… and the Importance of Peers


So the first half of this topic was about how self-doubt will wander in when the insecurity at the core of my Writer’s Ego pounces. This second half (well, ‘half’. Part two?) talks about one of the best ways I’ve found to combat insecurity beyond hacking your brain and modifying your expectations.


When last I wrote, I said that I pestered my friends for reassurance when self-doubt rears its irrational little head, and that’s true. More specifically, rather than just bothering my friends, I actually approach my writing peers. There is no replacement that I’ve found that fills the role that a writing peer does, nor one as effective as shaking my Writer’s Ego until it calms down.

I use ‘peer’ here very deliberately.

The dictionary definition of peer is a little bit bland, I admit. Merriam-Webster only says that a peer is an equal, especially one within the same age, status, or social grouping. I’m calling up more of the current connotative definition as I understand it. A peer, for me, is someone who–more than a friend or simply someone of equal status or age–has similar experiences and can thus understand your frustrations and insecurities.

A writing peer, then, is a fellow writer who is treading their own path on a similar journey. This is to say that peers aren’t necessarily mentors–and, in fact, there is an inherent power differential in the idea of a mentor-mentee relationship that nixes a mentor from the ‘writing peer’ grouping–and they’re not necessarily friends either, though they can be. The crucial thing that makes writing peers helpful (aka the best people ever) is that they are the people who are going through the same struggles as you are, who can commiserate with you and share what works for them without coming from either a position of authority nor as a writer whose inexperience causes a disconnect.  These are the people whose opinions you trust who are also doing what you are doing. In a very individual-oriented and solitary profession, in a way, these people are a writer’s colleagues.

To chase the colleague metaphor very briefly, writers, artists and other freelancers don’t have the benefit of a social environment in which to do their work unless they seek one out. In Ye Olden Days, that’s how you ended up with great writers of different eras and nationalities clustered in various cafes all over the world. It’s also why there are now coworking spaces that basically mimic an office environment for people who’d otherwise just be stuck in their homes slowly starving for human interaction. Writing is one of the few professions where being an introvert is more the norm than not and holing up away from people is considered commonplace, but not everyone prefers the hermitage model. In addition to the social aspect, which really shouldn’t be knocked, discussion with writing peers can mimic the mutual forward progression that sharing ideas and strategies between colleagues fosters. You and your writing peers may not be working on the same project, but half the reason there’s any progress at all in cutting-edge disciplines is because of people bouncing ideas off of one another until pieces click together. I’d argue that writing is one such cutting-edge discipline, if only because of a reader’s thirst for new experiences.

Colleague aside, though, finding good writing peers is a little bit like joining a support group. This isn’t to say that that you need a formal group, however, mostly because a writer’s group is a different sort of animal and there are many different kinds of groups that fill different needs, and that’s very much a topic for a different time. It’s just that a support group and a loose collection of writing peers can serve the same purpose. You share stories. Triumphs and failures. The little ins and outs of your day that, really, are best understood by others who write. Not that stories of your tribulations can’t be amusing for people who are not writers, but finding people who have the spark of shared experience is a reassurance all its own.

It’s sort of like, for example, one of my pregnant friends joined a pregnancy forum that allowed her to chat with people who were in the same stage (and the same month) of pregnancy as she was. Being right down in the middle of something at the same time as someone else creates a sort of bond, because no matter how good your memory, details get lost by time, and the emotional spike of ‘that’s what I’m struggling with also!’ is a powerful thing. To be connected in some small way with people doing what you’re doing, experiencing what you’re experiencing, helps you, as a writer, keep from losing perspective. Insecurity, especially in the moment, is a force that skews perspective and (as you’ve probably seen in various author scandals) can cause a writer to sort of go off the rails a little. Having a connection with the grounding influence of peers is not just wise, it’s often necessary.

