Groups which gather regularly to encourage people in their writing, can sadly turn into something less than encouraging. Writing can be intimidating in the privacy of our own rooms. But when others are called together to point out the errors, shortcomings, weakness, or plain lameness of our writing, we all may cower.
I have found a few simple ground rules make this process more human and more constructive. When I lead groups, I essentially break the discussion of each piece of writing into two parts: (1) What worked? and (2) Where could it be improved?
Responses in both parts should be specific (an apt word choice or metaphor, an aspect of structure, a strong illustration, a good use of building drama, etc.). “Something I thought was strong was . . .” is a good way to begin.
Also, responses in both parts should be brief. No lectures, please. Aim for one or two minutes. Get in and get out.
Then in part two be positive by focusing how it might be improved rather than what was weak. The shift may be slight but it’s important. I encourage comments like, “I wonder if it could be made better by doing X.” Or, “Here’s something I wondered about…” Stick to “I” statements rather than “You” statements such as, “You were weak when…” which can feel like a personal attack.
A final key rule is this: Content is off limits. We don’t discuss whether we agree or disagree with a viewpoint, only whether a point is well expressed or well researched. We focus on the writing, not on the merit of the ideas. If someone wants to discuss content, go out for coffee or a beer afterward. This rule keeps the discussion and the group both focused and constructive.
Content is obviously an issue regarding nonfiction. It can also arise for fiction if the discussion moves to theme (which some may find problematic).
Certainly gray lines can appear when it comes to, for example, “Was the writing persuasively argued?” That can lead to comments like, “Well, I wasn’t persuaded because I think X.” Soon we are diving into the deep waters of content.
In such a case, I try to refocus the question: “Did the piece clearly and honestly reflect opposing viewpoints (i.e., not set up straw men)?” If so, we move on. If not, we encourage the writer to do better.
The purpose of writing groups, you see, is not to show how astute I am but to build others up in the challenging and rewarding work of creating good, true, and beautiful writing.
Photo credits: Pixabay–suju (sparrows); padrinan (pencils)