by Meredith Cole
Writers can only scribble (or type) away in their dark corner for so long. Eventually someone needs to read what they’ve written. Before that first someone is an agent or editor, it’s probably best that someone else takes a quick look to see if they “get” what you’re writing (and help you get rid of glaring errors). Writing groups are a free way to do that. When they’re good–they’re amazingly helpful. And when they’re not–they can be damaging to a fledgling writer’s psyche.
I teach a class at the University of Virginia every semester–either Mystery or Novel writing–and for most of the semester I teach it with a critique group format. Everyone has to read everyone else’s writing and comment on it. At first students don’t understand why it’s important that they critique other work (or listen to what other students have to say about their own). They just want to hear what I think. So I keep explaining how it’s so much easier to recognize mistakes in someone else’s writing, and how, once they recognize the mistakes, they will learn to stop making them in their own stories. And, by the end of the semester, my students usually “get it.” And often they decide to go and create a critique group with the other members of the class.
How do you know when a writing group is bad? That’s easy. You leave a session full of despair, not sure if you ever want to write again. People don’t offer advice–they rant or belittle the other members of the group. You should run–not walk–and get out of the group as soon as possible. It’s not you, it’s them.
How do you know when you’ve found a good writing group? You leave a session full of fresh ideas and concrete ways to fix your piece. You’re relieved that someone found a few of your boneheaded mistakes so you can correct them. You know they’re helping you make your writing better.