Plus, this idea of traveling with others at the same stage as you neatly segues into the concept of a cohort. Again, I’m using more of the connotative definition for cohort. Strictly by the dictionary, a cohort is a friend, or a group of people in a study that have some demographic thing in common. A cohort, in the sense I’m using it, is the general group of other writers and artists who you travel through your life milestones with. They’re the ones that started their careers around the same time you did, like a bubble of people traveling through life following roughly the same patterns. This cohort consists of all the people you get to know as you go to events and get involved.

The idea of your writerly cohort is actually how you get the fun-and-interesting phenomena of having all the famous writers of an era somehow know each other. You see this with Tolkien and Lewis being friends and swapping mentions in their books, and you see it in how Gaiman and Pratchett co-wrote Good Omens. Your cohort is going to be the people you collaborate with, the people you have professional relationships with, the people you meet at conventions and readings and random writers groups and retreats as you pursue your career. Additionally, a cohort is all of the people you know right now that– if you’re just starting–are also just starting. None of you are fabulous and famous yet, but your cohort are the people who will become fabulous and famous right along with you as you all improve and get your names out there. They’re your fellow travelers on the rocky road toward having people read what you’ve written.

Your writing peers come out of this cohort.

Peers, however, aren’t your therapists, or even necessarily your friends (especially if you met them in a professional capacity), so you don’t necessarily whine to them about how everything sucks when self-doubt hits and your Writer’s Ego starts chewing the mental furniture. Your peers can relate to you, though. Their experiences can inform you on how to get through a nasty spate of self-doubt, and even if there’s no advice to be had, sometimes a peer can give you feedback on the success or failure of a work and put some of your insecurities to bed that way. The idea of feedback elaborates on the idea from a few paragraphs ago that a peer can help you put everything in perspective. Writing peers don’t just help mitigate your anxiety responses when dealing with the uncertainties of audience, but they are also valuable for a reality check on the work itself.

As I’ve been singing the praises of cultivating writing peers, I should probably make it pretty clear that it is an excellent idea NOT to alienate your peers, but cherish them. I recently read an article (and if I could FIND it, I’d link you, because it was fascinating. My googlefu fails me),  wherein the writer had gotten a book deal and her writer’s group/critique group went cold on her. Whether it was jealousy or some other cause for the relationship to sour, it did so and the woman who wrote the article was by turns baffled and ‘good-riddance’ about her former group. This article got brought up in my writer’s group recently, and we universally decided it was bullshit of the highest order. First, because we enjoy each other’s company and work and only want what’s best for one another, and second because (and I might not have mentioned this one out loud at the time), because our careers aren’t going to progress in lockstep.

A writing career moves forward in fits and starts, and your friends, your peers, aren’t likely to all get a magical publishing deal within the same week, same month, or even the same year. You’re a cohort because you travel through milestones in a general sense. Someone is going to get there first. Someone is going to get there last. There’s nothing in the timing that makes one writer inherently better than another.

In that vein, too, even if there can be a sense of rivalry (and sometimes that’s unavoidable), a writer is not in competition with her peers. Even though you’re possibly at similar stages of writing and even if you’re competing in a general sense for eyes via internet advertising, or traditional publishing slots on the yearly publishing schedule, there is no physical way you can satisfy every reader’s tastes. Hell, you can never write fast enough to satisfy even just one reader. There’s no reason to get caught in a trap of superiority/inferiority based on the whims of an audience, especially because of how very insecure a writer’s relationship with any given audience really is. It’s sort of like the time Joshua Bell played in the Metro as part of a Washington Post social experiment and only a handful of people stopped to watch. You could be a brilliant writer (or concert violinist), and the wrong audience will earn you 27$, an interesting article in the newspaper, and not much else.

