I recently wrote an Amazon customer review of Writing in Community: Say Goodbye to Writer’s Block and Transform Your Life, by Lucy Adkins and Becky Breed (BQB Publishing, 2013). Their book describes a specific type of writing group, a “generative” group, where certain conditions must be nurtured in order to foster the creative process in the service of inspiration and self-discovery. Think trust and safety. Attend to positive relationships among group members.
My experiences with writing groups have come within a different kind of group, a “critique” style of group, where completed drafts are presented for examination from various viewpoints, from grammar and punctuation to overall story concept. Here I will draw from Lucy and Becky’s excellent advice about their group and offer some ways their wisdom translates to another kind of group.
In forming a critique group, the accepted wisdom is to enlist members with a similar level of writing experience and talent. I think this is not as important as having a set of rules, a structure that all members feel comfortable following. I have benefitted from membership in a group that included members skilled in the technical aspects of writing and others who were great storytellers but considered grammar and punctuation as irritants at best. Each made contributions to my writing.
A complete description of rules is beyond this piece, but two concepts highlight the importance of the way in which members give and receive criticism. One fundamental rule is that criticism is offered as “take it or leave it.” The member receiving input is free to accept or decline. I was in one group where a member walked out in the middle of a session when his suggestions were not applauded as the only way to proceed.
The other vital issue is how one offers criticism. A few examples will suffice as the wrong way to give input: “That whole section is just one big information dump.” “I can give you a few examples of actually good writing so that you can fix that chapter.” And my favorite, “I’m not here to worry about people’s feelings; I’m here to make you a good writer.”
My overall point is that there are commonalities in all types of writing groups that will nurture or kill a group. These similarities are all about respect, trust, and safety. This wisdom also reflects the necessary reality expressed in a recent “motto” of the North Carolina Writers Network: no one writes alone.