I was listening to a recent episode of I Should Be Writing today, and it got me thinking about writing groups and how my philosophy on them has changed. Long story short, I used to love them, but now I’m not such a huge fan.
I should probably start out by mentioning that I lead a college writing group for two years, and I don’t regret the experience at all. The Quark writing group was extremely helpful, both in terms of my own growth as a writer, and the connections it gave me with other writerly people. I still keep in touch with many of them.
But now…I just don’t think writing groups are all that great. In fact, I think that they often do more harm than good, not just for experienced writers, but for the beginner who lacks the confidence to strike out on their own. Here’s why:
The group dynamic gives inexperienced critiquers a false sense of authority.
Most writing groups consist of writers who are at roughly the same level of expertise. For beginners, this means that the people critiquing your story might not know any better than you whether the story is broken. However, because of the dynamics of the whole thing (captive audience, desire to impress peers, etc), these people are likely to act as if they have more authority than they really do.
To be fair, I’ve had plenty of critique partners who have managed to be modest and down-to-Earth when offering their critiques. However, I’ve also seen plenty of others get puffed up and offer some really dumb advice.
Beginning writers often naively look for someone to show them the answers–some mentor or authority figure whose every word is true, who will light the path and show them the way. Put a bunch of them into a writing group together, and more often than not you’ll end up with the blind leading the blind.
The weekly submission process does not simulate the reading experience.
Logistically, most writing groups have to set a limit on the size and number of submissions. For the Quark writing group, our limit was three submissions of four thousand words each. It worked out fine for short stories, but most of us were writing novels, which meant that we had to workshop our books in little four thousand word chunks.
The problem is that nobody reads novels at that rate. Either they get hooked and finish the thing, or they get bored and stop reading. Therefore, while the feedback you receive might be good for helping out with craft issues, by the time the next week rolls around either everyone has forgotten what happened already, or they remember it wrong, or they were expecting something different and are ticked off because they have to wait another week.
After I revised Bringing Stella Home a couple of times (after–see below!), I workshopped it through a writing group I’d put together after leaving the Quark writing group. I can’t tell you how many times I heard “why are we in James’s point of view this week? I hate James! I want to get back to Stella!” I got this comment so often, for a while I thought the book was really flawed. However, when I got the feedback from my first readers, no one had this problem at all.
The reason? They read the book the way it was actually meant to be read.
Workshopping a work in progress is the surest way to kill a book.
Committees might be good at doing some things, but they’re absolutely horrible at producing anything innovative or original. Make no mistake: if you’re workshopping something you haven’t already finished and you follow most or all of the feedback you receive, you’re writing your book by committee.
Most writers agree that when you write your first draft, you should not revise anything until it’s done. This is because the act of revision makes you so critical of your own work that it’s very easy to get discouraged or “fix” something that was actually a good idea.
Workshopping a work in progress does exactly the same thing: it puts you in a critical frame of mind that will literally kill your book. Even if you manage to finish it, it won’t be nearly as good as it could have been because you’ve probably nipped all your best ideas in the bud, before they had time to grow and develop.
A truly great book does not appeal to everyone.
There’s a word for something that appeals to everyone equally, that runs about middle of the road and doesn’t upset anyone. That word is “average.”
No truly great work is loved by everyone. This isn’t just true of controversial stuff–it’s true of everything. For every one of your favorite books, there’s a one-star review of it on the internet somewhere. So if everyone tells you your book is good, that might not actually be the case. In fact, it’s a much better sign when some people hate it and others can’t stop raving about it.
The trouble with writing groups is that the group dynamic can lead to a herd mentality, where everyone goes along with the first opinion that gets expressed. Ever played Werewolf? The same thing happens there. One person throws out an accusation, the vote gets called, everyone starts looking around to see who is raising their hand and before you know it, all the hands are in the air.
So unless one of the seven or eight people in your writing group loves your work enough to stand up and defend it, chances are the feedback will err on the side of being too negative. This makes it very difficult to tell whether your story actually sucks, or whether it’s just above average.
Writing groups teach you to write to rules, not for readers.
One of the dynamics of writing groups is that they encourage people to find and latch on to certain writing rules, where people can say “this story is broken because of x” or “this writing is flawed because of y.” Over time, this becomes so ingrained that people stop reading to see whether the story actually works and instead read to see whether the story follows the rules.
The truth, however, is that there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to writing. For example, you’ve heard of “show, don’t tell”? Yeah, go and read Ender’s Game. The entire book is one giant tell–and it’s brilliant. It was the first sf novel to win both the Hugo and the Nebula awards in the same year, and has remained a perennial bestseller ever since.
Nothing hit this home for me more when the cryo scene excerpt from Genesis Earth won first place in the 2009 Mayhew contest at BYU. Parts of the scene lapse from first person past tense to second person present tense, and the members of my writing group pointed that out as a major no-no. However, even though it broke the rules, it worked well enough to win an award.
To be fair, there are some things that writing groups are very good for. They can be a good way to learn the basics of craft (ie “the rules”), and they do give you a sense of community that can be very encouraging when you’re just starting out. However, the drawbacks are so great that I don’t think I’ll ever go back.
Personally, I’ve moved from writing groups to a core group of first readers whose feedback I value and whose opinions I trust. I finish my project, send them the entire manuscript with a deadline in which to read it, and thank them graciously for whatever feedback I receive. Most of them aren’t even writers, in fact–but all of them are readers. Most of them don’t know who the others are, and none of them ever see any of the feedback from the others.
Criticism is good; if you want to grow as a writer, you should welcome criticism and constantly solicit it. But I do believe it’s possible to grow out of a writing group–or to succeed without ever being a part of one at all.