We all know the stereotypes of the writer: the introvert with cats hiding away with coffee and alcohol, scribbling away in a notebook (ok, minus the coffee and wine, it’s true for me). “Writing is a lonely profession,” people say. We see it as a soloistic endeavor: the grand aloof maestro spinning mesmerizing tales out of nothing but words. We see it as a creative endeavor: the inscrutable creator writing whole worlds into existence ex nihilo.
But writing isn’t really a solo thing, just like language doesn’t belong to any individual. Language by its very nature is a social thing, with meaning only existing in the spaces of agreement between speakers and listeners. By extension, writing is a social endeavor, inherently an attempt to communicate using language with audiences far flung across time and space. Stories are not built from nothing, but rather they are built of the pieces that writers expect readers to recognize, rearranged in novel patterns for the delight of the reader. Stories live or die in the reader’s mind more so than the author’s mind, and no text is complete until it has been received by an audience (this is true even of writing where the author is the audience, such as journaling). Writing isn’t creative; it’s innovative. Writing isn’t lonely; it’s social.
When I was deciding what I wanted to do for a major in college, and thus a career (in the slightly too-simple logic of teenagers everywhere), I was considering two paths: botany or literature. I envisioned botany as long hours in a greenhouse, collecting data, inspecting plants, etc. I chose literature because, among other reasons, it seemed like the more social option. In retrospect, I should have realized that the sciences are often done in teams, but I don’t think teenage-self was wrong at all about literature being a social matter. Nearly two decades of study later on the matter has made me realize that perhaps I didn’t anticipate just how social it can be, and how much my introvert soul may be holding me back in some ways (there are definitely days I think I should have stuck with the plants).
Writing is social at every stage except. We can use social energy to fuel our writing, no matter what part of the process we’re engaging in.
We write in response to something. Rhetoricians have known this since basically the beginning of rhetoric. Exigence is the concept of a thing that’s pushing us to speak, and kairos is the concept of our opportunity (time and place and context) to speak. These combined push and pull factors shape our text from the very beginning, and they’re socially situated.
When I first decided to write a novel, it was the idea of authors as people that struck me in a lightning flash of inspiration. If authors were people, and I am a person, I can be an author (I know it sounds absurdly simple, but I was in 6th grade and hadn’t given much thought to where books come from before that). My first inclination when I decided to write a novel: I had to tell my best friend. I had to talk about it! Then I had to tell my brother later that day. All I wanted to do was talk about it.
These days, I use an invention process called “oral drafting” and encourage my students to do the same, usually with myself as the sounding board since I’m the real audience in most cases anyway. Oral drafting means talking about your ideas and getting some feedback from your audience and from yourself as you hear them out loud. It means speaking before writing, because speaking is a more natural and less intimidating way to communicate. It’s a conversation where you can “beta test” ideas without having to have a whole draft.
The motivation to write, and the idea of what to write and why, comes inherently from interacting with people. We write because we read, we write because we want to reach someone we might otherwise not reach, we write because we want to preserve a memory, we write because of something social.
This is the stage most people consider most lonely. You lock yourself in a room and hammer out words. And, at some level, I’ll concede that this is the stage where, yes, it’s you and your screen or paper, and that connection matters most.
And certainly, right now, I’m writing without any social engagement (apart from an imagined audience in my head, and a cat on my lap). But alone at a desk is not the only model for drafting, nor is it even the most productive for many people.
NaNoWriMo is an excellent example of how important social engagement can be in drafting. The entire reason it works for so many people as a tool to generate raw drafted content is because of the social side of it. Write-ins, challenges, writing buddies, deadlines, and the sense of being in a community. These are the magic ingredients that make it work. Wait, what’s deadlines doing in there? Deadlines are social. Deadlines are a promise to someone that it’ll be done at a certain time.
There isn’t much research on the efficacy of NaNoWriMo, in part because it can be a very difficult phenomenon to study (trust me: I’ve designed studies several times and none of them ever worked). However, there’s some reliable research that shows that write-ins are effective at generating a boost in productivity. A write-in shouldn’t work if drafting requires locking oneself away and being alone! Write-ins are simply where writers come together in a space (physical or virtual) and work in proximity to each other. Distractions are common, because people get into conversations and enjoy each others’ company. And yet words happen too, much more than might have otherwise happened.
Part of this is having people immediately available for some social input when you get stuck. But much of this is simply the accountability that other people provide. I’ve been writing quite a lot lately on my Twitch channel. This is largely because of the social pressure: I said I would write on screen, people are watching, so I must write. And it feels good to do it in a community. Writing is social; we should build writing habits that support it as such.
Revision has always been inherently social. We use peer criticism, editors, and all kinds of other social exchanges to make sure our words mean what we want them to mean. After all, the only way to know what words mean is to put them in a social space, because words only have meaning as agreed upon by a group of people.
There’s a term that’s entered mainstream fiction writing in the time since I started writing: “beta readers.” The concept, though, is very old and has always been important. I could be wrong, but I believe that the term “beta reader” for the people you trust to read your draft and give you feedback is derived from the practice of “beta testing” in video game design and seeped into fan spaces as a concept for social revision, and then, because fan spaces are a common and productive place for writers to learn their craft, it seeped out into mainstream discussions of writing. I’m not 100% sure about this etymology, but it makes sense; still, feel free to correct me.
My point about beta readers though isn’t the term itself, at any rate. It’s the concept that we need feedback from other people in the revision process. The amount of feedback we need varies from project to project, of course, and depends very much on our goals. I don’t seek feedback on these posts in most cases, because they’re low-stakes and I know I’ll get some feedback based simply on clicks and views and any ensuing discussion. But I learned to write in critique circles, not in a classroom, and certainly not merely by doing my own homework alone in my bedroom only to receive a letter grade and a “Good work!” scrawled on my paper. I learned to write listening to other writers critique each other, and by engaging in social spaces online where feedback was part of the culture.
Too often we model writing as a solo thing, the writer alone, the master of their universe. Writing is a social act: a gift, a service, a conversation. We who write need to think of our own work in terms of how the social shapes it, and we who teach writing need to emphasize that writing isn’t about the student’s work in isolation, but their work in social contexts.