Iron Sharpens Iron — The Wright Brothers

“Before the Wright Brothers, no one working in aviation did anything fundamentally correct. Since the Wright Brothers, no one has done anything fundamentally different.”

– Darrel Collins, US Park Service, Kitty Hawk National Historic Park

* * *

The incredible story of the Wright brothers is well known to all elementary school students. At least it used to be. Two men, neither of whom had completed high school, solved a problem that had been around since the time of Icarus. A problem so complex that it had befuddled some of the best engineers and scientists for centuries — the invention of controlled, powered flight.

How did they do it?

A March 2020 article in Scientific American aimed to answer that question:

Aviation pioneer Octave Chanute predicted in a speech in 1890 that “no one man” was likely to possess the imagination, mechanical acuity, mathematical capability and fundraising skill necessary to solve the problem of flight. “It is probably because the working out of a complete invention requires so great a variety of talent,” Chanute said, “that progress has been so slow.”

Chanute was correct. It did take more than one person to solve the problem of flight. It took two. Working together to solve the hundreds of issues that stood in the way of the first flight, the Wright brothers proved to be the perfect team, combining intellectual curiosity with mechanical expertise, hard work, and dogged determination to find the solution.

But in addition to all the natural talent and discipline, the brothers had another attribute that may have been the catalyst: they argued with each other.

But wait. Isn’t argument always bad? Apparently not.

The Wright brothers’ respect for each other made it possible to work together and argue every aspect of the project without having it affect their personal relationship. This may have been the deciding factor in their success.

Back to Scientific American:

They often argued about the technical specifications of their craft late into the night. After one particularly heated argument about the proper construction of the propellers, they found themselves in the ridiculous situation of each having been converted to the other’s original position in the argument, with no more agreement than when the discussion began. They argued because they sought truth, not because one brother desired to win a victory over the other.

The Wright brothers achieved their remarkable success because of their arguments, not in spite of them. I think there’s a lesson here for all of us.

* * *

I’ve had the good fortune to have worked with software development teams to design several systems. I’ve found the best teamwork is enabled when team members leave their egos at the door and engage in robust discussion about how to get the job done. Ideas are floated and team members are encouraged to poke holes in them and find alternate solutions to problems. Disagreeing without being disagreeable is the goal.

* * *

How does this apply to writing? Authors often find themselves on the receiving end of criticism and rejection. Feedback from editors, agents, critique partners, and even spouses can feel like cold water thrown on a writer’s best effort. And then there’s the occasional less-than-glowing review posted after the book is published. But sometimes even the harshest criticism given in a positive way will culminate in a better product and a better writer.

“Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” –Proverbs 27:17

* * *

So TKZers: How do you handle criticism? Do you see it as “iron sharpens iron”? What advice would you offer new authors on the subject?

 

TIME AFTER TYME

Murder with a dash of humor

 

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About Kay DiBianca

Kay DiBianca is a former software developer and IT manager who retired to a life of mystery. She’s the award-winning author of three cozy mysteries, The Watch on the Fencepost, Dead Man’s Watch, and Time After Tyme. Connect with Kay on her website at https://kaydibianca.com.

51 thoughts on “Iron Sharpens Iron — The Wright Brothers

  1. Kay, thanks for the reminder that constructive criticism is the best help a writer can receive…even if it hurts. Criticism can feel like someone is performing surgery on you w/o anesthetic. But, despite the pain, when the operation is done, you’re much better. So is your manuscript.

    In most critique groups, arguing is discouraged. I’m currently in an online Zoom group Each person takes a turn and the mute button must be on unless you’re delivering feedback. The author can’t respond (except to answer direct questions) until the end after everyone else has spoken. Then s/he has a chance to explain or rebut or ask for clarification. At first, I wasn’t sure I’d like the mandatory mute method since my previous critique groups have all been in person with active back-and-forth discussions.

    However, I also remember a number of writers whom I wished had a mute button!

    For newer writers, I suggest you’ll learn more with your mouth closed and your ears open. Criticism hurts at first but, when you think about it later, you often realize it’s spot on.

    • Good morning, Debbie!

      “For newer writers, I suggest you’ll learn more with your mouth closed and your ears open.” Such good advice. An author can always decide for themselves which criticism they want to accept and which they want to ignore, but they should listen to all of it.

