How many unpublished writers does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

.. 🙂 The punchline should be obvious by the end of the post

Next up in the common advice for writers series

Join a Writers Site

I did debate somewhat how to title this one. Every writer is advised to get feedback, with the emphasis on it being impartial and informed  ie not your mammy. Very few of us can afford a professional editor, and even if we could there are so many out there – now more than ever – that the chances of being ripped off are high.

The answer that seems to have cropped up is writers’ sites. Used to be writer’s groups in church halls. Who better to help fellow writers? Who knows words, understands how to construct a story, build a character, grow a relationship? Who has grappled and groaned with the very same issues? Genius…

Firstly the basic advice to get feedback from someone who is prepared to be honest (without it breaking a vital relationship in your life or any last shreds of self esteem) is not something I’m going to argue with. I’ve never met anyone who would.

The issue is simply where do you get it.  For me writers sites can present some real issues.

The likely put-down is the blind leading the blind. And no doubt you will find plenty who aptly fit such descriptions. But equally I’ve met plenty who are well educated (far better than I), well read and able to construct beautiful sentences. No the real issue is that we’re all pulling in the same direction. We all want the same things and we all need the same things. And those are fundamentally at odds with one another.

We want support. Its hard – the endless disinterested little slips of rejection, the squeezing extra hours in after work when everyone else is at the pub, the polite patronisation to outright who-are-you-kidding? doubt of friends and families. We feel like fools. Its nice to meet other fools. But what if you look at the work of those fools and think, fools.. Admitting to this would not only mean you might be one too, it would mean attacking that support structure. So a lot of writers, just don’t.


We need to be challenged. As Hemingway observed;

There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed

Bleeding usually requires something to cut us.

There’s been a recent article-off (something like a face off but with more obscenities) in the Telegraph after a rather scathing indictment of creative writing courses by (the creative writing teacher) Hanif Kureshi. At its heart is the question – can writing be taught? This is something that seems peculiar to writing. Art schools have been around for centuries. No one considers Monet or Pollock less for having studied, for having mentors who directly influenced and encouraged their work.

Yet this need to be identified as sole proprietors of our output defines writers. And limits us, more than anything else.

It puts the writer in contradiction with themselves. As Neil Gaiman points out

Writers may be solitary but they also tend to flock together: they like being solitary together

We look to others to justify our choices, our abilities, shore up our egos and essentially indulge us in our unpublished woe. We join in moaning about gatekeepers who wouldn’t know good writing if it bit them on their haughty botties. We sympathise with editing between school runs and post amusing ditties about the wonderful eccentricities of us ‘arty folk’. Mercurial, fascinating, brilliant, maddening.. delusional..

In between, some generic advice – most of which you will find in this series – is offered up, a token gesture to the actual need that we thought brought us there in the first place. But in reality, what we need is the one thing almost never given.

Sadly the actual quote by Kureshi which started the storm seems to have been ignored as everyone prefers to feel outraged by his hypocritical attitude.

A lot of my students just can’t tell a story. They can write sentences but they don’t know how to make a story go from there all the way through to the end without people dying of boredom in between. It’s a difficult thing to do and it’s a great skill to have. Can you teach that? I don’t think you can.

Yet the real crux of the issue is in those words.  It isn’t whether you can make anyone a writer, its how we can make anyone who is a writer, a better writer.

He’s identified what is needed, what is not being addressed and shown that even a skilled writer doesn’t know how to address it.  Or indeed the entire faculty. Of course if they are anything like writer’s sites, they likely don’t see that there is any issue at all (beyond a loud mouthed teacher).

It seems writers don’t know how to be writers. We continually attempt to divorce the wordsmith from the storyteller, the artist from the entertainer.  We dissect sentences devoid of context, we pass judgement on what amounts to a fraction of the whole – like breaking Sunflowers into a jigsaw – we debate til the sun goes down and then rises again, the correct forms, without paying any heed to the content the form reveals. We apply generic rules without regard for effect. I keep thinking of this..


Now imagine only commenting on whether she should have worn her stilettoes one inch higher..

It seems re-writing a fellow writer’s sentences is less of an insult, pointing out they can’t keep basic grammar points straight is more acceptable than addressing what they are actually saying. If you are writing a book about a man and that man bores your reader to tears, it won’t matter on a writer’s site, as long as you bore with good grammar. Don’t believe me? If you are looking for ways to raise your troll rating, try mentioning it.

Because what you put into your book is taboo – untouchable, hallowed – that magic that only you can dream up – em.. No. Sorry. Sometimes you just need to be told you’re showing off your bra in the chip shop.

Some writers cling to their beautiful constructions proclaiming they are artists that the masses cannot understand (as if it were difficult to confuse people. I do it daily… ). Others know their grammar isn’t perfect, they are after all storytellers. Both proclaim that they are happy to accept criticism, because the criticism they get is always prescriptive (of no interest to the rule breaker) and grammatical (which never impinges on the storytellers view of their true skill).

When asked what he would do Kureshi responded;

“I would find one teacher who I thought would be really good for me,” he told his audience. “It’s not about the course. The whole thing with courses is that there are too many teachers on them, and most are going to teach you stuff that is a waste of time for you.”

There is some value to this. Taking on mass advice must by default mean considering the lowest common denominator. He just didn’t identify what that one teacher, who is really good for you, does. Must do. Make you bleed.

If someone gives you advice and you want to thank them – and you find you aren’t fighting to force the words out past a locked jaw and swollen ego, they probably didn’t do anything of value for you. It isn’t that you must agree with them in specifics, it isn’t about subsuming your style to fit theirs, abandoning your vision, but rather that they make you think, refuse to allow you to be complacent, to quote Jack Nicholson (kinda), they make you wanna be a better writer.

I often think of Lennon and McCartney, a partnership that always seemed odd to me, made up of men who were opposites in many ways, ways that became much clearer when they released their solo albums. Solo albums that made us all wish they’d get back together (I wasn’t even born and I still wish they had).  Together they were egged on to outdo each other and pull that reluctant praise from their rivals lips, forced to address the issues that would be easier to let slide. Apart it was clear they were surrounded only by yesmen (and women), and their own natural styles with all their natural weaknesses bled through unchecked. Untempered, unchallenged, they became self indulgent.

For the lonely, uncertain writer, writing sites may seem like a safe haven, full of fellow unappreciated genius – but that genius is of no use if it doesn’t challenge us, question our choices, force us to address our weaknesses and work til our bones wear down, to find a way to be better – better than them, better than the bestsellers, better than we thought we could be.



Got the punchline yet?





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