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Writer Groups - More Harm Than Good?


DISCLAIMER:
if you believe you are part of a fruitful writer group, Godspeed you. Most likely you are not, but it's a social distraction at least. Regardless, please consider the information below as being useful for reality checking your situation both now and in the future. If any of this rings true for you, you are advised to beware, especially if you are serious about writing a publishable novel.

"Traditional critique groups are looking at a work the size of a skyscraper with a magnifying glass. They lack the perceptual distance to see flaws."

Before we read my own dark, embittered opinion (just kidding) on the many downsides to writer groups, let's watch a video, then include a few reviews on this topic.

Reviews of Sites Discussing Writer Groups - Inherent Fallacies

A writer site which shall remain anonymous due to the fact I utterly disagree with their criteria for judging any given writer group as beneficial, shall now be examined. According to them, the following five "qualities" must exist in order to judge any particular writer group helpful. As I note each category, I will also ( .. ) the fallacies inherent in each:

1. Constructive Feedback
(Amateur writers by definition cannot possibly know, under most circumstances, whether or not any advice concerning any element of their writing or story is valid in the first place. The chances of the advice being counterproductive are high, especially when a groupthink circumstance takes place. Also, studies prove that humans are far more likely to accept "critique" when it flatters them or corroborates what they wish to believe about themselves or their creations.)

2. Positivity
(What does this really mean anyway? At what point does advice become "negative"? Who decides? What are the group politics that define this term? Hearing the productive truth should set the bar, not what sounds or appears to be arbitrarily "positive." I can just hear one of the more erudite group members saying, "Now, Amelia, that's really not a positive way to look at Dan's work, is it?")
Overall though, between being "positive" and wallowing in "chemistry," the writer group has beached itself on the Hopeless Coast.
3. Big and Small Picture Comments
(Let's go back to number one above. The same logic holds. Additionally, the very act of dichotomizing the interweaving complexities of novel development into "big and small picture" is itself maddeningly arbitrary and functionally useless.) 

4. Thick Skin
(Yes, by all means, we know this subject well. Avoid narcissist contamination by all means necessary. Still, thick skin presence does nothing to balance out the risks and downsides.)

5. Chemistry
(I understand what the author of this review of writer groups means, however, "chemistry" is yet another way of creating more risk. The more chummy the group, the less likely as a whole they will be to deliver that one "negative" comment (presuming it is also correct) once every few months that might actually do a bit of good. Overall though, between being "positive" and wallowing in "chemistry" the writer group has beached itself on the Hopeless Coast.)


Review Number Two - The Slow Boiling Frog Effect

This piece consists of a writer group review by a writer who seems to have plenty of experience with such groups. He loves Facebook as a source for finding groups. He goes on to name four different kinds of destructive writer group personalities (see our BAD EGG list below); however, his overall vision of writer groups is one of helpfulness and community. He fails to recognize the inherent shortcomings and risks in receiving potentially damaging advice when it comes to novel development and writing. My viewpoint on this is adequately expressed in the five points above.

I know this fellow means well, but his viewpoint is almost childlike. He will Pied Piper others into sanguinely tailing along with a writer group on Facebook, or wherever, until one day they either wake up or cross the line into seeing the group as an end in itself. At least the slow-boiling frog effect will comfort them.


Review Number Three - No Escaping Rank Beginners

I love the title of this one on Quora.Com: "How to find a creative writing group which isn't full of painfully bad writers?" Brooke McIntyre, Founder of Inked Voices, leads off by providing generic and maternal guidance on finding writer groups. Other members of Quora follow suit. None are critical of the writer group concept in the first place. They all seem to hold the belief that the significant risks the aspiring author faces in the midst of amateur group dynamics swirling with ill-formed opinions just don't exist, or at least not enough to matter. 
They all seem to hold the belief that the significant risks the aspiring author faces in the midst of amateur group dynamics swirling with ill-formed opinions just don't exist, or at least not enough to matter.
They recommend writing classes with competent instructors. Nothing wrong there, however, they fail to provide any kind of real litmus test for choosing one group over another other than to note being in one with similar genre interests might be helpful. But what about the credentials of people in the group? Publications? Reputations? The odds of hearing a bit of useful advice are increased in proportion to the quality of the members, especially if they're professionals (but how rare is that?). Unfortunately, the overwhelming mass of writer groups in their thousands, meeting at homes and in coffee houses all over the country, are filled with rank beginners (btw, who can still qualify as beginners after ten or more years). 

God bless them, they don't know what they don't know.


The Author's Review

For many years I've realized the futility of obtaining useful and project-evolving advice from the average writer group. In consideration of this epiphany, I recommend that writers limit any given writer group to a critique of prose narrative, and seek response in defined categories (e.g., clarity, imagery, dialogue, originality, pacing). Assuming the group members as a whole are reasonably intelligent, non-axe grinding, non-narcissistic, non-mentally ill people (and don't include the SIX BAD EGG TYPES below) as well as avid readers of your specific genre, they should, in theory, be able to provide a measure of helpful feedback to you regarding your narrative. Regardless, you must look for commonalities, and not take everything at face value. 

