Serious writers have something to say. It’s in the gut, the pores, the senses. It’s an itch that has to be scratched, a craving that only the written pages can fix. It’s also a paradox, because the writer’s life is essentially one of isolation. “Listen to Me!” comes scrawled across the forehead of every budding writer like the mark of Cain. It’s a shout, but more often a whisper, because uncertainty is part of the mix. Yet, feedback is necessary if a writer is to grow. A trusted friend or relative can sometimes fill the bill. But even if that person has objectivity and skill, affection tends to compromise honest judgment. Fortunately, there are many writers’ groups all over the country, all eager to welcome newcomers at every ability or skill.
But first, we need to distinguish a writer’s group from the more structured or professional organizations. Writer’s Conferences are held throughout the country, frequently in the summer. They range in size, price and sophistication and can include editors and agents who will talk with writers about their samples of work. They can include workshops that appeal to a broad range from aspiring beginners to those who have been published but need a wider range of outlets. Many are listed in the Writer’s Market or found on the Internet. There are also classes offered through Park Districts and Community Colleges, which may or may not encompass critiques or help in promoting one’s work. Many attendees come back year after year. Others might prefer to move from one to another, tasting different approaches.
A community writer’s group is a different animal. These members have come together in mutual need or desire, ranging from ten to forty plus. Membership can include a modest fee for expenses such as mail or site accommodation. Essentially self-help, it serves as intelligent and knowledgeable readers of one another’s work. Less intimidating than the Writer’s Conferences, they work informally to shore up confidence and help refine skills no matter at what level the writer happens to be. Obviously, the larger the group, the less individualization.
Fledgling groups find their own nesting place, such as a municipal community center, library or town hall. Places like a real estate office or a room in a retirement home have also been utilized, donated by management as their contribution to the arts. Weekday meetings will draw retirees or older women who have time to write, making the sessions rich and full. Evening meetings tend to be in public facilities, made up of a wide age range with most of the members following other pursuits during the day. There you might find fewer writing samples, but broader interests, reflecting the world in which they live. The evening groups I belonged to were also very social and went out afterward for coffee, a drink or a snack. Saturday meetings attract an even wider age range, including teenagers and older folks, underscoring that age is no determinant of creativity.
Some groups ask that manuscripts be brought in and distributed the previous session so that members can critique it at home, bringing it back with written comments. Others find this unwieldy, choosing to critique each manuscript right there on the spot because there is no guarantee that it will be back at the next meeting, especially during the bad weather. On the other hand, with less time pressure, the manuscript will get careful consideration. But a cold reading more accurately represents the reading public, hence provides a more realistic response. Your group may choose a combination, sending some manuscripts home, critiquing the rest immediately.
Critiquing, the business of a writer’s group, is an art. It involves offering advice while at the same time being encouraging. One form is to begin the critiquing process by distributing copies of the work to everyone in attendance. The work is then either read work aloud or read silently with members given time to write marginal comments on the manuscript, indicating strengths and places needing improvement, after which the meeting is opened for verbal comments that are honest, but never unkind, saying “I really like this image. It propels the mood,” or “You need to tighten up the dialogue here. It would sound better if…” It can point out a cliché or unintended double meaning and even a slip in grammar and punctuation. It can also make suggestions such as “Why don’t you give Suzy some saucy dialogue when she talks to John so the reader can see her as a more rounded character. Or have her fling herself out of the room with a parting shot like ‘If you think this is bad, wait until tomorrow…’.”
A word of caution. Every once in a while, really tough skinned people will come together and form their own group. There, it is not unusual to hear someone refer to a manuscript as “junk,” or use terms like “stupid” or “not worth my time.” This is not to say that such evaluations have no merit, and if you as a writer can benefit in such an atmosphere, more power you. But it has been my observation, as a writer and teacher, that most need a nurturing and caring atmosphere. So if you land in such a group and it’s not your style, look elsewhere. It’s okay to shop around because writers do think differently. Begin by calling the local library, park district, or Chamber of Commerce. Once connected, you’ll never walk alone.
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