Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Dark side of writing groups? Editor Lorraine Bodger has seen it...

HALLIE EPHRON: I've been in writing groups ever since I started writing fiction and for the most part found them enormously encouraging and helpful until about a year ago.

I'm no longer in one, so I was interested when freelance editor and writing coach Lorraine Bodger told me how she and writers she's worked with who've not found that the group experience made them better writers.

Lorraine, what are some of the problems writers encounter in writing groups?

LORRAINE BODGER: First let’s define an average writing group—is that possible?

The sort of group I hear about most often is one that comprises about eight writers who meet once a month for two to three hours, to present and comment on new or ongoing work. Not everyone presents work at every meeting, but designated presenters circulate their new pieces to all members ahead of time, and everyone is expected to read the work and be prepared to discuss it. In some groups work is read aloud; other groups just launch straight into the comment/crit/discussion part.

I’m going to go right out on a limb here: From my own experience in this kind of writers’ group and even more from what I’ve heard from the writers I’ve worked with, it seems that this approach may be standard—but it may not be optimum if you’re seriously trying to move your work forward.

HALLIE: Why do you think that is?

LORRAINE: For one (obvious) thing, if you’re in a largish group that meets only once a month, you’re not going to be presenting your work very frequently. If you’ve joined a group for the purpose of making progress, this could be a pretty slow pace.

For another thing, if you’ve joined a group of writers who are inexperienced at writing or at analyzing writing, you’re less likely to get help that’s truly helpful. It may be important for you to have the support of a group, but if the members can’t give you the kind of constructive input that sends you back to your computer bubbling with ideas for improving your work, how helpful is that?

Positive comments are important (and should be part of every critique), but incisive analysis of the work is equally important. That’s how you move forward—by feeling encouraged and by getting insight into problems you may not be aware of and by discussing possible solutions to those problems.

HALLIE EPHRON: How can you tell if your group is really helping your writing, and what are some of the 'tells' that it's not?

LORRAINE BODGER: That’s tricky. If you’ve never had the benefit of a read by a professional, you may not know the difference between “help” and “real help.”

A group of published writers will be more likely to give each other real help, simply because they’ve all been through the process of being edited; they’ve had the experience of being queried on matters of structure, character development, language, logic, voice, and so on. They’ve also had the experience of taking the editing suggestions, deciding if they’re appropriate, and then making changes in the work. Experienced writers internalize the lessons they learn, and they can address each other’s work effectively by using what they’ve learned.

What are the not-helping “tells”? You feel misunderstood, as if the person commenting doesn’t get what you’re trying to do and her comments aren’t appropriate to your work. You feel that the commenter has an ax to grind or is competitive with you. The questions you’re being asked and the comments you’re getting show that your readers haven’t read your work carefully. You feel as if your group is nit-picking instead of addressing larger, more important issues. And you may find yourself getting unhelpful or even damaging remarks from someone who just plain doesn’t like your work.

Let’s face it—how one person feels about another person’s work is very subjective; so-and-so’s subjective opinion of your work may temporarily lead you down the wrong path or may do real damage if you give it too much weight.

Of course, you’d also be wise to consider whether the fault is in the group—or in your work.

Which brings me to my favorite hobby-horse: Have your work read by an objective professional, to get some serious perspective on its merits and problems. A professional might be a private editor (like me and my colleagues), a published writer you happen to know, a teacher of creative writing. (It’s usually better not to go to your spouse, your sister, or your best friend for this sort of read; even if she’s a pro, she might not be objective about you.)

HALLIE: Tell us about the group you're leading.

LORRAINE: It's different from other groups in many ways. For starters, it wasn’t random in its formation: four highly motivated women came to me to invite me to lead their group. They were completely clear about their book projects and completely committed to doing the work, and they agreed to do whatever it took to accomplish their goals.

We meet every week (and it was murder to find a day and time that suited everyone—but we did) for two and a half hours, and we start on time. Each week two members submit work; we call it “being at bat.” (My job is strictly to lead; I don’t submit work.)

