Writing Groups: Do They Help?

The Iowa Summer Writing Festival 2011

Writing is not easy.  Period.  It’s communication, entertainment, self-expression, and we do it alone while sitting at a computer, typewriter, or pad of paper.  When people read what we wrote, they can have a variety of reactions, which may not be what we expected, or were hoping for.  The struggle continues, and we rewrite.  At some point, we hope to publish our work and call it finished, though the road to the finish line may be long and uphill. 

Years ago, I attended the University of Iowa’s Summer Writing Festival.  The University of Iowa at Iowa City is home to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, one of the most prestigious MFA writing programs in the country.  One of the instructors that summer was W. P. Kinsella, author of Shoeless Joe, which was filmed as Field of Dreams.  Kinsella said that most beginning writers already believe they can write well, but they do not realize that it takes time to develop writing skills that will lead them to a successful novel or screenplay.  He recommended that anyone who wants to be a writer read the kind of literature they hope to write, and become familiar with what is currently being done.  He also said that every aspiring writer must do their seat time in the chair every day and write something. 

I attended the Iowa Summer Writing Festival twice, and each time it was a good experience.  Workshop sessions were held to a maximum of twelve participants, who were all required to bring something they wrote, like a novel chapter, short story, essay, or set of poems, depending on what type of workshop it was.  Critique was done round-robin fashion, with each participant given equal time to voice their praise and suggestions for improvement.  The instructor was always a published, working writer, who acted as moderator, policing the group so that everyone gets to speak, and all comments stay friendly, but firm.  The one whose work was being critiqued had to stay silent throughout the session, and could only comment at the end.  He or she was not allowed to defend or make excuses for his or her work.  The instructor at times guided the critique process by asking follow up questions, or offering additional comments. 

Besides oral comments, participants were required to write out comments to give to the writer.  After attending two different sessions, two different years—one was a short story workshop, and the other a novel workshop—I looked through all of the written comments, as well as my own notes taken during the grilling sessions, and concluded that not all comments were worth heeding.  Some even contradicted each other.  Individuals have different tastes and different amounts of experience when it comes to being an active reader.  I tended to pay more attention to comments that agreed on certain points—consensus carries more strength.  I also paid more attention to the remarks of the instructor, as he or she had the most experience writing fiction.  One was Tom Barbash, and the other was Sands Hall

Many writing critique groups exist out there, and not all are created equal.  I tend to look for ones that follow the model used at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival—where discussion is moderated so that everyone gets a fair chance to comment.  In a classroom or workshop situation, results tend to be better, as participants pay to be there, and the moderator is an experienced writer.  In the average writing group, not everyone puts in the required time to read the works up for discussion thoroughly.  Attendance can be spotty, too.  On a night when your work is up for discussion, it might just happen that attendance will be low, and therefore you end up with less feedback.  Some participants dominate discussion, while others remain mostly silent.  Some participants are biased in their opinions.  The writer must then sort through the feedback, and consider what to heed, and what to ignore.  I think that sometimes writing groups do more harm than good, as a writer might come away thinking his or her work is crap when it isn’t, or think that the work is brilliant when it isn’t. 

All writers need constructive criticism, though not everyone is well equipped to give it.  My best advice is to get a solid foundation in college level composition and creative writing, and take some literature classes to be exposed to the classics, and techniques in how to be an attentive, thoughtful reader.  Then, read everything you can get your hands on of the type of writing you wish to write.  If you want to write a detective novel, then read all the detective novels you possibly can, especially ones that are recent—those will give you an idea of what’s being done right now.  Writers are readers.  Well, the good ones are.

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