  2. This is great, Kay! The Wright boys brand of teamwork translates so well to writing and any other sort of creating. In fact, it transfers to life. Years ago, I heard a pastor say that many Christians seem to think that practicing Christianity amounts to just playing nice with one another. In other words, superficial. I think he was onto something. Lord, help me learn to disagree in love, without being disagreeable!

    • Morning, Lisa!

      As a pilot, you can appreciate the extraordinary accomplishment of the Wright brothers. They had no big organization backing them, no impressive university degrees, no real connections. And yet that first airplane had all the control surfaces that modern aircraft have. Astounding. If I put the Wright brothers in the publishing world today, they would be Indies.

      • Yes ma’am…so true. I read a story about a guy who built a replica of the Flyer to see how handling it was. It was very, VERY difficult to fly.

      • I like that Indie thought! Yes ma’am…so true. I read a story about a guy who built a replica of the Flyer to see how handling it was. It was very, VERY difficult to fly.

  3. My first critique group had the “don’t say anything while feedback is given” rule, because that’s the way it was done in the ‘back to college for a second career” class they were taking (I got my class free that way). BUT, I was brand new, and if I couldn’t ask questions about WHY they made the comments they did, I wasn’t learning. Arguing wasn’t helpful, but neither was wondering what they meant.
    My current online crit group has been together for about 15 years. We rarely give warm fuzzies. We want to know where things are creating hiccups, where we’ve made blatant errors, or where things aren’t working. We don’t dispute anything; we use the feedback to decide for ourselves unless we don’t understand it, and then we simply ask.

    • Hi Terry!

      You’re fortunate to have a critique group that’s been operating together for a long time. My husband and I are part of a newly-formed, very small group. We’re still setting the ground rules about how to interact. I like the way your group works (“We don’t dispute anything; we use the feedback to decide for ourselves unless we don’t understand it, and then we simply ask.”) I may suggest that model for ours.

      • There are only three of us in the group, which means we’re never overloaded with chapters (our normal submissions) to read. I think the most we’ve ever had was five people.

  4. Thanks, Kay, for this lesson from history.

    “Disagreeing without being disagreeable is the goal.” – a spirited discussion without getting personal, with a common goal, and with egos parked at the door.

    Handling criticism can be difficult, because it is not easy to separate criticism of the idea from criticism of the self. Another challenge is that advice about creative endeavors is often subjective, and there may be as many opinions as there are criticizers. And, sometimes (?many times) we are given advice that is just plain wrong. Sorting all that out? Like wisdom or a fine wine, it (hopefully) improves with time.

    Arguing without attacking – our world could certainly use a lot more of that.

    I hope you have a week filled with good advice and positive criticism.

    • Good morning, Steve.

      You make a great point here: “And, sometimes (?many times) we are given advice that is just plain wrong.” Everybody has an opinion, and some of those opinions may be bad. In that way, the Wright brothers were lucky. When they made a design decision, it either worked or it didn’t work. But in our subjective world, the author has to develop a good sense of discernment to accept the things he / she believes will truly make the story better. Not an easy task.

  5. Some criticism can get pretty harsh, but unpleasant people make good characters. I absorb them like an amoeba and digest them.

  6. Good morning, Kay! Great post. The Wright brothers truly were an amazing duo, and their ability to work through an incredible number of problems is awe inspiring to me.

    I like how Steve distinguished criticism and separating it from the personal. Personally, I prefer to think of it as “input” or “feedback” about an idea. If it resonates, and the feedback is persuasive, it’s worth consideration and taking action on.

    Have a great Monday!

    • Good morning, Dale!

      Yes, it is hard to separate criticism of our work from our own selves.

      One of the lessons taught to new pilots is to “level the wings” when you find yourself in a difficult state of flight. Otherwise, you can make a bad situation worse. Your suggestion to consider a critique as feedback is a good way of keeping the wings level. Great suggestion!

      Have a good week.

