Monday, June 23, 2014

The pros and cons of writing groups

by Meredith Cole

Writers can only scribble (or type) away in their dark corner for so long. Eventually someone needs to read what they've written. Before that first someone is an agent or editor, it's probably best that someone else takes a quick look to see if they "get" what you're writing (and help you get rid of glaring errors). Writing groups are a free way to do that. When they're good--they're amazingly helpful. And when they're not--they can be damaging to a fledgling writer's psyche.

I teach a class at the University of Virginia every semester--either Mystery or Novel writing--and for most of the semester I teach it with a critique group format. Everyone has to read everyone else's writing and comment on it. At first students don't understand why it's important that they critique other work (or listen to what other students have to say about their own). They just want to hear what I think. So I keep explaining how it's so much easier to recognize mistakes in someone else's writing, and how, once they recognize the mistakes, they will learn to stop making them in their own stories. And, by the end of the semester, my students usually "get it." And often they decide to go and create a critique group with the other members of the class.

How do you know when a writing group is bad? That's easy. You leave a session full of despair, not sure if you ever want to write again. People don't offer advice--they rant or belittle the other members of the group. You should run--not walk--and get out of the group as soon as possible. It's not you, it's them.
How do you know when you've found a good writing group? You leave a session full of fresh ideas and concrete ways to fix your piece. You're relieved that someone found a few of your boneheaded mistakes so you can correct them. You know they're helping you make your writing better.

12 comments:

Alan Orloff said...

It's amazing how much you can learn about your own writing by reading and critiquing someone else's work. It's also amazing when student's realize that!

Alan Orloff said...

*students* I need a proofreader (or a critique group for my blog comments)!

Meredith Cole said...

Thanks so much for coming by to illustrate my point, Alan! A great copy editor is worth their weight in gold...

Robin Spano said...

Well said! you have lucky students.

Susan C Shea said...

I know I needed one to get the first book in shape, appreciated a smart beta reader for the second, and had problems with the third because I had neither. Certainly, until you have a few published (with agents and editors pummeling and praising them along the way) , it's hard to know what you have. Meredith, do you feel as strongly about crit groups for established writers?

Andrew MacRae said...

I get incredible help from my critique group and doubt my first novel would ever have sold had it not been for it.

And I know I've learned as much about writing through critiquing others as I have from receiving critiques. (I even learned how to spell critique!)

Meredith Cole said...

Great question, Susan! It's even better when you have a great crit group that you can work with for years and years (even after you're published). I think it can be incredibly useful for a writer at any stage of their career.

Meredith Cole said...

Andrew- So glad to hear you have a good critique group! I had a wonderful one that made a big difference for me while I was writing my first book. And I made sure to thank them in my acknowledgements!

Terrie Farley Moran said...

I am the odd writer out. Unless I need someone to read a technical part (by technical I usually mean sports references) no one reads my work before I submit it to the market (short stories) or my editor (novels.)
I guess I am a true writing hermit.

Triss said...

Meredith was a valued fellow member of a critique in NY before she (foolishly) moved away. We each brought something different to the process, we had different levels of experience and we learned a lot from each other.(And had fun) We write alone, and read alone, and edit our work alone. Sometimes it's hard to have any objectivity about our own work. So I agree- a good critique group can be very helpful, though a destructive one means fleeing, ASAP. If nothing else, a critique group for a beginning writer enforces the importance of writing regularly.Let's hear it for peer pressure!

Meredith Cole said...

Triss-
I still miss my wonderful NYC critique group!!! Hope to see you (in person) soon...

Betsy Ashton said...

I'm in two writers groups. In each we read and critique samples of our material. In one group, writers bring material, read and wait to be congratulated. They want praise. In the other, we provide pointed critique of each presentation. We have a member who is semi-literate, whose story has improved 100% since we started working with her. We have a simple rule at the group that actually provides actionable feedback: check your ego at the door. No name calling. No self-aggrandizement. No defensiveness. Listen. Absorb. Grow. Works for us.