Friday, March 6, 2020

Benefits of a Writing Group or Writing Partner--How They Can Improve Your Writing (and What to Watch Out For)

Some writers create in a vacuum.  But most artistic types need human contact, if only for reality checks.  Writing groups and writing partners have been a foundation for my creative life for decades.  If you don't belong to such a collaboration, consider it!  It's nearly impossible to make serious headway as a writer without constructive feedback.

This morning, I met with one group of collaborators--all published, all dedicated in our different genres.  We meet by conference call once a month and two of the four writers workshop their essays or chapters.  The writer stays in the "writing box" during the call, taking notes and keeping silent, while the three others share feedback on the piece, read before the meeting.  I always come away with much to ponder, excellent ideas for improvement, and vast encouragement.

Since this monthly gathering is not enough for the pace I keep with my current novel revisions, I also share writing with a writing partner, who lives across the country and is also working on her second novel.  Sometimes, when we are both writing furiously, we'll exchange a chapter a week; usually it's every other week.  She sends me feedback in Word tracking notes.  Always encouraging, always worthwhile.

I've been part of writing groups for thirty years or more; in the early days in my writing career, I mostly gathered to write.  I remember the Thursday Night Writers in Minneapolis, when I lived there, spent an evening together once a week.  We each wrote during the first hour, broke for snacks, then shared our writing aloud.  Feedback was encouraging, not critical.  Another group I belonged to met at a local coffee shop monthly.  We'd read each others' pieces ahead of time and bring notes to discuss--all were aiming towards publication so the comments were more in-depth.  I belonged at that time to an online group as well, four women writers who'd met in an online class and liked the comments they'd received from each other.  
All this history is just to show how varied writing groups can be.  Some are purely for momentum, to get butt in chair and write.  Feedback is gentle and encouraging, again to keep the writer writing.  The further you go in your writing craft, though, the more you may want more critical comments, the ones that may make you pause and consider changes, large or small.  Those types of groups or partnerships are beneficial for writers wanting to publish.

A third kind of group is purely for accountability.  No writing is shared; you just report in on what you've done that week.  These work well for writers who need external accountability, someone who cares and waits for you to check in. 

What to watch out for:  I've been lucky.  None of my partnerships or groups have devastated me or caused me to stop writing.  Some have dissolved on their own--one or more of the group publishes and needs a break, or someone stops writing and the feedback feels uneven (all give, no take).  But I always test out a group before committing.  A phone call with the members, an in-person meeting, to observe the dynamics.  Does one person dominate, have to be right?  Does everyone seem invested in their own writing enough to meet deadlines?  You take your best impression and decide, then wait to see how the group evolves.

Follow the golden rule of writing groups as well:  what you give out comes back to you.  If you give your best in your feedback, you should get the same from the group.  If not, look elsewhere.  Generosity across the board counts.

Another item to consider:  Mixed genres or same?  I find myself at home in groups that focus on fiction and memoir (either short or long form).  Writers working on poetry or prescriptive nonfiction (like how-to books) deserve their own genre, in my experience--the feedback can be different.  It's great to share with writers exclusively in your genre, but that shouldn't be a deal breaker.  

Finally, consider experience.  When I was new to writing, I needed to be with other newbies.  After I published a little, it was helpful to find writers who also had that track record.  It all has to do with the type of feedback, and my newbie self was tender and needed more encouraging words.  I still appreciate those from my current groups but I count on them to deliver the harsher reality as well. 

The hard stories I've heard about writing groups that failed all revolved around these considerations:  a dominating personality, varying levels of commitment or output, different levels of generosity or experience.  

Best way to find a writer's group or writing partner?  I've found almost all of mine through taking writing classes.  Online classes are especially great resources for meeting other writers.  You can also try online feedback forums such as Scribophile (here's an interesting article by one user).  Or check out this list of the ten best online writing communities from Writer's Digestmagazine.

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