Friday, August 19, 2011

How Writers Are Like Chimpanzees

Now, don't be insulted. Chimps are actually quite intelligent.

On Monday, I posed a question: Do you ever read someone's writing without expecting the writer to return the favor? And have you ever asked someone to read with no intention of reciprocating?

Most of you said you always offer to reciprocate, and that even if that reciprocation isn't immediate, the general assumption is that one good turn deserves another and it'll happen at some point.

As I was thinking of the rules of reciprocity for writers, I came across this interesting article about the concept of reciprocal altruism--the exchange of goods and services between individuals "such that one benefits from the act of the other, and then the other benefits in return." [Sigh. YES. I am a big nerd.] The article outlines three kinds of reciprocity found within the animal kingdom (and specifically, monkeys and apes).

Symmetry-based reciprocity--this one is the least demanding in terms of brain power. It happens as a result of mutual association (like family members ... or forum members). The similarity leads the involved individuals to behave similarly toward each other, and there's no scorekeeping. Capuchin monkeys do this. So do chimpanzees. So do writers in critique forums. We all do for each other.

Attitudinal reciprocity--this one is a step up in terms of thinking. Basically, your willingness to cooperate is influenced by the other person's recent attitude. If they've been stingy lately, you're not so willing to help. If they've been generous, well. That's different. But there's still not a lot of scorekeeping here, because it's based on social attitudes rather than a specific, value-based 1:1 relationship. Capuchins and chimps do this. As do crit groups. It is in our nature to reciprocate, but we start to notice if someone's not pulling his/her weight, and it affects our willingness to spend our time on that person.

Calculated reciprocity--ah, here we go with scorekeeping. Tit-for-tat, and it's specific to each pair. Like, one writer A owes you a crit because you read something of hers last month, but when it comes to writer C, you and he both know you owe him one. This is a pretty human thing to do, except: chimps do it, too. If Frederick Chimp grooms Lucinda Chimp in the morning, Lucinda's more likely to share her food with Frederick in the afternoon. But she's not more likely to share with Mortimer Chimp, who seems to think he can mooch off Lucinda without offering the appropriate reciprocal flea-removal services. But! Interestingly, if Mortimer gets off his a$$ and grooms for once, Lucinda's likely to notice it more than Frederick's daily toiling, and she will share more food with Mortimer that day. Except it only works in the short term, because Lucinda IS keeping score. If Mortimer doesn't de-flea-ify Lucinda tomorrow, he can fuhgeddaboudit.

It's possible none of that made any sense. Forgive me. It's been a long week.

Anyway, I think we all do that kind of scorekeeping. We notice when someone's not reciprocating, and we're less likely to go the extra mile for that person. It's true amongst writers, and it's true in daily life. We're not simple creatures, so it's NOT like tit-for-tat is the only thing that determines our behaviors, but it's certainly there.

How about you? Do you notice when someone's not pulling his/her weight as a crit-partner/beta-reader/casual reader? Have you ever said "no" to critting that person's work as a result?


  1. I started critting/editing for my best friend a few years ago, and since I wasn't writing anything at the time, I knew she wouldn't reciprocate that exact favor. BUT I gained so much experience working with her that I later had the confidence to start a freelance editing business. She still doesn't pay me when I do things for her, but she gives me great references AND is encouraging me to do my own writing, which I have no doubt she will read.

    Do chimps have BFFs? And if so, do they always do everything for each other and figure it will work out in the karmic scheme of things?

  2. I have two good cps right now. In the past, I've worked with some folks who I took advantage, not carrying their weight. I try to give people the benefit of the doubt and will wait a while before saying something, but I never let it go on too long.

  3. I'm guilty of wanting so very much to reciprocate...but always fall short. It's why I don't belong to a crit group. I don't want to make promises I can't keep. I guess my conscience feels clearer if I pay someone.

  4. I try to be generous with my time. But if gets one-sided, at some point I feel a bit like I'm being used. It's even like that for comments. If I always visit and blog and comment, but the other person seems to have drifted away, I visit less. It's like being in a one-sided relationship if I continue.

  5. It makes perfect sense!

    I am so Lucinda chimp...

  6. Lol! You mean critiquing is like nit picking?

    I haven't been doing this long enough to know about reciprocity slackers, but I agree with the principle.

    Blogger fail, again. It's Carolyn.

  7. thanks for reminding me why exactly it is I have such a hard time with one of our docs; it's her attitude!

