The Under Ground Writing Project

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How to Handle a Bully Writer (And How to Tell It's Bullying)

Posted by Jenny Maloney on September 10, 2012 at 7:30 AM Comments comments (1)

For the most part, people looking for a writers group are looking for certain things:

  • Support. Writing is a lonely business. We sit down at a computer, or with a notebook, or with a tablet and chisel, and we tell a story. There's no guarantee that the story makes sense - so there's no guarantee that we haven't wasted a year of our time. We need to know that we're not the only ones who are psycho enough to go for it.
  • Accountability. Personally, this one is a biggie. I need to know that someone cares- or is at least interested in - whether or not I've done something. I need to answer to those people.
  • A desire to improve. This is probably the most popularly cited reason for joining a group. After all, groups are cheaper than professional editors and, between all the eyes involved, will nail the major issues...thus saving you from some embarassing moments when you approach the higher echelons of the publishing world: the readers.


Now, just like when any group of humans gathers together, there is ample opportunity for harmony and communion in a writers group. Friendships are forged. Marriages arranged. Wars averted. Sometimes there's singing. And all is well.


But...sometimes...let's say...just like when any group of humans gather together....


Shit happens.


For example.


I once submitted the first couple chapters of a book that I was working on - years ago, in another group. (The book isn't that great, FYI, but that's beside the point.) Everyone went home, read the chapters, marked up the pages, and gathered again for the discussion. The critiques start off, well, rough.


One of the first people to speak said, "I am disappointed in you."


Not, "I'm disappointed in the story." or "I'm disappointed there wasn't more mayhem or sex or literary-navel-gazing."


No, he said he was disappointed in me. He continued and said that I was "capable of so much more."


Look, everything we write will not be beautiful. Nor will everything we write be a reader's favorite. Different people have different tastes and that's perfectly fine. And expected. What is not acceptable is commenting on a writer as a person - their talent or capability.


Because I'll tell you this - you as a critiquer have no inkling of what one writer is capable of. You don't know the amount of work they're willing to put in. You don't know what they're willing to study, explore, or imagine. And telling someone they are capable of more, is telling them that they are currently sucking. It is not nice and it is not constructive. There is nothing a writer can do with that. All you're gonna do is piss off a writer who might be outselling you years from now.


If there is someone in your writing life - whether in a writers group or not - who makes you feel like your writing isn't good enough, isn't worthy, then it's time that person is extracted from your creative space. There are a few ways to do this:


1.  Call them on it. Sometimes people don't know they're delivering these proclamations - sometimes they think they're being constructive. I believe that's the case with the person who said he was disappointed in me. I don't think he intended to be insulting or hurtful. A side word or two - or maybe even a written note when you hand over your critique of their work might be enough to stop it.

2. Tell the teacher. Most groups have a moderator. Someone who - while they may not call all the shots - delivers the shots. (In case you're wondering, in UGWP that's John. [email protected]. :D) If there is someone who has been making disparaging comments, either out loud or in the written critiques, let the moderator know. A good moderator should be calling off damaging commentary from the get-go, without any kind of prompting.

3. Remove yourself. In a group situation, you should only participate if you feel like you're getting something out of it. Groups are not for everyone. If after every critique it feels personal, no matter what person says what comment; if you're not going home raring to go write another chapter or with your brain revving with new approaches - then a group might not be for you. (Not that all groups are bullies, just that critiques can sting. No joke.)

4. Write them into a story and blow them up. See how disappointed they are with you then.


But...and here's where it gets do you know that the person critiquing you so harshly is actually a bully?


In a critique group - or even an MFA workshop - there are differing levels of expertise. There can be writers who have never been published, writers who have been published, writers who have only written in personal journals, writers who have taught, and writers who have never done much more than doodle in the margins of notebooks.


On more than one occasion, something that seems like bullying is actually a lack of expertise. This especially shows up when the critiquing writer is learning a new concept or has internalized a new concept and really, really, really wants the writer they're critiquing to understand the concept.  The critiquer doesn't have the vocabulary to express what they've internalized yet, because they just figured it out.


So the critique can come out like this, "You should really learn how to write a sentence."


What the hell is the writer supposed to do with that?


Keep in mind that the critiquing writer was trying. That's not bullying.


There are ways to distinguish a real bully from the pack of other critiques-that-sting. And it goes back to why people join writers groups: support, accountability, and a desire to improve.  A bully will have disregarded one or all of these.

  • Support. A bully will have no empathy. He will have no desire to support other writers' needs or desires. This manifests itself in a lack of positive comments - either verbal or written. A bully will have no interest in your writing style, voice, or genre. They probably won't ask questions to determine your motivation for writing a certain scene a certain way - they'll just use their own 'criteria' to pass judgment.
  • Accountability. A bully does not need accountability - which will manifest itself in attendance. They'll show up late, leave early, or not show up consistantly. Yes, life does happen - but a bully doesn't have any interest in how his behavior interrupts the group's flow. His time is more important than your time. Critiques will probably be short because he only half-read (if you're lucky) your work. I'll tell you this, and I'm 100% certain: if your critiques are marked up and there are long notes, editing marks, and commentary then you aren't dealing with a bully. They wouldn't waste their time on you. As for his critiques - he'll be around for those, don't worry.
  • A desire to improve. A bully is not coming at his own work with the right attitude. He will argue with critiquers. (Part of the reason we've instigated a no talk-back policy.) He will be defensive about his work instead of open to constructive criticism. He may badmouth certain critiquers - generally the ones more successful in publishing or whatever because a bully is all about taking people down to his level.


The bottom line, for me, is to treat people how you want to be treated. It's called the golden rule for a reason. If you want people to critique your work in a constructive fashion, then you should do so. If you want support, you should be supportive.


How about you guys? Ever been on the end of a bad critique? Ever had to deal with someone who was being inappropriate or rude? Ever delivered a critique where you thought you were too harsh?



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