On the Sunday night before the Wednesday meeting, each batter e-mails roughly fifteen pages of new or rewritten work to everyone; it’s the nonbatters’ responsibility to read the work carefully and be prepared to discuss it in depth. We devote an hour to each batter, and we go around the circle giving each nonbatter (including me) about fifteen minutes to praise, comment, crit, and question. We try not to interrupt each other, though the batter is welcome to interrupt to ask questions or ask for clarification. We delve deeply and respectfully into the progress and problems of the current piece, and this process has become richer and more penetrating as we’ve become more intimate with each member’s work.

The remaining half hour (if we don’t run over) is mine. Or so I always claim. In my half hour I like to address writers’ issues: how to get going when you’re feeling resistant; finding and holding onto your voice; revealing too little, enough, or too much in memoir; what books you could be reading to enrich your work.

This group has been meeting for a year (with breaks for holidays and summer time-outs, of course), and the way they’ve bonded with each other (and with me, I admit) is thrilling. But the best news is that their work is getting better and better.

HALLIE: Thanks, Lorraine. I have to say, that sounds like a wonderful approach, and I'm not surprised that the writing is getting better.

Jungle Red readers: Have you been in a writing group that nurtured your writing or was toxic? In your experience, what makes the difference?


  1. Critique groups are tough because there's usually one or two people who just don't get it. Mean and/or stupid. You have to develop leather skin and learn to sort wheat from chaf. I like bringing the WIP to a professionally-run workshop at least once a year. (Roberta's is awesome). After my experience this year with Ms. Bodger, though, I can't imagine submitting a manuscript to my agent that Ms. B hasn't looked at. The story work was awesome, and Ms. B bumped my craft about five notches. I am a fan, Ms. B, and put me on the long waiting list for the next critique group you run. :-)

  2. Hallie
    My experience is similar to the comments in your interview. By the time I get to Seascape, the first chapters I submitted are no longer the "first". I have moved Chapter 11 to be the opening, ergo, some comments will no longer apply. Have had the input of experienced editor plus you four, and think it's hard to see the whole picture without good synopsis. Good editor can judge quality of "writing" pretty quickly. Individual help is the value of Seascape. Don't want to waste too much time critng stuff that's "gone". Left my weekly 8 person group as it moved too slowly and my fault is that I am an impatient sort. It's best to join a group with serious intent to publish. Best Ann

  3. I'm in an excellent writers group. We aim to meet weekly, but the rule is that we need a minimum of four attending with at least two ready to to read. So some weeks we don't have that quorum. Right now there are six active members, and all are published but one. This group has been going on for 10-15 years with some churn in membership. I've been a member for about three years.

    We don't circulate the work ahead of time, but hand it out just prior to reading it in the circle. Listeners mark up the copy and then we talk about the piece. We usually meet for two to two and a half hours (standard refreshments are Fritos and white wine...).

    The critique is super and has helped me immensely. Meeting weekly (in theory) has let me read through my entire book, scene by scene. The only thorn is the unpublished writer, who likes to ramble and pushes back against criticism. But he was there before me, so is grandfathered in (ha-ha pun, since he is a grandfather...).


  4. Jack--Thanks for the kind words. Delighted that you got so much out of our work together. Wish you lived closer so you could join the next group!

    Ann's comment is very interesting. And I don't think that her wishing for more action from a slow-moving group means that she's impatient...on the contrary, she's probably been very patient, right up to the point of diminishing returns.

    So intrigued to hear about Edith's group. Clearly it's working for her. I'd find it hard to read the work in group and comment on it without having time to digest and mull. But different strokes...

  5. I share Lorraine's views on writing groups and love her approach! I was in a group where I loved the 8 other women, but we met weekly and were expected to read 15 pages per person per week, plus submit our own new work. It became impossible for me and not enjoyable or productive as a result. I love the idea of focusing on 2 people's work for 2 hours each week - makes a LOT of sense!

