How to Fix Your Writing Group

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After my post on the trouble with writing groups, many readers wanted to know what I thought makes a writing group great. It’s an excellent question with no easy answers. Fortunately, I just finished reading Creativity, Inc by Ed Catmull, President of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation, and Catmull spends 386 pages wrestling with the question of how to manage creativity. Catmull is talking about the concept of management on a really big scale – departments and companies and multi-million dollar movie projects– but the fact of the matter is that we all must manage our own creativity if we are going to do any good work, so he is talking to all of us, and he has some killer wisdom to share.
Longtime readers of my newsletter will know that I frequently recommend that writers read books about business and marketing. If you are serious about your work, you need to be serious about reaching readers, which means you need to think in terms of the marketplace. Titles like The $100 Startup and Made to Stick help you do that, and help you see see how you can make the sometimes terrifying leap from creating a work of the heart to negotiating the world of commerce. Creativity, Inc. has moved to the top of my recommended list for books of this type. I’m an instant, raving fan of this book, and could write for weeks about the lessons for writers in these pages – and I just might. We’ll have to see!
Catmull spends a lot of time discussing Pixar’s “Braintrust,” a group of thinkers who gather to help each other solve creative problems. The Braintrust is, in my mind, the perfect model of what a writing group should be. It is also worth noting that it is what I strive to do for writers, on a vastly smaller and more humble scale: give them a safe place to nurture fragile ideas and to clarify their message and their motivations so they can do their best work. By nurture, Catmull absolutely doesn’t mean coddle, which we’ll get to in a moment.
There are dozens of reasons why the Braintrust models what you need for your writing group (or for whomever you share your writing with) but I am going to focus on just three of them:
1.) You need people who understand story.
      Catmull writes: “…the Braintrust is made up of people with a deep understanding of storytelling and, usually, people who have been through the process themselves.” This is a critical concept that most writing groups don’t adhere to, because they can’tadhere to it. They’re often comprised of writers who are struggling to find their way for the first time, and it’s one of the main reasons I called writing groups dangerous in my original post.
      There is not one single thing wrong with struggle. Struggle is part of the creative process for everyone, and everyone has to begin somewhere.  But why would you think that being in a room with other people who are also struggling with the same things you are, and who have no experience with that struggle, would be a good way to nurture your work? YES, you might get camaraderie and community, which is awesome. But by design, the odds of getting specific, focused, useful help with your story are low. Why? As Catmull writes:

“While problems in a film are fairly easy to identify, the sources of those problems are often extraordinarily difficult to assess. A mystifying plot twist or a less-than-credible change of heart in our main character is often caused by subtle, underlying issues elsewhere in the story. Think of it like a patient complaining of a knee pain that stems from his fallen arches. If you operate on the knee, it wouldn’t just fail to alleviate the pain, it could compound it. To alleviate the pain, you have to find and deal with the root of the problem. The Braintrust’s notes, then, are intended to bring the true causes of problems to the surface – not to demand a specific remedy.”

            A group of writers who are not trained to assess problems with a story often get it wrong, or get it partially right, or demand specific remedies (not necessarily on purpose, but by a sort of unconscious group-think approach of what they like or don’t like.) It’s not good.

