeves.

Lewis went so far as to declare, in a 1916 letter to Greeves: “It is impossible to write one’s best if nobody else ever has a look at the result.”

Benefits of Writing Fellowships

Some profitable results that come from participating in a support group are obvious. Depending on the group, your compatriots identify places where your writing is not as clear as you intend it to be. Some participants may also be good copy editors, and willing to share their skills.

Then there are the proverbial “grammar Nazis” whose contributions are actually valuable, if you desire to write well. (Of course, the comments of others are only suggestions, and all writers are free to implement, or dismiss, the advice.)

In longer works, your writing companions can help you identify when your pace is erratic or your story is going off track. It’s not uncommon for them to offer worthwhile ideas that would never have come to you if you relied solely on your own cranium.

Another benefit comes from gaining new insights into the writing life. For example, one of my writing partners made this observation that continues to guide me. Discussing how frequently I digress to extinguish any possibility of misunderstanding, he said, “The instinct of the journalist is to be concise. The instinct of the historian is to be thorough. You’re a historian.” Realizing that I invariably default to the latter, the historian, helps me to consciously attempt to temper that orientation. (I know, I don’t succeed too well with that, but just imagine what my writing would be like if I surrendered unconditionally to my innate inclination.)

Encouraging Others

Participating in a writing collective means we never have to be isolated, alone with words destined never to be seen by another human eye. At the very least, we share them with our friends. And, potentially, the collaborative process helps see them through to publication

It is well known that without C.S. Lewis’ persistent encouragement, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit would never have seen print.

Lewis revealed his nature as an encourager early in his life. The quotation above comes, in fact, from a letter when he is challenging Greeves to continue faithfully sending his work for Lewis to comment upon.

I do really want to see something of yours, and you must know that it is impossible to write one’s best if nobody else ever has a look at the result.

However, I told you I would proceed to serious measures, so here is my manifesto. I, Clive Staples Lewis, student, do hereby give notice that unless some literary composition of Arthur Greeves be in my possession on or before midnight on the last night of June in the year nineteen hundred and sixteen, I shall discontinue from that date forward, all communication to the said Arthur Greeves of every kind, manner, and description whatsoever, until such composition or compositions be forwarded. ‘So there’ as the children say. Now let us go on.

This amusing passage reminds us of two final things. First, if we have difficulty connecting with a local writing group, remember that we are not limited by geographic proximity. (Never truer than in today’s wired world.)

A second lesson is that, as in most human relations, humor makes good things even better. Oh, how the halls of Magdalen College and the Eagle and Child must have echoed with their laughter.

10 thoughts on “Be an Inkling

  1. I couldn’t agree more! I participate in a local writer’s group, have a few friends who I can call on in a pinch, and even some fellow bloggers who are willing to beta read for me. They all offer different gifts, for which I’m grateful.

    1. I find it invaluable for encouraging me to remain accountable. Not everyone’s comments are equally useful, but it’s beneficial (in my opinion) to have people looking at your work from different perspectives.

  2. I’ve taught writing to college students (generally nonfiction, but the concept’s the same), and I find that some people are very invested in their “vision” and think that any type of commentary on their work is “stifling their creativity” (or something similar). It doesn’t matter whether it’s peer feedback or instructor (more expert?) feedback; they want what they wrote the first time to be perfect and if people don’t like it, it’s just because those readers don’t “get” their art.

    This attitude is useful in moderation. You want to have confidence in your writing, or completing any sort of large project is going to be difficult. But I cannot stress enough how writing is largely about communication…about an audience. If you want people to read your work, you have to take into account how other people might react to it. You have to be willing to consider when someone says “I don’t know what you mean here” or “This part was slow and lost my attention.” And then revise the writing! I can’t tell you how many times someone’s response to feedback of “This is confusing” is for them to walk up to me and verbally explain what they really meant. That’s great. Now go revise and WRITE that because you will not have the opportunity to explain yourself to most of your readers in any real situation.

    1. Great points, Briana.

      You’re wise in distinguishing between healthy doses of confidence in one’s initial work (i.e. “in moderation”) and the egotistical variant we occasionally encounter.

      I’ve encountered individuals of the latter persuasion in most of the writers groups I’ve been part of. They don’t stay long. The people who are truly confident, and desire to improve their work, are the people who stick it out.

      Criticism is seldom fun–and is sometimes downright painful–but it is often priceless.

  3. Hi Rob,

    You are so right. I think it is time and taking on too many things for me. I have a writer’s critique group that I should be going to, but it is just picking and choosing activities. Pray for me as I seek the Lord on how to manage my writing direction. Thank you for the reminder.


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