Every act of writing is an act of double translation: First you have to translate images, impressions, inchoate feelings, half-formed ideas into language. This act is always flawed – there is no way to express in language everything we experience as conscious living beings. The second act of translation is turning what you've written into a form that a reader can appreciate. This is where a writers workshop may serve as an important reality check.
Writers come to workshops for a variety of reasons – support, alliance with other writers, to grouse about the business of publishing, and for critique. Some writers really want a lot more support (You're great, your work is brilliant!) than they do critique (I can't quite believe the woman would strangle her much-larger husband with her bare hands and then turn into a robot.)
If you're looking for support and encouragement to keep writing and keep submitting your work for publication, then it's important to be honest with yourself and others about that and find a group where everyone has the same agenda. Mutual admiration societies are terrific if that's what everyone has signed up for. But if you're looking for genuine critique – to know if your act of translation has worked for readers, and if your work is publishable – you'll need to join a more rigorous group.
I've been a member of several writers groups that flourished for years, providing both support and meaningful critique. We stuck together through the celebrations and the disappointments and provided the occasional tough love that made one another's work better. Based on this experience and on having taught creative writing in a university setting for a number of years, I can offer some advice.
Writers groups are not for every writer – some writers get confused hearing multiple voices and opinions. Others feel disabled by criticism or by sharing work before it's fully cooked. Many writers do much better working one-on-one with an editor-for-hire. But if you think a writers group might be for you, here are some tips.
- Try to put together a group of people of similar ability and level of seriousness about their work. For some groups, it's best if everyone is working in the same genre – all fiction writers, for example. Others function just fine with a mix of writers working in multiple genres. If you're a fiction writer in a roomful of memoirists, though, don't be surprised if someone says, “Did that really happen?” and if you're a memoirist in a room of fiction writers, someone is apt to forget that you can't amp up the climax by just making stuff up.
- Set out clear rules and requirements from the get-go so the group doesn't devolve into a free-for-all. For example, it's best if everyone agrees to attend every session for at least a limited span of time (six weeks or six months) if the group meets regularly, and if each member takes a turn submitting. Resentments can build in groups where some people attend regularly and others float in and out or where some always present pages while others seldom do. Determine in advance a reasonable number of pages that folks can submit for each meeting, and the lead time necessary for other members to read their work. It's the rare group where anyone has time to read another member's entire novel in a week or even two.
- There are groups where people just show up and read what they've written aloud (with feeling!) and get immediate reactions. My bias is that those sorts of groups provide more support than meaningful critique. A lot of writers' work sounds much better when they read it aloud than when an editor reads it after having read umpteen other manuscripts. If you're serious about using feedback to improve your work, workshop members need to read one another's work in advance and comment thoughtfully. I favor written comments that writers can digest after listening to the verbal responses.
- If you don't want to hear every sort of reaction about your work, you can frame the critique by asking targeted questions of your fellow group members when you send the work out. Maybe you just want to know if the plot is suspenseful enough, or if the description of the brother seems credible. Maybe you're not ready to hear everything and just need some specific feedback about voice or tone. It's OK to take some control of what level of comments you'll hear about your work.
- Writers should be silent while receiving critique. No one can listen and talk at the same time. Being silent suppresses the urge to defend or explain one's work. You won't be there to explain or defend when the reader (or agent or editor) opens your book – it's either on the page or it's not. As painful as this experience might be for some writers, it gets easier with practice. Hearing just how much of what you're trying to do is working and hearing your story retold in another person's words can be inspiring.
- Critique should be specific, kind, and aimed at being helpful. That doesn't mean telling the writer how you would rewrite her work. Your job is to help your fellow writers marshal their greatest strengths so that every sentence, description, scene, and revelation is as strong as their strongest. Your job is not to nitpick other members' grammar, to debate their comma usage (unless they ask), or to impersonate a critic for the New York Times with sweeping pronouncements of a work's qualities or flaws.
- In the best groups, the meeting becomes an extension of the writer's creative process. There is brainstorming and what ifs and lots of laughter, and even dramatic enactments of scenes from the work. Writers groups are supposed to be fun and energizing. If you leave the group feeling worse than when you came, and if you still feel worse the next morning when you sit down to write, you may need to find a different group or consider another less demoralizing way to get feedback.
- Don't say anything about another member's work outside of the group that you wouldn't say in it. Gossip and backstabbing, sub-group cliquing can lead to a group's downfall. And need I add not to have a romantic involvement with someone in the group unless one of you is prepared to leave? If such an involvement proves irresistible, realize that whether the romance succeeds or fails, it's going to have repercussions for everyone else in the room.
- An important part of the workshop experience is learning who your readers are. There are going to be people who are not going to get your work, appreciate your genius, share your sensibility. We all have our biases, tastes, and unconscious reactions. Learning whom to listen to and what to do with what they say are skills that will serve you with agents and editors as well. Unless you want to write only in your diary, keep it locked up in a drawer, and give yourself a gold star every day for your brilliance, criticism from others is a fact of a writer's life. It will come not only from readers (those pesky and unpredictable Amazon reader reviews!) but from critics, editors, agents, significant others, and every semi-literate person who picks up your work and decides to tell you how he feels about it. We writers need to learn how to hear a response to our work and take it under advisement without letting it get in our way. At best, membership in a writers group expands our thinking, opens us up emotionally, and motivates us to be even more clearly our best selves in our writing.
- Competition is also an inevitable part of a writer's life. Different members of a group may have varying fates when it comes to publication, fame, and fortune. That can get in the way of the group's cohesion. The only way I know to address this is to discuss it openly and for those more fortunate members to desist from bragging (even humble bragging: I never could have done it without all of you!) and help their colleagues whenever and however they can.
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