At some future point, a dedicated novel writer should seek advice from a professional. Why? Because the professional can provide nuanced advice on proper narrative composition, openings, novel hooks, etc. that are beyond the reach of the standard writer group. Substantially better advice comes from successful acquisition editors or literary agents who have been in the business for many years. Their ability, honed by experience in the ms submission trenches, and via immersing in their chosen genres, outweighs the opinions of of even published authors who can only speak from a limited frame of reference. 


In a recent Algonkian workshop, for example, an invited author recommended to one of the attendees that she start her novel in a car. Unknown to the author, this was terrible advice. Yes, terrible. Each year, thousands of new writers start their novels in cars. It's a running joke with agents, and I can't think of a better way to get an instant rejection than by starting a novel in a car. Even more ridiculous circumstances are created by money hungry colleges that match academic-trained literary authors as instructors with student genre writers. 
In a recent Algonkian workshop, for example, an invited author recommended to one of the attendees that she start her novel in a car. Unknown to the author, this was terrible advice. Yes, terrible.
A good example of this is the Stanford Online Certificate Program ($7000+ for six courses). Not only will the writers get highly questionable advice from non-professional instructors not in their genre, but they will pay through the nose for the privilege (while also receiving online "critique" from a group of non-professional writers, many or most of whom are also not in their genre). 


From "Why Critique Groups MUST DIE":
Also, editing is best done on a keyboard, or with a red pen. Not out loud in a social group, where peer pressure and weird dynamics can screw up a draft in two seconds flat.


YOU MAY NOT KNOW THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN "HELP" AND REAL HELP. 

Consider. Would you try to build a livable and quite stylish home on your own without an architect and a professional home builder simply because you had the ability to hammer a few boards together with nails? Of course not. You would acquire the expertise and skills before you began. And yet, new writers approach the creation of a thing equally or more complex, such as the writing of a competitive commercial novel, in the belief they can do so because they have a story idea, can type words on a page, and have read a few magazines about writing. They consult with other new writers as ignorant as themselves and proceed to build a house called a novel, but one that will not risk their lives because fortunately for them, it is all on paper. 

Below are select and important views on writer groups culled from around the web. Naturally, we have chosen to keep the writers anon, cause it's safer for them. 

    I found myself reviewing all the reasons why I hate writing groups (screenwriting or otherwise). In a nutshell, I find them to be anything but helpful to writers. Most of the participants are bad writers to begin with and have no real experience or expertise to offer other writers. Members typically are unpublished or unproduced, unschooled in screenwriting craft themselves (that’s why they’re in a group), and they almost never know how to give constructive criticism (i.e., “make the Mercedes a pickup truck”). Input from group members usually falls into three categories: empty praise, vicious critiques, or banal suggestions. I also find that, over time, familiarity within the group between members begins to undermine any real advice that might be offered, as cliques form...

    _________

    I know I’m not in the majority when I recommend that you get involved with a writers’ group. Dean Koontz apparently loathes them, Harlan Ellison despises them, and I’ve read advice from dozens of other pros whose work I love and whose opinions I value who say writers’ groups will do everything from steal your soul to cause your writing to break out in pox. Nonetheless, I strongly recommend that you get involved with a good writers’ group when you’re getting started. I credit what I learned from my early groups (plus enormous amounts of hard work and persistence) with leading me to publication...

    _________

    I’m also uncomfortable with the group-think I’ve seen develop whereby one person says, “This really isn’t a mystery. You should recast it as a mainstream novel.” And pretty much everyone else keeps making the same criticism, adding their own twist on it, even though you know in your gut that they are absolutely wrong. Yet the pile up continues and you start to doubt yourself. Then afterwards when you ask one of them about it, the person will say, “Oh, well, I didn’t really think that. Not really. I mean it might help, but I doubt it. You probably just need to make it more of a psychological mystery, you know?”

    _________

    Once a week reading fifteen pages only cleans up shoddy prose. Traditional critique groups are looking at a work the size of a skyscraper with a magnifying glass. They lack the perceptual distance to see flaws. A novel can have perfect prose page to page and yet have catastrophic faults. In fact, I would venture to say that most writers are not rejected due to prose, but rather, they meet the slush pile because of tragic errors in structure. Traditional critique groups can tell you nothing about turning points or whether a scene fits properly. They lack the context to be able to discern if our hero has progressed sufficiently along his character arc by the mid-point of Act 2. They have zero ability to properly critique pacing, since pacing can only be judged in larger context...

    _________

    I know two writers who stopped writing for years because critique groups convinced them they do not nor ever had “what it takes” (though the one of them who’s resumed writing has more what it takes than I do.) I’ve known a half a dozen writers who became obsessed with whatever the particular bugga boo of their group was, like “Don’t mix latinate and anglo-saxon words” to the marked detriment of their prose. I know writers who continue writing stuff that obviously will never sell, not because it’s what they want to do, but because their group has convinced them anything else is selling out. In fact, I’ve known more harm than good caused by writers’ groups...


THE BAD EGG TYPES (from Ebooks4Writers.com)

Beware these types of writer group beings.

