The Power in Finding Your Writing Team
About the Author: Tim Storm
Tim Storm runs the online Storm Writing School to help writers create engaging, moving stories through classes, editing, and craft articles. His writing has appeared in Copper Nickel, Black Warrior Review, and Lit Hub among others.
In the aftermath of the USWNT’s World Cup victory, some of Ashlyn Harris’s Instagram stories showed the team’s celebrations in the locker room. In them, champagne is spilled, trophies are kissed, players show off ridiculous dance moves and laugh at each other. But there’s one video among the bunch that stands out — and no, it isn’t the twerking video. It’s the one with Megan Rapinoe entering the locker room with the caption, “When you’ve been waiting for pinoe to be done with press conferences.”
It’s clear as Rapinoe arrives that this locker room is the one place in the world she most wants to be and that the entire team wants her there, too. And it struck me as appropriate — humane, even — that the team gets to celebrate without the media watching. After so many hours in the spotlight on the world stage, with such pressure and focus, they get to unwind with each other. They get to let down their guard — their public selves — and share their joy with the only people who fully understand it.
There’s a lesson here for writers…
The Field vs. The Locker Room
Success in writing might not be quite so easy to quantify as it is in World Cup soccer. There is no universally agreed-upon pinnacle for a writer. Is it the Pulitzer? A National Book Award? A Man Booker? Those are certainly prestigious prizes, but how many of us set our sights on such awards? Even critical acclaim is nice but not necessary. I mean, I think I’d be okay with success on the level of E.L. James or Dan Brown or Stephanie Meyer. I could handle the bad reviews.
But the real goal for writers is simply to move readers.
We want a stadium full of people to find enjoyment in our work. We don’t think of writing as performative in the same way that a concert or a play or a soccer match is, but once your story is published, it’s now out there on the field, so to speak, for all to see. And if they like what they see, word spreads and more people come to watch the match.
Here’s the thing, though: success may happen on the field in the stadium, but success is enabled in the locker room.
The importance of having a writing team…
We often think of writing as a solitary occupation. Most books feature only one name on the cover, after all. But as any acknowledgements section will reveal, there’s a whole team of people working behind the scenes to help make each book the best it can be. By that token, writing is fundamentally social. Since its success depends on its resonating with others, you need people outside of your own head who can tell you whether it’s doing just that.
One of the clearest indications that a writer is an amateur is their adherence to the belief that they need to go at it alone. You don’t. You shouldn’t. You need a locker room full of trusted teammates to support you in your journey. Every writer’s team will look a little different. Your own may include beta readers, a critique partner, a book coach, an agent, or professional editors.
No matter the case, here are some things to keep in mind when building your writing team:
1) Team Selection
Finding a team is not easy. I mean, should it be? Should you be able to just walk down to your local library and grab the nicest looking people browsing new books?
Great team require careful selection. You need to test people out, see what they have to offer. Some may come from online communities; some may come from writing conferences; some may come from critique groups or workshops or classes. Regardless of where you find them, it takes time to understand whether they believe in your work, whether their suggestions come from a desire to see you succeed.
The women on the USWNT were not chosen at random, and neither should your team be.
To show your best face to the world, you need people on your team whom you can trust to see your less-than-best face. Writing is often a deeply personal endeavor, and it can be intimidating to expose your work to others, especially when you’re sharing your work with people you don’t truly know.
Even when you’re sure those giving feedback have your best interest at heart, receiving constructive criticism can hurt. Criticism is, after all, about exposing failure. And if people are going to help you improve, you first need to show them some failure.
Finding the right team will necessitate that you be vulnerable around them. They’re going to see the imperfection. You simply have to be okay with that. And if you’re going to find the right people, you will inevitably have to be vulnerable around some of the wrong people, at least temporarily.
Of course, it’s not enough that you allow yourself to be vulnerable. Your vulnerability gets you nowhere if there aren’t people who can handle it responsibly. Think of the old trust fall. It’s one part allowing yourself to fall (vulnerability), another part trusting someone to catch you.
But by “catch you,” here, I don’t mean provide moral support (I’ll hit on that one next); I mean catch your failures and help you turn them into success. To stick with the soccer metaphor, if the ball gets by you, you need to know your teammates are there to pick up on that error. You need people with the ability and insight to right your course. You need capable help you can trust.
4) Moral support
I’m going to be somewhat controversial here and say that moral support is not a crucial defining character trait for your would-be teammates. Moral support can extend well beyond the locker room.
Just as the USWNT gets support from friends, family, significant others, and pets, you can get moral support from many, many different sources. Twitter’s #writingcommunity is incredibly supportive. There are even Facebook groups that are full of decent, kind people. Your mother or your significant other need not know a thing about writing to supply you with moral support. They need only to care about you.
I’m not devaluing moral support; it’s incredibly important. But it’s different from championship teammates. Bear that in mind when selecting your own.
Sometimes those who are best at moral support are really no good at pushing you to improve. If you’re going to write the best story you can write, you need the push.
You know who the national team players’ most consistent competitor is? Their teammates. That’s why the women on the bench who played few or no minutes still get a medal. The team on the field would not be as good as they are without those players on the bench.
With all requisite caveats about not allowing yourself to drown in perfectionism, you need people who keep saying, “No, not yet,” when asked whether the story is ready. Until your story is ready. At which point, their “this is looking good!” will mean the world.
It may take a while to find your team, and you may have to be uncomfortably vulnerable around them. But you need people whose abilities to provide feedback are trustworthy, and who will push you to create the best work you can.
The team doesn’t need to be enormous. It may only require a few great readers. And of course, many writers list their agent and professional editors among their most valuable team members. But never underestimate the value in building your writing team. And remember, once your work is published, your team will be the people who know and celebrate your joy most intimately.