Monday, June 27, 2016
Help and Fellowship: 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.
When I teach writing classes, I use 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. If you ever find yourself in a critique group like that, 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.
If I hadn't connected with a group of mystery writers in Brooklyn way back in 2005 (with Triss Stein, Jane Olson, Marilyn Wallace and Mary Darby), I don't think I would have ended up published by St. Martin's. Their feedback was invaluable, and they were incredibly helpful at getting me to see how I could make my book and my writing better. These days I meet 5 months out of the year (January to May) with the Moseley Writers Group in Charlottesville. It's a small eclectic group of writers who bring everything from personal essays to YA to mysteries in for critique. With their help, I have continued to grow as a writer and improve. And I leave each session energized and excited to return to the page, so it's definitely working for me.