Networking for Writers: Writing Groups
Getting the Best Out of Writing Groups
As has often been said by those more eloquent than me, writing is a solitary pursuit. Unless you're co-writing a book, you're essentially facing a computer screen (or, heavens! a blank page with pen in hand or in a typewriter) for hours at a time.
Even when you're not actually alone (e.g. you're writing at work, hoping no one peeks at your computer; or at home with the kids running around), you're still alone with your words. Unless you want your colleagues, husband and kids to be your only critique group, the point arrives that you realise: help, I need objective, informed opinion on my work!
The views on the true value of a critique group are divided. While some believe you can learn a lot from participating in groups, others caution new writers against exposing yourself to possibly painful, even misguided and incorrect, editorial advice.
I think writing groups are good for new writers, but you have to be aware of the pitfalls associated with the kinds of critiques you might get.
I've encountered basically four types of people (or types of reviews) in critique groups. These are:
- The rule freaks, who can often also be brutally frank rule bullies. Rule freaks are the ones who highlight every adverb, adjective, use of passive voice, info dump etc. etc., then give their opinion that your story absolutely fails without conflict, tension or any likable character. They're rule bullies if they seem to take pleasure in tormenting you and with no consideration for your feelings;
- The fawning, I-love-everything-you-wrote admirers. These are the ones who can't seem to find anything wrong with your work;
- The reviewers who critique as readers. They give their honest opinion (usually politely) on how they found your work , and they transcend rules and focus on effectiveness of the piece (sympathetic characters, conflict, hook, etc) rather than tear it line by line; and
- Those who take elements from each of the three types above and combine them to provide a truly useful review; these are the ideal reviewers. They point out some instances of rule-breaking, they provided editorial suggestions, they praise the parts you did well, and they give their opinion as reader.
I've been each type of reviewer at different times (though hopefully never a bully, and rarely a rule freak).
Although I hope to be an ideal reviewer someday, nowadays, I'm usually a reader, combined in moderation with the admirer. I always start with the elements in the piece I'm reviewing that I genuinely like. Then I give my 'reader opinion' on hook, plot, character development, and the like. I only very occasionally try to look at 'rules' and perhaps point out specific examples of 'telling, not showing" and passive voice in the piece, but I don't do line-by-line edits. I personally think that a writer only needs to see one example of where s/he failed at being effective, then s/he should be able to go over his/her work and edit it word-for-word.
I realize, and so must you, that there is value in having at least one rule fanatic in a group. Particularly if you are blind to how you violate these rules too often. Unfortunately these rule fanatics often have the worst tact as well (no coincidence, if you ask me. Anyone too hung up on rules must have marginal social skills. Just half-joking there).
If your group consists primarily rule bullies, leave it. New writers can be really tough on their own work, and though they can use tough love, they don't need their fragile egos shattered when they're just starting out.
If your group is primarily of the second adoring/admirer type, you're also doomed. At some point, all writers think they're God's gift to writing. Having an entire group validate that idea (delusion?) without giving honest and objective advice doesn't help. You might as well just ask your kids-- heck, your mum-- read your work and get the same validation.
If your group is mostly made up of readers, this might be okay if you already have strong writing skills or can spot your errors yourself. Then you'd benefit more from reviews that see the forest rather than the trees.
I personally appreciate reviews from the third 'reader' type, which is why I now try to give those kinds of reviews myself.
But if you can get mostly the fourth type (ideal reviewers) in your group, with just the occasional admirer and bully, then you've got a good group. Stay with it.
How to deal with advice:
If you want to get the most from your writing group, you should separate the bullying from the helpful advice. If you get a painful review, let it sit unread for two, three even ten days, until you can look at it again without weeping or wanting to punch someone's face. BUT DON'T GIVE UP. Rejection is part of a writer's life. Learning to deal with it starts with accepting harsh reviews.
If you get fawning advice, use that to boost your self-esteem, but at the same time take it with a grain of salt. Even if the admirer is being honest, s/he may be less skilled at writing than you, therefore the admiration.
And finally, engage with the other members as real people, not just as reviewers. Though you don't have to start having coffee or going to family barbecues together (unless you want to), it does mean seeing them not just as fellow writers, but as people with their own problems and blessings. And their own areas of expertise. You'll be surprised how much valuable advice you can get, not just on writing, but perhaps on the topic you're working on. Perhaps you've always wondered what it feels like to be a surgeon, and one of the members of the group is one. Or you want access to a prison, and another member knows someone who knows a prison guard (happened to me).
More importantly, your writing group can provide moral support. When you feel like dropping everything after that Nth rejection, they'll rally behind you, urging you to write on. And when you finally make that first sale, they'll be the first to congratulate you and wish you well.
They can warn you against difficult markets, agents or publishers. They can recommend specific agents or publishers to you. But don't expect them to recommend you to their agents/publishers, unless you're really good.
When you've sold your book, the other published writers in your group may be happy to promote your book on their blogs, or by writing a review or blurb for you.
So go join a writing group. I'm an active member of two online groups, and I've really grown as a writer because of them.Try one out, see if the reviews are helping your writing. If not, dump them and join another one. There are so many writing groups out there, you're bound to find one just 'write' for you.
Here are some links to online critique groups, by genre:
- Science Fiction and Fantasy http://sff.onlinewritingworkshop.com/
- Romance http://www.charlottedillon.com/RWC.html
- General http://critters.org/
- General http://www. writers.com
- Review of writing groups http://www.squidoo.com/onlinewritersgroupsreview