Last week I gave you a little history lesson, discussing some famous writers groups that changed the face of writing. This week I'm going to get a little more personal. I'm going to give you 5 reasons how a writing group can change the face of your writing.
Before I get into that I just want to clear one thing up. It's not necessarily that a writing group will do all of these things. As with any writing endeavor, part of what's going to help you succeed is your own drive. The other is the groups drive. If, however, you find a keeper, you'll find that your writing only improves due to your choice of committing to a group. But why even give a writering group a shot?
1. Fresh Eyes
I don't know what your process is like, but mine generally involves writing a poem, obsessing over it for a few weeks, and then I shelve the piece for a bit so I can approach it at a later date with fresh eyes. Now, this is not the most time effective approach to writing, so imagine my surprise at my discovery that presenting pieces to my writing group speeds the whole process up!
In a writering group, especially one consisting of multiple opinions and/or genres, your piece is immediately getting a fresh look which will often draw out discussions on parts of your writing that you wanted to discuss, and maybe even parts you didn't even notice. Ever written a really killer story but then had someone look at it and ask "Yeah but who's the main character?" only to realize you never defined them? It won't always be something as big as this, but you may find pieces of your story are missing that you didn't even notice because in your head they were always so clear!
My point is that having a group of writers critique you can give you that immediate feedback that you need to continue your writing process rather than having it sit around for a bit, or read it fifty times to notice those few details. But that seems a minor thing when compared to...
2. Fresh Ideas
When my writers group and I presented at the Montgomery Community College Writing Conference on the advantages and disadvantages of writing groups, we had a member of the audience who was very hesitant to let someone else view her work because she was afraid that it would tarnish her hand in the piece. As I discussed last week, this is definitely not the case, but it's not just editing that you can get from a writers group.
When you have several different types of minds looking at your piece you may find that they notice elements that you may not have been aware you put in (as a writing teacher of mine once said though, whether you are aware of it or not it's never just luck.) These elements may prove even more interesting than the ideas you were focusing on (your secondary character is more moving than the main character, that side story has the potential to add a whole different layer to your story, a simile that you didn't even notice would be stronger throughout the poem, etc.) If you're like my group it may come down to something as seemingly small as word choice (something I have a knack for helping my group out with.)
Certainly editing can bring up some fresh thoughts, but I'm talking about so much more here. Being among a group of writers it is only inevitable that you are going to get ideas from their successes and failures. As the quote goes "Good artists copy, great artists steal." I'm not saying that you'll steal all of your colleagues ideas, but you will find inspiration from them. I'll give you two examples from my own group experiences.
First is my favorite poem that I've written. A fellow student back when I was in a group editing style class wrote two poems that didn't work within a week. One was about being awake at 3 am, which was supposed to be about being unable to sleep but didn't go far enough. The other was a poem about the Mariana trench. In those two failures though, I found that the second idea was meant to be combined with the first! I combined the two ideas, put them in my own language, and wrote a poem about how the it feels like you're descending into the Mariana trench when you're deeply tired but can't sleep.
The second example is the novel I'm writing. It began as a short story long ago that went into the folder of unsuccessful ideas and just stewed there. Up until one of the members in my writing groups started presenting chapters of the novel he was writing. Now, there was no similarity in the ideas. His is a satire on religion, mine is about a tree that defies the laws of reality. But in going to that group week after week and helping to edit one novel, I found my inspiration to write my own. And now, as it nears completion, I know I never would have gotten so far if not for the group.
Much as with any other art, practice makes perfect. However, we have few ways to practice our craft in the way that a musician can hear what doesn't fit in a composition or an artist may see where the colors don't blend. Sure, while writing you can see your spelling/grammatical errors, but how can you tell when stylistically you're off? How do you practice editing?
There's certainly some strange ways. Hunter S. Thompson retyped A Farewell to Arms (I believe) and The Great Gatsby before he set out to do his own writing. I'm not suggesting everyone do this, but a good exercise as writers is to think how we might change the books we read to satisfy our own style and expectations (steer clear of Twilight though, it'll make you hate yourself.) But this can only push you so much.
Part of being in a writing group is that you are also helping edit other peoples writing. After all, you can't expect other writers to give your writing the attention it deserves if you aren't willing to do the same (this is one of the things to watch out for when searching for a writing group and one I'll talk about next week.) By practicing our editing of other peoples work, we'll find that our critical eye for our own work will be better tuned to notice the finer details. This doesn't mean that you will eventually run through your need for a writing group. In fact, the opposite. If your group progresses the same as you, you'll find that your works begin improving all the better and you as a group are able to focus on fine tuning pieces instead of overhauling.
I didn't start writing until I was in college and was in writing courses. I read a whole lot, but as far as writing goes, I never went past the terrible poetry that high schoolers are oft to write and oft to assume is the most poignant writing to grace the page (but is the type of melodrama that makes you gag years later when you read it again.) However when I entered into a poetry course that had me writing at least one poem every week I started producing dozens a week, forcing myself to write and write and write some more. Then I graduated.
And for a year...I wrote a poem or five.
Now, there were a lot of other reasons behind my ignoring my writing, but we won't get into that. Instead we'll focus on what happened after I happened to get invited into a writing group after presenting a poem to a Renaissance Literature class. I started writing again. I started producing on the level I had been in my college course. And I started doing something I'd never done before. Editing.
Whether you find a group that meets weekly, monthly, or however often they'd like, having that knowledge that you should have something for a specific day will push you to make sure you have something written for that day. It will push you to edit to present quality pieces to your group. If you're competitive like me, it will push you to try to go beyond your own levels so that you impress your colleagues.
You see what I'm getting at here. A writing group will drive you. If you already had the drive you may find that it pushes you in different directions. But it is far easier to be motivated with others than to motivate yourself.
This one should be obvious but I find that it is often an overlooked element of the group. This part I can't talk technical truths because most of the advantages will depend on the composition of the group. I can only tell you what I've experienced in my own group.
The members of my writing group have become more than just fellow writers. They're business partners now, as we venture into running an E-zine. They're co-workers as we prepare for our trek to the AWP conference in March. They're the people that I trust to be references for me as I venture into getting a job. They're the people I trust to help edit my writing.
And they're my friends.
I know some groups will meet for dinner and editing. However the group I'm a part of has tried that and realized it's better not to mix business and pleasure. It is my advice that you edit first and then eat. Otherwise you're generally more focused on eating than editing.
But if you find a truly great group of writers than the best advice I can give you is to sometimes meet and don't discuss writing at all! Myself and the members of my group meet for lunch. We go to each others parties. We're honored guests at each others weddings. We are a group but we are also extremely close friends. Which helps us in the writing aspect of our group because we are comfortable enough with each other to propose radical changes, put forward extreme ideas, and argue until our faces turn blue. And I don't mean with the person who wrote the piece!
If you payed attention last week, the friendship aspect of the group shouldn't be that surprising. Those great writing groups of the past I talked about? They were more than just writing groups. They were circles of friends.
So there you have it. There's certainly more reasons that you could think of for why to join a writing group, but those are my five most important. But it's not all sunshine and rainbows. Next week I'll discuss some of the reasons why a writing group might not be working out and how you can help yourself solve those issues.
David is one of the founders and editors of Obsession Literary Magazine and the maintainer of Obsession's blog.