  8. I end up getting asked by many writers to critique their stuff, but it's rare the favour is reciprocated, and honestly, I don't mind.

    I think writers all have a different idea of when their story should be passed onto someone else. Some, as soon as it's on the page, it's in the email and being sent off. I wait. I edit very thoroughly before I send someone off, which of course takes longer.

    I find the quality of my cp's comments go up and they comment on the really deep/overarching problems rather then being caught up in clunky dialogue or misused words.

    For me, this works better. I'd rather it be a 2:1 ratio of giving:receiving comments if the ones I receive are higher quality based on my own willingness to edit first, wait, and not get frustrated that it *seems* imbalanced.

  9. This is very fitting since we just saw the new Planet of the Apes movie (we are big fans) :D :D

    I think I notice attitude most of all and if someone is not kind then I pull back ( maybe it's more of a cocooning myself away). This is great!

  10. I personally consider flinging feces at non reciprocating crit partners. Okay, I couldn't resist that bit of chimpanzee bashing.

  11. I haven't been so unlucky so far, thank goodness!

  12. You know, I try not to expect things in return...if I do something expecting getting "tit-for-tat" I run the risk of feeling disappointed. I try to be more altruistic and then I can feel pleasantly surprised when I get something in return. Doesn't always work, but it does reduce stress to do it this way, at least for me, cuz then I don't have to keep "count," LOL!

    Nice post!

  13. Nope. I'm pretty giving, and I don't necessarily expect to get anything back when I help someone. I truly believe that what goes around comes around, even if not from the same source.

    It's worked out for me so far.

  14. i did have one crit partner where before we even swapped material, we decided that it would be even reciprocosity (is that a word?). well, by the time i was halfway through her novel, she'd done two chapters of mine, and was complaining that i wasn't going fast enough for her. she wanted to start querying soon, and she wanted me through her whole novel in a month. we also agreed before we began that we could only crit one to two chaps a week. i really, really tried to meet her demands, but i got really frustrated- and let's be honest, angry. to exacerbate it, i was very offended by an implied theme within her novel (it is sexy for men to be violent to women). so, in the end, i just came clean. i re-emphasized how twisted that theme read(which was an accidental theme- an opinion of the author integrated unwillingly into the work- instead of a commentary on society or something psychological). then i explained how rude she was being (as politely as i could- because i have no spine). and i told her to delete any files of mine, i'd be doing the same for her, and we parted. i felt like a huge meaniehead, but sometimes enough is enough.

    otherwise, i've had splendiferous luck with crit partners!

    ohman! speaking of chimps, have you seen rise of the planet of the apes??? AMAZING!!! seriously! a must see! :)

  15. I'm pretty generous actually. (Scout's honor!) Especially if I'm friends with the writer and I'm familiar with their writing style ( also if I LIKE their writing and it's not a pain for me to slosh through their work). I don't consciously keep score because I know they'll return the favor if I ask them.

    Now, on to more unfamiliar waters....
    A few years back we had a chapter crit & post in a writer's forum, with each participant posting a chapter per week and getting feedback from the other participants (and vice versa). Some weeks there would be 10 or more chapters to crit, so it is a LOT of work. But the best thing is that our own chapters would get 10 or more feedback in return. Theoretically, it is a WONDERFUL concept, if all the other participants are willing to put in the work and not just leave you with vague comments such as, "the turnaround is only fair. I vote no". (wha????) And I was doing line edits and in-depth crits for said person. So of course feathers get ruffled (not to mention this writer was also emailing me her chapters before she would post them so I can edit them before the whole gang sees it. Very unfair, IMHO. Especially since she never offered to crit mine beforehand. So you do get people like that and against your better (and nice) nature, you feel like keeping tit-for-tat with them, and even then, if there is no reciprocity, you just end up refusing to work with such a selfish person.

    I've learned my lesson so I only do crits for people I know very well. My time is not paid, and as writers, we all know how important time is.

  16. You made me're talking about chimps, but that same behavior is also witnessed in a child's daycare. And I see it play out with my daughter and her friends (high schoolers). We're more akin to our chimp pals than we'd like to think, apparently! :) And your chimp names are awesome. I don't know why "Mortimer" makes me giggle, but it does.

  17. I now have a sudden urge to see that Planet of the Apes remake. ;-)

    I think it depends. If there's a reason why someone is unable to pull his weight, I tend to be forgiving.