Bad Egg 1: The “expert”. Often this person joins a group that they perceive as “amateurs” and get their satisfaction from tearing everyone else’s work to shreds. They seem to have met plenty of editors and agents, and know intimate details of what they’re looking for – never what you’re writing though. When you pin them down, usually they either don’t write at all, or write badly and have never been published (or not anywhere that counts).

Bad Egg 2: The “mouse”. She or he sits quietly, smiles, makes the coffee, brings cake. Is always working on something too big to bring for critiquing right now. And is way too polite to actually comment constructively on anyone else’s work. You’d almost forget they were there … except they are and you wonder why.

Bad Egg 3: The “boss”. This is the person who wants the group to take minutes, to form a “society” of some kind, to have a timer so no one gets a second more than their allotted time. Oh, and s/he decides how much time you’ll get, with his/her calculator. The group ends up spending so much time on official trivia that critiquing falls by the wayside.

Bad Egg 4: The “needy one”. This person means well, but their need for reassurance and encouragement leads to everyone in the group feeling like they can no longer give honest critiques. And that tends to leak outwards so that critiques generally become softer, less realistic and less helpful.

Bad Egg 5: The “defender”. Even if your group has a rule (a common rule, by the way) that the person whose work is being critiqued is not allowed to respond until the end, this person will argue and defend every comment you make. They always have to explain why their character acts that way, or says those words, or what that gaping plot hole is for. This can lead to some awful scenes all round!

Bad Egg 6: The “mentally ill”. Sadly, occasionally you will see this person in a writing group. When they are honest about their condition, it’s usually fine and the group can help. But often they refuse to acknowledge they have a problem, and can blow a writing group apart with their behaviour. I’ve experienced this personally, and we were lucky to save our group (and had to ask the person to leave).


Comments

  1. Well said; every piece of this is 100% true! The great difficulty of the creative writing profession is that it's impossible to know what you don't know. This is why seeking out expert help early on is so imperative. Make sure you're getting the best possible advice and don't fall for the con jobs. Thanks for the great article Michael!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Here is an interesting piece on toxic writer groups. A step up!

    https://www.rachel-nightingale.info/2017/toxic-writers-groups/

    ReplyDelete
  3. Reading this makes me extra grateful for my critique group, which is comprised of successfully published authors, one who is even a National Book Award finalist. Another just had her book turned into a TV movie. No bad eggs! We are friends, mentally stable, helpful, and wise. It IS possible! And it makes the writing journey, which is challenging for all of us, more rewarding. We celebrate our victories and comfort each other in the hard times. We've been together for about 15 years. I truly can't imagine being a writer without them. That said, I've been in bad critique groups, and oh boy, what a waste of time!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's good you are in a group that is obviously in orbit compared to the average amateur writer group, however, the single best mentors are those authors who have also been professional editors or even agents. Why? Because editors understand the many nuances of their genres and publishing realities better than authors.

      Regardless of occasional success (which is fleeting), authors are far more stove-piped in their viewpoint. Publication alone or a TV contract doesn't give license to be all-knowing when it comes to helping others with totally different projects become published. It just means there is less chance of them providing counterproductive advice. One of the WORST bits of advice in a workshop I was running came from a published literary author who told a writer to start her novel in a car--an automatic rejection by agents. Thousands of novels start in cars every year. The author couldn't have possibly known.

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  4. This article was very thought provoking. As a person who has participated in several writers’ groups in the past, I can attest to the fact that I have experienced similar challenges and, on more than one occasion, left the group discouraged.

    In one situation, the group I participated in teetered perilously between obscurely defined objectives and overly strong convictions of what needed to be accomplished within the group. The facilitator appeared frustrated and powerless with emerging dynamics. After several weeks of trying to overlook some of the inherent challenges, I remember feeling quite disappointed. The facilitator reached out to me, personally, because she felt I was being unfairly targeted by two individuals within the group (who happened to be identical twin sisters). Despite her many efforts to create a more balanced and enjoyable learning environment, she never quite managed to do so. Many years later, I still feel a little bit of a sting from that experience.

    In another group, there was a lack of clarity, complications with divergent personality styles, and heavily dogmatic opinions that caused a lot of friction. Two members almost came to blows over a shared love interest they were trying to impress through their writing (this was in grad school, so these were real grown people). Ultimately, the group leader threatened to remove one of the more aggressive individuals.

    Since I have never really had what I would consider to be a favorable experience, I have been reluctant to seek out other writing groups--preferring instead to work independently.
    At this stage of my life, however, I am beginning to have a little bit of a shift in my perspective. It recently occurred to me that I would like to seek out a fresh opportunity to engage in a structured and more even-keeled group that incorporates a professional style of delivery that allows for the growth and advancement of each participant (wherever they happen to be in their career).

    Since those earlier days, I have grown immensely. Now, with a more developed understanding of what I am trying to accomplish with my own projects and a more solid understanding of the types of dynamics that can occur within a writer’s group, I believe I am better equipped to handle situational complexities. With a more mature mindset, I believe I can use “teachable moments” as fuel to further my work without the stress and emotionality that might have been triggers at earlier stages of my career.

    ReplyDelete

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