  6. I was in a great group with 3 other writers. We met at the local library (who gave us a room for free!) every other week for 3-4 hours. each of us read at each meeting and everyone was expected to comment both verbally and on a copy of the pages. The one negative was that we all four wrote in different genres, so I think some of the finer points were missed. Overall, it was a very positive experience for two full years.
    I attended Seascape as well. It was super positive experience. I wish I could find a small mystery writers group.

  7. I agree about the help of a professional editor or published writer. After such a critique, I see my writing in a whole new light and I have new ideas on how to fix problems. Writing groups can be helpful and sometimes show what's not working. However, there's often a reader with an agenda outside critiquing writing and making it better. It takes time to sift through criticism that in the end has nothing to do with words on the page.

  8. I've gotten different results from a professional editor than from a writing group. And though differing opinions on what needs 'fixing' can be confusing, it's also enabling. I can say what do *I* think needs to be fixed and how.

    But a pro knows how to phrase the issue in terms of the writing. While one person might say, I found this part confusing, a pro can pinpoint why. Floating viewpoint. Disembodied dialogue. No sense of place. Under-choreographed action. Confusion has lots of sources, but a pro can tell you which thing has come undone.

    And a pro is not afraid to ask that really tough question about a story: So what?

  9. Nope, nope, nope. I applaud you, if you can make it work. And it's wonderful proof of the "there are no must-do's" in writing.

    Classes, yes. Workshops, yes. Editors, yes.

    Writing groups. no.

    But that's just me!

  10. I will leap to the defence of writing groups! The Glasgow Writing Group has been running for a long time, and is estbalished along the lines described, meeting fortnightly. Work is submitted in advance, and the writer listens to the comments before responding. This has helped me in writing (and critique) development, and to publish at least six short stories along with a recently completed novel which is at least off the slush pile, if no further yet! The key ingredients are a simple accessible routine, pre-reading of submissions, equal participation by all and a source of alcohol! Having said all that, groups can fragment or become over-organised or over-dominated too easily. It is good to have a mix of accomplished, journeyman and new writers in such a meeting as everyone can learn from each other. (the alcohol bit is partly in jest but it helps new participants exposing their work for the first time!)

  11. cttiger has put her finger on a very important point: if the writers in the group are working in too many different genres, it's hard for each writer to get relevant help. Writing a memoir requires a different kind of thinking from writing a novel or a YA. Of course there's some overlap, but I still think it's best to seek out members who are writing pretty much in the same genres.

    In the group I lead, three members are writing nonfiction about their lives, and the fourth is writing fiction--but it's fiction based on her life. So it works.

    Hallie's right: a pro should tell you what the problems are and why they're problems--and help you figure out how to fix them YOUR way.

    As for Hank, BRAVA! You know what you need. Go for it.

  12. Well, thank you, Lorraine. I've been writing for TV for more than 30 years. And with EVERY story, there are editors and producers and various others trying to change everything they possibly can.

    So the joy of being able to write on my own--with an eventual editor or two, of course--is wonderful. Right now, an editor is making marvelous suggestions for my next book, and I am incredibly grateful.

    I LOVE the editing process, and love revisions and changes and tweaking and reassessing. But I prefer to get there on my own.

  13. I don't do groups. After a lot of trial and error, I found an excellent critique partner. She's strong where I'm weak, and vice versa, so we find the goofs in the other's work. I'm published and was when we hooked up. She's getting there and will be published sooner than later. Additionally, we are "soul sisters" when it comes to brainstorming and plotting when we hit snags in the current WIPs. She is invaluable when I'm having to "plot ahead" on trilogies and series.

    I do help out with a monthly group through my RWA chapter though I seldom submit. I want an honest opinion and not "Oh this is sooooo good!" when I submit a section that is a problem. I want to figure out what's wrong with it, why it isn't working, rather than have my ego stroked. I don't become a stronger, better writer that way. And I warn people who ask me to critique their WIPs that I'm tough. I'll praise when something is done well. I'll offer suggestions when the plot gets bogged or doesn't seem to work. And I'll find the typos, POV shifts, and other craft weaknesses. Not everyone wants that. They are there for validation.

