I rarely take part in writers’ groups anymore. I totally get their usefulness—writers need support from peers, they need responses to their work from actual readers who won’t just say they loved it, a sharp reader can point something out that a writer might not have thought of, and so on. A good writers’ group can be beneficial, no doubt.
In large part, I don’t do it because it’s not how I work best. When I came of age as a writer, I learned to do most of my work alone. I wrote projects to order and under pressure of deadline; there wasn’t the time or the opportunity—or the expectation—to get other writers’ perspectives on what I was doing. My boss—or the client—had the final say.
In larger part, though, my avoidance of writers’ groups comes from my having run or taken part in so many of them over my careers as a writing teacher and writer. The other day, I estimated how many writers’ groups I’ve been part of over the years. I came up with the semi-astonishing figure of roughly 1,200 groups over twenty-plus years, both inside and outside the classroom.
That’s 1,200 groups of writers, ranging in number from three to thirty, where people responded to each other’s stories, poems, novel drafts, or essays. I was either an active participant or a facilitator helping the writers themselves carry the conversations.
I was deep into collaborative writing, see. The whole being the “guide on the side” instead of the “sage on the stage” thing, to use one of the more ridiculous clichés of education that still makes me gag.
I thought a lot about the subject. I took courses in how to run writers’ groups. I attended workshops in how to do it. I even gave workshops for my colleagues and others in the benefits of writing groups and how to work with them.
In all that time, I saw how and why groups could be valuable. But I also saw what could go very wrong. In particular, I came to learn that certain behaviors will kill a writers’ group dead. If you’re a member of a writers’ group and you want to make your partners miserable, try some of these out:
1. Everybody’s a Critic.
Interpret “critique” to mean “criticize mercilessly” (instead of, say, “offer careful judgment about”), and criticize the hell out of the workshopper (the one who reads or presents a piece for discussion). Pick every single nit you can find, from structure to grammar, regardless of what stage the draft is in. Find fault, instead of reflecting your responses to the piece back to the author, who can then make decisions about how well she/he framed the writing in preparation for revising.
It also helps if you gang up on the writer with other members of the group.
2. Do As I Say, Not As I Do.
Understand that your other main job as participant (besides telling authors what they did wrong) is to tell the writers what they need to do to improve the work. Regardless of your own experience of literature and writing, don’t be shy about telling the author what to do with a particular work. The wronger the advice, the louder you should insist on it.
3.Tu Casa Es Mi Casa.
Take over the author’s writing completely. Pay no attention to an author’s intentions, but respond to a piece of writing based on how you would have written it yourself. Don’t give the author any chance to make decisions about what to do or change based on how well you got what she/he was saying. This works especially well if you’ve never written anything like what the author is sharing.
4. If You Can’t Say Something Bad, Don’t Say Anything, Part 1.
Don’t mention any of the strengths of the piece, and don’t bother telling the author what you liked or appreciated about the work, or thought the author did well. Your job is to focus on the bad parts. The good parts are already good, aren’t they? Why talk about them?
Besides, agents and editors aren’t going to go easy on a writer, so why should you? You’re helping to toughen up the workshopper. Writing group as WWF Smackdown!
5. If You Can’t Say Something Bad, Don’t Say Anything, Part 2.
Never mind articulating any questions you have about the piece, or points of confusion you wonder about, or interesting places where you’d like to hear more details; these might be too helpful. Your criticisms are enough.
6. I Object!
When you’re the workshopper, defend your draft loudly and vociferously. Don’t bother trying to learn from your partners’ responses and get ideas for revision, but instead show them how wrong they are in their appraisals of your work. If you have to explain or defend what you said, it just shows how little your responders get you (and how much smarter you are).
If you try all these strategies in your next writers’ group, I promise your group mates will develop some very special feelings for you.
If, on the other hand, you find yourself doing any of these, you might try to back off from them and maybe—just maybe—your writers’ group will be more enjoyable, and a whole lot more useful.