  7. I’ve been fortunate in that all criticism I have received to date has been given in a genuine manner (i.e. not just to cut someone down). I genuinely try to listen to all advice given though it doesn’t mean I accept it all. As I’m sure we have all experienced–sometimes more than one person tells you the same thing so you know you need to focus on it and revise accordingly. Other times people will surprise me with feedback about some aspect of a scene that is so far from my original intent I have to carefully evaluate. The trickiest thing is when sometimes other people’s goals for my story are different than my own (they want to tell me what THEY would do if it was their story). Those are the aspects of criticism that take longest to filter through.

    • “…[T]hey want to tell me what THEY would do if it was their story.”

      Ha-ha! Of course they do. That’s often the only thing they know for certain, and the best advice they can offer.

    • Hi BK!

      You make another great point. Sometimes people want to turn YOUR story into THEIR story. I’ve had that experience as well. That’s also a great lesson to all of us as we provide feedback to other authors.

  8. In school, in ancient days, we were told that the Wright Brothers were “bicycle mechanics.” What we were never taught was that they were the leading aeronautical scientists of their day. Their interest in aviation had been inspired by a toy rubber-band-powered helicopter their father brought home in 1878. (https://www.history.com/news/10-things-you-may-not-know-about-the-wright-brothers).

    Today, Science is in shameful disarray. Without going into the reasons (which echo the exact inverse of the Wrights’ methodology), in many vital fields, such as medicine, cancer and psychlogy, the replicability of “established” work fails to attain even an abysmal 50%. John Ioannidis, a Stanford epidemiologist, claims the replication-failure rate could actually exceed 80%,

    Trofim Lysenko is alive and well and publishing nonsense in major journals all over the world.

    • Morning J Guenther!

      That’s a very nice article you provided a link to. For those who are interested, “The Bishop’s Boys” by Tom Crouch is an excellent biography of the Wright brothers.

      Permit me one moment of frustration. Why do we name airports after politicians? The Wright brothers achieved one of the greatest feats in human history. Why is the largest airport in the United States not named the Wright Brothers International Airport? (Sorry for the rant — this is one of my pet peeves.)

  9. So true. Competitive cooperation stimulates participants to do their best. Think of Lennon and McCartney, or Simon and Garfunkel. As you say, the team has to be committed to the ultimate goal, like hunters pursuing dinner.

  10. Hi Kay! Great and timely post for me. Sometimes I think we newbies treat our MSs like our children. Mama Bear rises up if anyone dares criticize our kiddos.

    I recently entered my cherished MS into a well-known fiction-writing contest. Y’all know the drill . . . submitted the first 15 pages, paid the money, then drummed my fingers for a few months.

    3 judges later, I received an email. (I’d received an email announcing the finalists-my name was mysteriously missing.) 🙂

    I skipped through the first judge’s comments and stopped cold on this one. The question was something about the pacing, holding his/her interest. The judge’s answer was I just wanted it to be over.

    Ouch!

    The rest of the critique was similar, but that statement hurt.

    After mulling on it for awhile, I decided judges are people with opinions. And I shouldn’t treat my precious MS like it was a baby about to be birthed.

    I decided maybe I should take a look at those first 15 pages again, and find ways to improve the tension and pacing.

    • Good morning, Deb!

      Putting your work out there to be judged takes courage, but it’s a great way to get unbiased feedback. However, having a judge say, “I just wanted it to be over,” to a new author is outrageous. It is not constructive in any way.

      But you are right that judges are people and the process is very subjective. The good thing about having three judges is that you can see where they agree on an area that is weak and you can concentrate on that.

      John Irving said “Half my life is an act of revision.” I can identify.

      • I also meant to say that this is such good life advice; so much non-constructive arguing going on these days. My parents taught the 4 of us how to switch up from arguments to civilized debates. It seems to be a lost art. 😳

    • Yes, ouch. Aieee, even. Judges are subject to burn-out, so the comment may have been an unwitting result of hysteresis after reading several dozen previous, even less sparkling, entries. Even so, there may have been better ways for them to phrase their reaction:

      “I literally could not put this piece down. Unfortunately.”

      “I was eager to reach the last page.”

      “Amazingly detailed.”

      Or the oft tried and occasionally true: “Needs tightening.”

      • There have been scathing reviews of some very important works. For example, the Charleston Southern Quarterly Review said this about “Moby Dick.”

