Posted by: Kerry Gans | May 1, 2012

The Myth of the Solitary Writer

The classic stereotype of a writer is a person holed up in a garret, isolated and alone, driven to madness by the lack of human contact. While I will not argue over the writer’s naturally crazy state, I believe the image of isolation is largely false. Perhaps there was a time that this was true—after all, stereotypes all grow out of some truth—but in this day and age I think this no longer the case.

The actual act of writing is still by its nature a solitary act. Even in a collaboration, only one person can write the actual words at any given moment. But many writers are now writing in public places—the writer in the coffeehouse stereotype is quickly supplanting that of the garret-imprisoned scribe. So even in the most solitary portion of the writing process, many are not alone.

The research that often precedes the writing of a novel is not solitary. Certainly, with the Internet, we can get much of our information without talking to another person. However, the Internet also lends itself to connecting to experts via email, and often leads to telephone or in-person interviews.

After our book has been written, a whole new coterie comes into play. We have critique groups, critique partners, alpha readers, beta readers, and editors from developmental editors to copyeditors. Their feedback is vital to our writing. This is very definitely not a solitary part of the writing process!

Two very different interactions made me start to think about this “solitary” vision of writers. The first was Keith Strunk’s dialogue workshop, where he told us about the very collaborative nature of writing plays and scripts. That got me thinking about how collaborative a process writing really is these days, even for novel writers.

The second interaction that got me wondering how solitary writers are was a blog post by Jami Gold called “Why Does Feedback Hurt So Much?” Although the post itself explored why criticism can be so painful for a writer, in the comments we got to talking about what to do when a) you have two ways of writing something and don’t know which is the better phrasing to use and b) what to do to perfect your pitch. Both of my answers involved having friends read and give input.

Am I unusual in wanting this level of input from people? Perhaps, but the Internet makes it so easy to exchange manuscripts, shoot off a quick email with a phrasing question, or post your query on a forum, that I suspect most writers are getting more feedback and having more dialogue about their work than ever before.

Which brings us to the recurring theme in this post: the Internet. Social media has made it easy (sometimes waaay too easy) for a lonely writer in her cave to reach out and connect with the outside world—to find help, support, and solidarity in the community of writers online. This contact, this connection, to a world of people who share your passion, who understand as non-writers never can, energizes writers. Anyone who has been to a writer’s conference (such as the Philadelphia Writer’s Conference) or any sort of high-quality writing course (like Jonathan Maberry’s Novel in Nine Months or Craftwriting by Kathryn Craft) can attest to the huge surge of creativity brought on by interacting with other writers in an imaginative environment.

I am lucky enough to be in a local community that has sprouted many writer’s groups where we can share business information, craft tips, and just have a general good time together, including the Liars Club’s Writer’s Coffeehouses and Lucas Mangum’s Awesome Reading Fests.

None of us could do this without the support of family and friends, whether they are writers or non-writers. Those support systems are vital to our well-being, and in the Internet age can spread across the entire world. The fact that we all have (and need) these networks is perhaps the best argument against the myth of the isolated writer.

We don’t live in a vacuum. We don’t write in a vaccum. We are solitary no longer.


  1. Kerry, That is so true about how much the internet has changed things for writers. I didn’t start my writing journey until post-internet, so I have a hard time understanding how writers did their thing before then. 🙂 From research to connections to feedback to sharing knowledge, the internet is a *huge* part of what I know and do about writing.

    I just came from a writing conference where this was pointed out to me (yet again) when I met several brand new, green as grass writers. They asked the newbie questions (“What’s a beta reader?” “Don’t you worry about them stealing your idea?” etc.), and I think a big thing behind that was they hadn’t yet tapped into the collective knowledge of writers out there with our blogs, link sharing, etc. Great post!


    • Thanks, Jami! I’m showing my age, but the Internet has only been a big part of my writing for the last 6-7 years.

      I have a friend who is breaking into writing, and she was amazed at how willing I was to help her out. I told her there are hundreds if not thousands of writers out there blogging and otherwise helping out fellow writers. I told her that writers were, in my experience, one of the most generous groups of people with their time and knowledge that I know!


      • Ha! No, my age is probably similar to yours. I’m just a late bloomer. 🙂


      • Me, too! 🙂


  2. Kerry, I like the fact that I am vital to your well-being! As you are to mine. I am one of the odd breed of writers who is both an introvert and an extrovert, so I need my people! After working on my last novel for so many years, for instance, I’m having a hard time re-establishing a writing practice in those difficult early stages of starting a new project. I discovered a writing friend is having the same problem. So we’re meeting at Wegman’s three times a week—not to talk, but to work in solitude, together. To hold ourselves accountable. To witness. Powerful stuff!


    • Yes, there is nothing quite so powerful has having a person to share your passion and thereby push you along. They can excite you about writing when you are feeling low and give you a reality check when you enter delusion-land. It’s great fun!


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