Now, all of this is well and good, but writing peers don’t spontaneously generate. Luckily, there are a wide variety of place to find other people who like to write. In no particular order:

  • Nanowrimo
    • Nanowrimo stands for Nation Novel Writing Month, and it’s an event that takes place in November where you write as fast as you possibly can to get as far as you possibly can toward of a goal of 50k words by the end of the month. The reason it’s a good place to meet other writers is because it sections you out by regions and encourages you to go to write-in and chat with other people in your area who also like to write. I moved to LA last year, and going to write-ins was a great way to get me out of the apartment and socializing with other locals. Plus, you’re all there for the same reason, and it’s very welcoming to new faces, whether you’re a new writer or a veteran.
  •  Meetup.com
    • Meetup.com always, always has critique groups popping up, some pretty active. Since there are often a good number of them (depending on your area), you can also shop around a little until you find a good mix of people you like.
  • Local Community Colleges/Universities
    • Now, I’m not recommending you take a class, necessarily. Though, of course, you could. If you’re in college or younger, check in and see if they have options. If you’re an adult, you could try a class if you can scrape up funds for a continuing education class. As a writer, you never stop learning, and even a grammar class as a refresher course wouldn’t hurt. What student environments like this have, however, are clubs and interest groups and other ways to connect to one another. Even if you’re just checking out the class list for the name of the teachers, oftentimes you can find a teacher has other writing-group opportunities outside of the academic structure. If a club/group is well-established, they might have ties to their alumni members and you could sound those out to find people who might be willing to link up.
  • Cowoorking Spaces
    • I mentioned coworking spaces above, where you basically pay a fee to subscribe to a workplace. It’s similar to getting a gym membership. Downside: costs money, sometimes quite a bit of it depending on the space. The good news, however, is that most coworking spaces have some sort of ‘free trial’. If you’re just looking to meet a few fresh faces and swap a few business cards, all of the coworking space owners that I’ve met have been very enthusiastic about trying to show you just how brilliant their space is.
  • Writer’s conventions
    • Writer’s conventions are one of the few event-type things I know of that really allows you-the-writer to bridge generational gaps, especially if you’re on the younger end of things. They’ve been around for years and they’re full of people Just Like You really wanting to make connections and find their peers. Plus, this is also where you can sort of take the pulse of your genre and swap knowledge. They’re fun, too, especially if you’re an extrovert or a social introvert. An important thing to remember if you go to a Writer’s Convention, is that you’re there to immerse yourself in your own industry (because publishing is an industry, no matter how artistic a writer you consider yourself to be), and while ghosting around without interacting might be nice, you’re also there to touch base with your peers. And, of course, this list is about Places To Find Peers.
  • Writer’s Organizations (join them!)
  • Libraries
    • Libraries continue to be amazing. Hunt down your local one and poke their events listing. Authors will roll through and give talks. Teachers will come in and basically hold panels. Libraries and the attendant Librarians will lure local speakers in with promises of an audience, and you’re likely to find kindred spirits in whatever room the event is held in. Plus, again, learning more is always a good thing for a writer.
    • Weirdly, some bookstores also function like libraries in this respect, and they’ll hold events for writers’ groups. If you’re looking for peers (and friends, perhaps), poking a bookshop’s event list might also be wise if you want to leave no stone unturned.
  •  Growing your own writer friends
    • I’m biased about this because I have had excellent results, but I encourage literally everyone I talk to who has even the barest inclination towards writing to set down and start. Encouraging people to write is how I ended up with my current writer’s group being so robust (it originally more focused on physical arts, if I recall correctly), and it contains some people who only barely considered writing before. I’ve encouraged my past roomates (one of whom is now published!), as well as far-flung friends and random people I’ve met at writing meetups. As a writer, and as I previously mentioned, I’m not in competition with anyone else who writes, and I absolutely love seeing the writing that people come up with.
  • Friends of friends