        “… the book is sad stuff, dull and dreary, or ridiculous. Mr. Melville’s … Mad Captain is a monstrous bore.”

        You’re in good company, Deb.

  11. I’m waiting for art historians to find Michelangelo’s sketch of a plane to add to his helicopter sketch. I highly recommend the Wright Memorial on Kitty Hawk. It’s a lovely place but, sadly, not so deserted anymore.

    The kids or grandkids will find the massive sand dune Jockey’s Ridge to be even cooler. A little known note in human crime history. Park rangers at Jockey’s Ridge noticed that the dune was getting smaller. A local contractor had bought a lot against it and had been selling the sand for construction for years all over the East Coast. Yes, it, too, was that desolate. We’re lucky he wasn’t murdering the wild ponies to sell the meat.

    I was always happy to work through the editorial process, but some small press editors found me very difficult to work with because I’d hold my ground on important points about my writing because I actually did know best. I’m sure everyone here is shocked by that. Snicker.

    • Good morning, Marilynn!

      The editorial process is very interesting, eh? I realized early on that I had to establish a relationship with someone I trusted in order to make it work. I work with several editors, now and we have developed good working relationships, but the final decision on any point of contention is mine.

      Btw, we visited Kitty Hawk a while back. It was a great place for the work the Wright brothers had to do. Lots of soft sand to land in when things went wrong.

      • By “land in,” I presume you mean, “crash on.” Yes, that was a major consideration, given the state of the art in 1903. I suspect a drawback was the lack of any good terra firma in which to stake the craft down, resulting in it flipping over in the wind and never flying again. The entire machine once flew a distance of 852 feet, but pieces of it traveled considerably farther, going as far as Mars, recently.

  12. If criticism is from someone I trust and respect, then I listen to the feedback and apply the lesson. As for harsh reviews, I’ve never read a helpful one or two star review of any book. Ever.

    My parents drilled into me: “If you can’t find anything good to say, don’t say anything at all.” Hence why I slave over first page critiques. It’s not in my nature to be cruel, but a new writer can’t learn without knowing where they went wrong. Catch-22 for sure.

  13. Kay, this is wonderful. Disagreeing without being disagreeable…yes.

    I would tell new authors to try to find three honest and tactful critics to read their work. If two (or three of them) find the same problem then there is more work to be done.

    Have a great week, Kay!

    • Good morning, Joe!

      Excellent advice. If a writer can find “three honest and tactful critics”, they should hang on to them.

      You have a great week, too!

  14. TO THE SITE TECH PERSON: I just received a GoDaddy failure notice when I tried to post here. In today’s email newsletter, Nate Hoffelder who designs writer sites said that GoDaddy and Bluehost are having massive problems including server failures. That’s not a good thing. If nothing else, this site should be backed up elsewhere so the content doesn’t vanish.

  15. Excellent piece, Kay. Advice to new writers? I guess point out the Wright Bros. self-funded (indie) success compared to their flying machine invention rival, Samuel Langley, who was backed by millions from the US War Department and crashed & quit early in the game.

    • Hi Garry,

      Yes! The Wright brothers were Indie. That’s great encouragement to many of us who are aiming to get our books to take flight.

      Have a great week!

  16. On that photo at the top: It was taken by John T. Daniels on Dec. 17, 1903. He had never taken a photo before but was told to “just push that thing there.” And I’ve run down the slope exactly as Wilbur (at right) is doing, yelling encouragement—or arguing—with Orville at the controls. I’ll never forget it.

    On criticism: I only listen to my editor(s) and my beta readers.

    • That iconic photo! What a gift that we have a record of the first flight. And what fun to have run down that sandy slope.

      I think you’re wise to only listen to editors and beta readers.

      Thanks for stopping in and commenting.

  17. Excellent post and great comments. This blog is a fabulous place to learn how to write and I recommend it often.
    I’ve never left a 3-star review of anything. Writing is subjective–what I like someone else might not like. Before I buy a book unless I know the author, I read the sample. I know by the second page whether I’ll like it or not, and that determines whether I buy it and read it, and then review it.

    • Hi Patricia!

      I agree. TKZ is a wonderful place to learn all about the craft of writing and meet others with the same interests.

      Good idea to read the sample. That should be enough to decide whether you want to read the entire thing.

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