    When groups work, they're terrific. Too often, though, the various personalities and personal goals conflict. Me? I'll stick with my CP. We stay on the same wave length and that is invaluable!

  14. Thank you for giving us both sides of the issue. For those who have never worked with a writers group, I'd say try it and see if you like it.

  15. I'm a bit leery of critique groups. I attended a local Workshop Conference sponsored by a writers/critique group. They invited me to join, but I declined after discovering their methods.

    It is wise to be cautious in exposing your writing to outsiders. Know your critique group/partner well.

  16. To PJ: I agree. Try it and see if you like it. But you should probably make it clear when you join a group that you're just trying it out. Or you might make a commitment to go for 6 or 8 or 10 meetings, to be fair to the other members. Your work comes first, of course, but since there are other writers involved (who may be counting on you), it makes sense to let them know your intentions.

    To M.E.: I'm curious to know what methods that group employed and what you didn't like about them. ??

  17. I should add that my group is pretty much all mystery writers. That does help immensely.

    And, of course, echo how fabulous Seascape is!


  18. Having been in a writers group for twenty years that helped me through some pretty tough times, I'm going to strongly endorse writing groups.

    But I'll add that commitment from EVERYONE is key, and you also have to be willing to eject people who aren't working out. That's a tough thing to do, but it's critical. Some people can't take criticism and some people can't offer valuable critique.

    My group started out meeting weekly, went to bi-monthly and finally monthly. We started together inexperienced and we learned together and we all got published many times over.

    Another key, which Lorraine alluded to -- it's important that everyone is at the same level of experience. You can't jump into a writers group of professionals if you are just starting out.

  19. How would a newbie like me go about finding the quality group/partner that I need?

  20. I'm a big fan of writing groups, critique partners, and professional editing, though I've been through iterations that haven't worked.

    Nancy, I've found compatible people by taking classes. This gives you a good chance to meet other writers and see if you admire their stuff and connect with their feedback.

  21. Nancy, that's a toughie. First, it might depend a little on where you live--town or city. If you're in a town, put up a notice in your local library, asking if there are other writers out there who'd like to form a group. If there's a college nearby, same deal--in the English Dept. If you have access to writing classes, take one--and see who turns up; you might be able to form a group out of the people you meet there. Or you could ask the instructor if she knows some writers who want to try a group. In a city, there might be groups or classes attached to a community center or, again, there might be classes to take to get you started in finding a writing community.

    Anyone else have some ideas for Nancy?

  22. Thanks! I'm in Houston, so I'm sure there are opportunities around, but I wasn't sure how to tap into them. I will look into classes.

  23. I have a writer's group (Writers on Words, or WoW)--couldn't find one, so I began my own. It's wonderful! We meet twice a month, for two hours. Half the members are published, half are not. Each person seems to have a "gift" or area where their critique is particularly strong (our POV guy is amazing). We got quite lucky; it began with me and a (published) friend, and then we advertised via the New Hampshire Writer's Project and found four more members. We don't read ahead--the author reads aloud, and then we critique. It really works for us! I will say, it can be challenging being the only mystery/cozy member, but we're working through it.

  24. Hallie,

    I'm so sorry I missed this post yesterday. It's such a terrific topic! I've been in my share of toxic writing groups and I found this post very enlightening. In my experience, many groups can be a little of both -- inspiring and hurtful to your progress.

    -Bob D.

  25. I run a memoir writing class that meets every week for eight sessions. I draw up a schedule of who presents when, we get the pieces beforehand, then they are read aloud and we critique. Works well in that I can see some of the women's work (we don't invite men--too personal) shaping up into a cohesive whole. I do a written critique of each one after class. We do potluck wine and goodies, and the group has really become quite close. Wonderful experience. As the leader, I don't contribute writing unless the well is running dry.

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