A new reader of this newsletter wrote with a question about writer’s groups. I have wanted to write about this topic for some time, but keep chickening out because I know it’s going to be hard to get it right and because I know it’s going to be contentious no matter how I approach it (because people love their writer’s groups.) But it’s is 7:30pm on the day after Christmas and I am in danger of writing nothing at all today, so with no time to worry too much, I am inspired to just do it….
Here’s what the reader wrote: “I've been attending [a writer’s group] at my local library and have been beyond frustrated. It's not really a group. It’s run like a class, with a `teacher’ who doesn't share her work and gives assignments. And feedback is often as un-helpful as `I like it.' The person running the group keeps saying what a good track record her members have with getting published, which has kept me coming back for now. But I'm thinking the group is not a good fit for me. Do you have any opinions about this?”
My opinion is that writer’s groups frequently do more damage for book writers than they do good. The reader with the question hit on many of the reasons, but not all of them. I’ll try to outline them here and explain my thinking. My intention is not to make everyone go home and sit by themselves and refuse to ever get together to share tea and cookies with other writers. That would just be sad. My intention is to get you to think about how your group is run, and whether you are getting what you need from it, and to see if it could be improved, and if you are in a group that is frustrating you, I hope that my notes help you to evaluate why you are feeling that way, and to consider getting out. It’s a new year. It’s a good time to make a break. If your group is doing more damage than good, then why not?
The 5 Greatest Writing Group Dangers
- Most writer’s groups require you to spend more time thinking about other writer’s work than your own. While this can be a good way to learn, it’s also costly in terms of time and energy. You can fool yourself into believing that you are writing when really what you are doing is reading and evaluating other people’s work and talking a lot about writing.
- Most writer’s groups focus only on the tiny slice of work presented, which poses two problems:
- The feedback tends to be micro-focused rather than macro-focused. Many of the most common problems I see are the result of structure, point of view,point – which are all elements that cannot be solved when looking at the micro level. When seen through a micro lens, a piece of work can be beautiful and moving and polished yet be an utter failure at doing what it needs to do on a macro level – which is to drive the story or the argument (if it’s non fiction) forward towards a clear and resonant resolution.
- Discussions that focus on the micro level also tend to ignore completely the realities of the marketplace. I do not believe that excellent writing can come from writers whose only goal is to sell, sell, sell, but I also believe that writers who ignore the realities of how books are bought and sold, and ignore the demands of their readers and their competitors, are writing with their heads in the sand. There is a happy medium, and most writer’s groups don’t acknowledge that because they don’t spend any time, energy or resources on it. Success is deemed to be mostly a matter of luck and timing – and while luck and timing certainly play a role, good writing that is designed to delight the reader is almost always a major factor.
(One way to fix this problem is to spend some of the writer’s group time on marketplace realities. Assign members research projects. Spend a few minutes sharing what you have read about changes in the industry, trends in pricing, what readers are doing and saying and thinking, how writers are reaching readers. Look at websites like Scratch magazine, about the business of writing, or at Shelf Awarenessabout the business of bookselling.)
- Most writer’s groups make it nearly impossible to tell the truth. You have to tiptoe around glaring problems and sometimes tell outright lies, because you don’t want to hurt people’s feelings. Good writers must find a way to separate themselves from the work, and to welcome criticism – even harsh criticism -- but writer’s groups tend not to foster this skill, and as a result, no one grows, no one learns, and people become deluded about their work – believing it to be better than it is.
- When people DO tell the truth in writer’s groups, it often comes in two useless forms – which sometimes overlap:
- It comes in a mean-spirited ego attack that leaves you gasping for breath and feeling small. Sometimes this happens in the name of telling the truth. The group has decided not to tiptoe around and so they hurl truths like lightning bolts and everyone gets burned.
- It comes without any assistance in how to move forward. You get the “it’s not working” feedback, but not the nurturing and patience you need to fix your problem, and certainly not the editorial understanding you need to prevent it from happening again. People may offer ideas for how THEY would fix things, or how THEY see your story or what THEY would do, but fragile new projects and confidence can be crushed in this way.
- Failure is not an option in a writer’s group, but failure is a part of the writing process. Writing is a creative undertaking, and all creative undertakings are messy. Things sometimes get worse before they get better. Things can take a long time to come into focus. Failure is part of the territory – a big part of it. Writer’s groups praise steady forward progress, and clean, linear thinking. If it’s logical and chronological and straightforward and clear, you get a thumb’s up. If it’s messy, or still needs to evolve, of if you need to go back to the starting line, you get nothing. If this were actually the way writing was sorted (by the great sorting hat in the sky?) many of us who have thrown out hundreds and thousands of pages of work would have never finished our books.
What Writer’s Groups Can Do Well
- They can provide a sense of community. This is a wonderful and rich and powerful thing for a writer, and should not be underestimated. If you have a place where you can share you pain and your triumph (and tea and cookies!) you have a lot.
- They can provide a sense of accountability. If you have a date on which you get to share your work, odds are good you will meet that deadline. This is a great incentive that can keep you on track.
A Few Extras:
- I wrote a guest post this week over at Helping Writers Become Authors. Check it out.