           Many writers think they understand story and narrative because they love to read, and they are great readers, and they recognize a great story when it’s on the page. But that is different from knowing how a narrative or an argument (for non fiction books) is constructed, or knowing how to get the emotion on the page, or knowing how to hold the readers’ expectation in your mind as you write. It’s a very different skill. Some people are native geniuses at it, but those people are very rare. I have spent 27 years working on this skill as a writer, an editor, a teacher, and a book coach – I have put in my 10,000 hours and then some -- and I still have so much to learn.
            So in the absence of story geniuses, how can you make a writers’ group great? Join together with people at your own writing level, for one thing, and if you don’t have the knowledge and expertise to diagnose, don’t do it. Seriously. Don’t. Make the group be about accountability, and camaraderie and support and community. Give everyone half an hour to talk about the problems they are having making time to write, or the doubt they are feeling about their message, or their lack of faith in their worthiness as a writer – which are things every human is indeed an expert on (managing time, facing doubt, being brave.) Give each writer time to talk about the weaknesses THEY see in their work and the solutions THEY are contemplating, and let them try to sort those things out in a supportive space. Often, simply having to articulate your problem goes a long way towards solving it. I find that writers frequently know what’s wrong with their own work if you give them the time and space to speak confront those truths, and this is far better than asking people who are not trained to weigh in on the work.
2.) You need a commitment to tell the truth about the work.
      Catmull writes: “In the very early days of Pixar, John, Andrew, Pete, Lee, and Joe made a promise to one another. No matter what happened, they would always tell each other the truth. They did this because they recognized how important and rare candid feedback is and how, without it, our films would suffer. Then and now, the term we use to describe this kind of constructive criticism is “good notes.”
            Before we get to the good notes part, let’s look at the promise to tell the truth part. That’s the critical thing a good writers group needs – not an implicit promise, but an actual commitment. If you decide that you are going to respond to each other’s work, every single member of your group needs to understand the promise about telling the truth, believe in it, commit to it, and welcome it.
            Because guess what? I know, because I see the results of it every single day, that most writing groups are not telling the truth. Most writers groups are telling their members what they love about the work, but they are not telling them what is not working. They just aren’t. So people plow on, writing flawed material, under the illusion that what they are writing is awesome because everyone talked so much about what they loved about it. I consider it a kind of torture, to be honest. It make me want to cry when I start working with these writers, and have to tell them that, in fact, there is a fatal flaw with their whole concept that no one bothered to help them see or fix back there on page 1 of 324. (And conversely, nothing impresses me more when a writer takes their dose of truth and says, “Okay, what do I have to do to fix it?” It’s so inspiring. I am working with two new clients right now who have done just that. They should be given some kind of prize – although I know that the deep satisfaction they will feel when they get their story right will be worth everything.)
            Love is so much more pleasant and easy to stomach than truth. Love feels awesome. Love keeps us going.  But see above where Catmull says that the Pixar producers KNEW their work would suffer if they didn’t get candid feedback? Work deeply suffers when it’s only showered with love. It just does. Here’s Catmull writing about the power of the truth:
            “Naturally, every director would prefer to be told that his film is a masterpiece. But, because of the way the Braintrust is structured, the pain of being told that flaws are apparent or revisions are needed is minimized. Rarely does a director get defensive, because no one is pulling rank or telling the filmmaker what to do. The film itself—not the filmmaker—is under the microscope. This principle eludes most people, but it is crucial: You are not your idea, and if you identify too closely with your idea, you will take offense when they are challenged. To set up a healthy feedback system, you must remove power dynamics from the equation—you must enable yourself, in other words, to focus on the problem, not the person.
            So every writer in your group needs to agree to do that – to focus on the problems they see, to tell the truth, and to do so in a spirit of wanting that work to be better.  If egos get in the way of this promise, it will never work.  Each member need to take a deep breath and welcome the truth when it’s their turn to hear it. And they need to speak with deep kindness and hope  when it’s their turn to give it
3. You need to stop trying to fix problems.
            On Catmull’s list of the 7 Core Principles you need to build a creative culture,  #7 is “Give Good Notes.” Here is the principle as he lists it on his website:
Truly candid feedback is the only way to ensure excellence. When giving notes, be sure to include:

  • What is Wrong
  • What is Missing
  • What Isn’t Clear
  • What Doesn’t Make Sense

A good note is specific. A good note does not make demands. Most of all, a good note inspires.
Copy that principle down and laminate it so you can look at it during your writing group critiques. It is so smart. It’s not about praise of any kind whatsoever (although Catmull does say that most Braintrust meetings start with the members praising the director.) And it is not about ways the writer should fix the problem. It’s about identifying weakness in a very specific way, articulating them, and helping the writer to see them, and to sort out how to go about fixing them.
In the pages of the book, Catmull explains this principle at length:
A good note says what is wrong, what is missing, what isn’t clear, what makes good note doesn’t make demands; it doesn’t even have to include a proposed fix. But if it does, that fix is offered only to illustrate a potential solution, not to prescribe an answer. Most of all, though, a good note is specific. “I’m writhing with boredom,” is not a good note.
As Andrew Stanton says, “There’s a difference between criticism and constructive criticism. With the latter, you’re constructing at the same time that you’re criticizing. You’re building as you’re breaking down, making new pieces to work with out of the stuff you’ve just ripped apart. That’s an art form in itself. I always feel like whatever notes you’re giving should inspire the recipient—like, ‘How do I get that kid to want to redo his homework?’ So, you’ve got to act like a teacher. Sometimes you talk about the problems in fifty different ways until you find that one sentence that you can see makes their eyes pop, as if they’re thinking, ‘Oh, I want to do it.’ In stead of saying, ‘The writing in this scene isn’t good enough,’ you say, ‘Don’t you want people to walk out of the theater and be quoting those lines?’ It’s more of a challenge. ‘Isn’t this what you want? I want it too!’”

            Stanton, by the way, is writer and director of Pixar's A Bug's Life Finding Nemo and WALL-E co-writer of all three Toy Story films and Monsters, Inc.         
            Here, Catmull sums up the whole point of the Braintrust and why it's so powerful, and why every creative person needs some version of it:
            Pixar films are not good at first, and our job is to make them so – to go, as I say, “from suck to not-suck.” This idea – that all movies we now think of as brilliant were, at one time, terrible – is a hard concept for many to grasp. But think about how easy it would be for a movie about talking toys to feel derivative, sappy, or overtly merchandise-driven. Think about how off-putting a movie about rats preparing food would be, or how risky it must’ve seemed to start WALL-E with 39 dialogue-free minutes. We dare to attempt these stories, but we don’t get them right on the first pass. And this is as it should be. Creativity has to start somewhere, and we are true believers in the power of bracing, candid feedback and the iterative process – reworking, reworking, and reworking again, until a flawed story finds its throughline or a hollow character finds its soul. 

In Case You Missed It 

I had a great conversation with Dan Blank of on what, exactly, building author platform means. You can listen to the recording HERE. And note that Dan is starting a class called Get Read in about a week or so, which I highly recommend for anyone interested in reaching readers.