Saturday, July 23, 2011

You know what your problem is? You're too nice!

Was forming a comment on a blog post by Nathan Bransford (a smart guy, if you're interested in reading writerly blogs), and my comments were too long to post, of course, so figured I'd make a blog post out of it. Yay for you.

I agree, the internet is a place where negativity gains unprecedented voice. When it comes to writers, though, I also see the problem partly being that there are groups of people who are now accessing the dream of being a writer online where all the glitz and glamor is being sold to them, but little of the reality.

There are tons of writing forums and workshops and groups where nobody says anything critical, even if honest. Nobody seems comfortable disagreeing. You don't dare do anything but praise that other person's self-published e-book, hoping they then praise yours. The golden rule in many online writing communities is 'be nice,' whereas in other environments I've seen, like most fiction classrooms, it's 'be honest.'

The writers I know who developed in classroom workshops, for instance, usually have thick skin, know how to deal with criticism, learn to be honest and respect criticism that engages the text, not the writer. A good academic workshop or writing group is a training ground preparing people for being professional writers (not so much writing as well as professionals, unfortunately, lol).

On the other hand, there is a huge influx of writers this past generation that have never had that. What they've had is online groups with other writers who also haven't had this, and nobody in the group gets used to taking criticism, learns to navigate the psychology of interacting with writer/readers, or develops tough skin. What many of these online groups by and large promote is everyone being really NICE.

And this is supported all the way to the top of these communities, by moderators and site administrators. Why? Because nice feeds the 'you can do it' dream, keeps writers subscribing to site services, clicking ads, etc.

Start telling writers the truth, that their work needs improvement and it's not going to be as easy as buying a how-to-write self-help book, and suddenly the 1 in 10 that thrive and improve stay, but the other 9 leave, and the website isn't making enough money to operate.

If you come into such an online group being mean, then yes, you'll be shot down, and rightly so. But the trouble starts when you come into such groups offering any criticism at all, because no matter how well it's worded or well intended, you'll by and large be labeled as a troll, negative, mean, trying to undermine the dreams of other writers if you don't fall in line with niceties and blind praise (true for every online workshop I've observed, sadly).

To make matters worse, more than ever there isn't a strict divide between reader and writer. Increasingly writers ARE the readers, because the writer's dream is more accessible than ever online and feeding into itself; who isn't an aspiring writer these days?! Many of these new generations of writers becoming readers are overly sensitive to the realities that criticism, sometimes brutal, has always been a part of the industry. The 'be nice' writers become 'be nice' readers who point out any criticism as a 'mean' personal attack, instead of just an honest response. And when there are so many so quick to label criticism as personal attacks, we all seem to end up more sensitive than usual, looking for slights that in the past would just be the cost of doing business.

So, the issue is two fold, not only do we have in the internet a vehicle for unmitigated negativity, but also a system that rewards and encourages unmitigated, naive, ignorant, niceness! And I'm all for being nice, but it's not necessarily a virtue as a reader (if we want quality work to be rewarded) or a good way to survive being a writer.

Keeping a cool head is of course paramount either way, but everyone focuses on the negativity, when in my opinion the problem isn't negativity, it's the ignorant, unsubstantiated opinions that people think are valid simply because the internet gives them a forum for expression.

It's especially embarrassing how many writers there are online who can't seem to manage any substance or intelligence behind what they write, whether positive or negative, and it's this vapidity that is the real threat.

The way to deal with 'negativity' is also the same way to deal with this blind 'be nice' attitude. Rise above it all. Don't be one of the ignorant idiots who argues about whether a review or comment by someone else is 'mean' or 'nice,' but instead be one of the people who says things, even if negative, with substance and weight. Leave the bickering over labels like 'positive' and 'negative' for the fools who can't see anything deeper in a comment, and have nothing deeper to add.

Because honestly, especially when it comes to writing, some of the nicest things anyone has had to say were the things that seemed at first the most negative, and sometimes, in the end, the meanest things someone can do to a writer is fuel them with blind, false praise, no matter how nice it seems.

Basically, if you're ever personally up in arms about something someone said on the internet, or elsewhere, you're probably missing the point and falling prey to that saying about arguing with fools.


  1. When my oldest kid was young he had issues with confidence. He was a nice kid, got bullied, and didn't believe he was smart, kind, talented. My wife is/was the sweetest person in the world, and she just did her best to always be nice, always feed him the dream. Not that it's wrong-headed parenting to always be nice to your kid, but it has a price. I saw that our kid didn't BELIEVE it when we told him nice things about himself, because we ALWAYS and ONLY told him nice things. He showed great talent in music, and one day I told him I thought he could be a great musician. As much as I thought it was true, absolutely true, in his eyes I knew HE didn't believe it. I recognized that there was a breach of trust. So I made a deal with him. I told him from then on I would never lie to him. If something was great, I'd tell him it was great. If something wasn't up to snuff, I'd tell him that, too. Over the years, I often had to endure being the troll. BUT...he's always trusted me. And his skin has thickened (as you say). Early on, and even if I spoke with a kind tone, he would ruffle, sometimes ever cry, when I told him his songs weren't as good as they needed to be. Now... when I say that a song isn't as good as it needs to be, he and I have a calm, measure, tactical conversation, on how to approach improving. And...he improves. He's going to succeed. Why? Because HE believes it.

    Most writers chasing the dream just want to embrace the dream, and that's fine. But if the sites want to have any value beyond a place to snuggle the dream, then they must facilitate a honest dialog toward improvement, not so that writers can feel good about the website, but about themselves. I think (I KNOW) folks get very prickly about good advice not because you're a troll, but because they doubt themselves as writers and you affirm their doubt. If only the dynamic can shift, something very cool can happen--gladly, what I see in our fiction workshops.

    Finally, I've noticed that quality writers generally grow in packs. Where there's one quality writer, there's usually others, simply because the dynamic then changes from a cult of mediocrity (a cult of the dream-chasers) and into a cult of quality (a cult of reality). Very glad we have that here in Boise.

    Great post, Russell!!


  2. Yes, a great post, Russell, and a wonderful comment, Alan. My son is much the same and oddly enough we have the same agreement about his art.

    It does hurt sometimes when what you've worked so hard on isn't good enough, but the honesty is better. It forces you to figure out what you're made of and if this writing thing is just a hobby or... more. When you (meaning me, heh) figure that out you dig your heels in and work harder (or some people get defensive and give up).

    The praise is better when you work for it. I, personally, would prefer one thousand "Sorry, try again" to even five "OMG! This is, like, totally awesome and stuff!"

    The goal is to be good. To make something I can truly be proud of, whether anyone bothers to read it or not (though of course I hope they will), not to get popularity points because I was afraid to point out a flaw - or have one of mine pointed out. I don't need my ego fed, I need the truth, and it saddens me that so many just want the ego trip.

    Not everyone can live in Boise :p