    • Everyone knows someone who is a writer, and sometimes pursuing those leads can end up going pretty well. That’s how I ended up with an excellent beta reader, and how I began chatting with some of my current peers. Of course, sometimes the friend of a friend thing ends up putting you in touch with someone who is a hilariously poor fit personality-wise, so use caution. Social dynamics being what they are, always use caution when pursuing this method of peer-hunting.
  • Become a Regular
    • This… is one of the more nebulous of my suggestions. The basic idea is that you show up to someplace repeatedly, and the people who also show up to that place repeatedly have a higher chance of being those sorts you’d like to interact with. Originally, this was ‘go to coffeeshops or the library’, but this can work pretty much anywhere where there’s space enough to write. Like a park, or a beach, or campus.
    • Some coffee-shops encourage a studious environment. I know when I lived in Boulder, most of the coffeeshops near CU campus were filled with students camped out with their homework. Further north, however, I started to see work-from-home types venturing out. Saying hello to faces you see again and again at the places you frequent has nabbed me a writing peer or two. Also, even if they’re not fellow writers, you might end up with a new friend.
  • Online communities
    • Last but not least, the internet has a plethora of places that you can prod to produce peers. These range from informal to organized, and even a tiny forum can be helpful if it suits your niche and is an environment where you can both contribute and get the sort of feedback that best helps you.
    • Some examples:
      • Challenges:
        • Get Your Words Out – A Writing Decathalon – GYWO has a healthy livejournal community and a presence on dreamwidth, plus a friendly group of regular chatters.
        • Camp Nanowrimo – Like Nanowrimo, but instead of being in November, it’s in April and July and they sort you into ‘cabins’ to help encourage socialization. It’s (potentially) not as stressful as November Nano, because you can choose your own word goal.
        • {insert name here} Big Bang – If you write fanfiction, and certain sorts of original fiction, you can join a Big Bang for the type of story you want to write. It’s basically a fiction festival that pairs you-the-writer with an artist, and when you post your story (either to LJ or some other media venue) you are gifted with art. I joined a Dragon Big Bang a couple of years ago, and I’ve written for fandom specific ones as well. A Big Bang is not something you join to produce something saleable, due to the nature of fandom’s gift economy, but if you’re looking to simply meet people, they’re fun challenges to join.
      • Forums:
        • The Absolute Write forums – Home of ‘Writer Beware’, the best listing of scams and shady dealers to watch out, the Absolute Write forums are a place where pros as well as the aspiring go to chat around the virtual watercooler.
        • There are also smaller-scale forums out there, though none that I’m personally on at the moment. Any further recommendation would come from my googlefu, so I suggest investigating further into your genre-of-choice if you’re going to find some sort of forum to support you. Over the years I’ve bounced through several small ones, though, like any community, they often have a lifespan of only a couple of years, even if you hang on to some of the people you met there.
      • Social Media:
        • It must be said, but you can always flail around on social media. Whether it’s twitter, tumblr, or something else, the people who might have stuff in common with you are shouting into the void waiting for some response other than an echo. If you shout back, you might find yourself with a new peer (or even a new friend). There might be a learning curve on the culture of any particular social media platform, but generally there’s a way to find other aspiring writers, whether it’s through people getting connected via advice-giving tumblog contests, or complimenting people throwing their 140 character tweet pitches at agents.

In conclusion (now that I’ve written way more than I thought I would on this particular topic):

Having writing peers when you’re a writer is a positive thing, especially for kicking self-doubt in the face. As a writer you need your peers to give you reality checks and feedback to reassure you that it’s okay to keep going, that no matter the past, success is still on the horizon. Also, sharing ideas with your peers is one of the crucial ways in which you grow as a writer, since it’s all too easy to fall into the trap where an unsuccessful piece becomes solely the fault of the audience not ‘understanding’ your vision and a solid boot to the head by a peer is can help you recalibrate. Whether to combat arrogance or insecurity, though, finding your writing peers is a necessary part of being a successful writer.


And that wraps up my two-parter on self-doubt, friends! Next time it’ll be a whole different ball game. 🙂

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