Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Writing Group Etiquette (or, how not to piss off your fellow writers)

There are all kinds of writing groups, from impromptu beer and wine-fueled evenings at somebody’s loft, to groups that follow a rigid schedule every third Monday of the month, to an open format where anybody can bring in pages every meeting. Whatever the format, all participants deserve equal time to have their work thoughtfully considered. Whether you’re a writing group veteran or a beginning writer looking for your first group, it helps to remember the basic tenets of writing group etiquette.

Stay Positive. In writing groups and workshops both, sometimes it’s easy to forget that you'll be reading pages that aren't polished, and sometimes are far from finished. If you’re critiquing pages that have recognizable but reparable problems, try to first focus on positive aspects of the story that you genuinely like. Preface your honest comments (both verbal and written) with a compliment, and then segue into some helpful hints for making the story better. This sets a friendlier tone for the discussion, and may cushion any defensiveness the writer develops. Just remember that it’s easier for any writer to hear, “I really loved your dialogue. Your setting is unique. But I'm not 100% behind your decision to make the husband a horse. Maybe if you considered...” than, “I really had a problem with this horse thing...”

Find the Right Group. Join the writing group that’s best for you. Don’t hammer away in a group that you’re not comfortable in or doesn’t feel supportive. Don’t expect to always get a loving response from all your fellow writers—believe me, it won’t happen. And if you want to be a better writer, you don’t want it to. But if you only receive negative feedback, or you only get preemptive comments about how you should write instead of how to make what you’ve written better, then it’s time to find another group. Also, when you hand out your work, you should expect the other members to give thoughtful feedback. Not everyone will (or can) spin their ideas about your writing into wonderful diamonds of insight, but on the other hand if all you get is margin scribbles like “Boring!” or “I don’t get it!” without explanation, that’s worse than not having your work read at all.

Find your Level. Make sure you’re at the proper group level. Being among writers who are advanced and have a lot to say about the work and business of writing can be an invaluable tool to any writer. Then again, maybe you’re a beginner and not ready to send out your work. In which case you need help with the basics of putting a short story or chapter together, and you’re not interested in the symbolic implications of color choice in the bedroom scene or which agent is taking vampire alien stories. It’s like when you were in elementary school and they put you in an advanced reading circle. Could you keep up with the other kids? Did you understand everything you read? There’s no shame in biding with the beginners. There’s always something to gain from meeting with like-minded writers, whether you’re all beginning writers or veterans of the writing conference and agent query circuit.

Get it in Writing. Be sure to get some kind of written feedback from your fellow writers. It’s hard enough to remember what people say about your work, harder still to take notes and listen at the same time, but if you’re not taking home notes from all participants you’re not getting your money’s worth from a writing group. Set group rules early on about how to handle getting feedback to the writers. Not everyone is great at supplying pages of comments, and that’s not always helpful anyway. But everyone should be getting down their thoughts about your writing, whether its typing up comments and handing them to you, writing tasty notes in the margins of your printouts, or emailing you a helpful missive. Feedback is much more powerful and meaningful if you can walk away with concrete evidence. And it comes in handy when you’re rewriting your pages.

Join the Fun. Beware of groups where participants show up only on those occasions when they are scheduled to hand out or get critiqued. They don’t care about helping other writers, getting better at the craft by reading as much work as they can, or finding out what other types of writing their peers are producing.

Be Honest. When it comes to a room full of passionate people who all strive to get better at their craft, (and, let’s face it, to get published), the real reason you’re all there can get overshadowed. By doubt, by competition, by jealousy, by lack of confidence. But don’t let that get in the way of giving honest critiques. As with verbal comments, when preparing written comments to hand to the writer, be honest and helpful. Don’t blow smoke up their ass, and don’t shy away from areas that you think the writer can improve. Also, line edits are fine, and are generally welcome. Be as honest in your critique of other’s work as you are when you write for yourself.

Consider the Source. You may be in a group with somebody who, for example, doesn’t like flashbacks. So whenever somebody writes a flashback, this person will pick it apart. Don’t take it personally—consider the source. On the other hand, don’t dismiss the tough love of an entire group if, for example, nobody much likes the final scene in your story. When the group reaches a consensus about your work, that’s when you should take notice. In this case, maybe it’s time to revise your ending. Overall, take all criticism for what it is: suggestion. Nobody’s forcing you to change a word, but often positive suggestions and gentle nudging in different and new directions can really expand your initial idea of your story, and make a big difference when it’s time to revise.

Writing Group Tips

If you’re a poet, don’t join a novel writing group. If you’re a beginner, don’t just join any group that’ll have you. Be choosy; it’s your writing, it’s your time. If you can’t find the right group for you, start your own.

When you meet as a group, keep to a schedule, but don’t obsess over sticking to it. As long as you spend enough time on the critique at hand, don’t worry too much when the conversation strays into other topics as long as they’re relevant.

You can glean lots of great information from shooting the shit with fellow writers. Writing groups are a great place to compare notes on everything from how to write a query to which agents might be for you.

Don’t drink and critique. Unless you just got a story accepted or got a book published.

Are you in a writing group? Do you have some favorites you’d like to share?


Robin said...

Dell -- Great blog! I have been in two very different poetry groups for almost 20 years. It actually has been helpful to have two reactions to my poems (and fun to take the same poem to different meetings). The feedback is always helpful and has helped me shape poems that were later accepted for publication. I even use some of the techniques learned in my groups when I teach English Comp. at the community college. Peer review works in many settings. I like your suggestions, too, about seeking a personal fit and making sure to be proactive about giving and receiving advice from other writers. Good job.

Cynthia Sherrick said...

Excellent tips and advice all around. I have just joined a small online critique group. I'll let you know how it progresses. :]

Dell Smith said...

Robin, I love the idea of showing a poem to two groups. Cynthia, I didn't cover online writing groups, so you'll have to keep me posted.

Liz's Mom said...

Great advice about writing groups. I was in 3 different groups once, and everything you say is true.

Anonymous said...

Dyou people realize what a joke Grub Street and other groups such as this are among the literary and publishing industry. Having read some of the "work" of this group, I can see why. What all of you need to do is go out inot the public and listen: listen to the flow of words and how people talk.listen to the stories.
Finally, I have been published and haven't taken or attended a "workshop since colege. Writing is about life so live it

Dell Smith said...

Hi Anonymous. Thanks for your interesting perspective.