Writing Groups: A Chance to Talk Shop
by Trista Cornelius
In my experience it has been common to advise aspiring writers to join, or create, a writing group. And although I’ve belonged to two, I only recently started wondering about their purpose. I had always assumed it was to critique works in progress. It turns out, however, the reasons for joining (or not joining) a writing group prove to be as diverse as the many different forms writing groups can take.
Priscilla Long, in her book The Writer’s Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life, describes her group as a writing-practice group. Another writer told me she thinks of her group as a support group, drawing solitary artists out of their caves for an evening of camaraderie.
I remember learning in graduate school about “writer-based prose” and “reader-based prose.” First drafts (writer-based prose) are usually written in a language and style familiar to the writer herself but not so relatable to anyone else. Revision moves a draft to reader-based prose which aims to make the text accessible to a wider audience.
A critique group gives you a real audience to revise for, and readers to respond to your work, revealing where your manuscript shines and where it might fall flat.
In critique groups, writers often share printed copies of their drafts, or email documents ahead of time to read. Laura’s group, however, meets monthly to read work aloud to each other. Listening to a draft “takes a different type of writing muscle” than reading works on the page, Laura says. “Listening frees me from the mechanics and lets me experience the story as its own thing.”
Getting feedback on your writing, however, does not always require a group or meeting in person. Although Susan deFreitas author of Pyrophitic (Afternoon Shorts (Book 2), has been in writing groups in the past, she now relies on “trusted friends” for feedback on her work. “I believe, first and foremost, in sharing the work with people who get the intent – who understand the world the piece wants to be a part of.”
Each of her critique friends reads a different style of writing. Her husband, for example, reads her speculative fiction, while a friend who excels at creative nonfiction reads that kind of work from Susan.
This makes a lot of sense, especially if you write in a particular genre and style, or know what specific audience you want to reach with your work. Any practiced writer or avid reader can give a general audience response to a text, but you might need a poet to engage the finer details of your poem, or a devoted reader of flash fiction to further sharpen your condensed story.
Cari Luna author of The Revolution of Every Day, has never been in a writing group. She had plenty of workshop experience throughout her education but has decided writing groups are not useful to her now. Cari said shorter works “fall out of me” now and then, but for the most part she writes novels. Showing “parts of a novel rather than the whole is unhelpful, and getting feedback on the first draft of a novel is absolutely disastrous.” She does not show anyone her work until it’s complete and already in the second draft. At that point, like Susan, she has a “number of trusted draft readers” to share her work with, and she reads their work, too.
Perhaps the most important thing to consider about a writing group is something both Cari and Susan mentioned. They described “trusted friends” who read their work. Who are the writers and readers in your life you trust to be supportive of but also honest about your work?
Although Laura’s group critiques each writer’s piece with the aim of making it better, she points out that “bringing work to a group of peers turns your particular voice, your story, into a shared experience with those other writers.” For her, that community matters as much as, if not more than, getting feedback on a draft.
Laura’s right. Looking back on my writing group experiences, I’ve always been eager for feedback on my drafts to help me see the strengths and weaknesses of my work. Although this has taught me a lot, I realize now that the gathering of writer-friends to talk shop and commiserate about a solitary craft has kept me motivated over the long haul.
If you need to give your work time and privacy, but you would like to join a writing group for the camaraderie, there’s no writing law that says every member must share her work with the group. You could contribute to discussions, respond to prompts, and build friendships all the same. Or, you could join with others for a non-critique group to keep the writing muscles limber but protect your fledgling work from an audience before it is ready.
If you have decided to start a writing group, you now get to decide how your group will work. Will you meet in person? Will you meet weekly, monthly, or quarterly? Where will you meet? For how long? Are you all writing in the same genre, or does that matter?
For a couple of years now, my writing group has done a little bit of everything at our once-a-month meetings. While we eat a potluck dinner, we talk shop, catching up on writing news since the last time we met. After dinner, we write on a prompt for ten minutes; then each writer reads the free write aloud, but we don’t critique. Lastly, we critique drafts that have been emailed ahead of time, or short drafts are read aloud. This takes about three hours, often includes chocolate, and always leaves us rejuvenated and recommitted to the writing craft.
Until now, I’ve had a utilitarian idea of what writing groups should do: critique and improve. My group will attest that I am usually the one to cut the chit-chat and keep our noses to the grindstone. However, looking back on the years of our meetings, I recognize the importance of community. Other professionals have hallways, breakrooms, and water coolers to talk shop. Writers have writing groups for a chance to discuss current issues, share new ideas, and further the writing craft.
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Trista Cornelius writes VoiceCatcher’s bimonthly column, “Dotting Your Ts and Crossing Your Eyes,” about the writer’s craft. This is the third article in her series about proofreading. Trista is currently on a leave of absence from Clackamas Community College where she has been teaching writing, literature and food studies. Follow her writing, reading and eating adventures here.