I screwed up today.

My Wednesday morning writers’ group consists of three writers who have taken novel writing classes with me and who are either very close to finishing their first drafts or beginning a second draft. The fourth writer, a new addition, has not taken a class with me and is just beginning her novel. She is also new to fiction writing in general. So naturally these writers need to be handled very differently when it comes to critiquing their work.

That’s what I forgot today. I’d gone into some deep structural stuff with the rewriter. When we turned to read the new writer’s scene, I was still in “master class” head as a facilitator. I jumped into a detailed discussion of subtle nuances of third person. My writer got upset. She reminded me that she was only twenty hard-won pages in to her story, that getting anything on the page at all was hard for her, and that this level of feedback was pushing her away from the whole project.

All I could do was apologize and tell her she was right. This was not a hand-patting, there-there-honey sort of apology, either. I’m a tough critic and proud of it. I set high standards and I don’t hold back what I think a piece of writing needs to make it better. But there are definite stages to the process of writing, and I was using the wrong tools at the wrong time.

Many years ago, I heard a fellow writing teacher talk about this very topic. She was from the South, so in your mind’s ear, think of these words being said in a soft, syrupy tone. She talked about a writer with a new idea being like a hen with a baby chick. This baby chick is fragile, easily bruised. It will grow stronger feathers, tougher claws, a harder beak, but right now, it’s vulnerable. It’s in need of protection while it grows. This woman was all about protecting your precious baby chick. [Remember: Southern accent: “chick” had at least two syllables.]

What my writer needs in a writers’ group right now is a safe place to nurture her baby chick. And I put on my fox mask….with good intentions, of course. With a desire to improve her work. But it’s too soon for that. She needs space to just get it down on paper, to write her way into the story and learn the character as she puts the character in situations. She needs to over-write, adding boring details that won’t make it into the final draft. She needs encouragement and not a lot of critiquing right now.

My job as a mentor is to remember this. Part of the reason I’m putting this incident on the blog is to remind myself. I’m also posting to remind others who teach that sometimes less is more in the “improving” game.

Finally, I’m writing to remind writing students and new writers that it’s okay to tell your teacher, editor, critic, fellow critique groupie to back off. Protect your baby chick.

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