Monday, October 15, 2007

The Value of the Writing Group

by Julia Buckley

I doubt I would ever have been published if it weren't for my writing group. We met in a writing class--several women who were serious about writing for publication. We were led by a professor of writing from Columbia University in Chicago. After that we kept meeting in members' homes to critique one another's work and to discuss the craft of writing. We've been together since 2000, although the group's numbers have ebbed and flowed with the various commitments of its members.

I joined the group because, although I was entirely willing to revise, I wasn't always certain what TO revise, and this, I felt, was a significant flaw. My fellow writers quickly made me aware that there are always things to tighten, to eliminate, to say more concisely or, sometimes, in more detail. The great thing about working with a group is that I have started to know, as I write, what the individual group members will say. "Martha will think this is too sentimental," I think as I write something. I realize that she would be right, and I take it out. Another time I'll think, "Cynthia will think my character is too self-aware, that she is showing off." So I'll tone the character's dialogue down. "Elizabeth will say this line is melodramatic, and that it interrupts the pacing of the story." Usually she's right, too.

The value of the group, aside from the friendships that have been a byproduct of our monthly meetings, is that I have now started to revise my work before the group even sees it. They've given me a valuable assessment tool that isn't only my interior monologue--which ceases to be reliable once I've read a book ten times and can no longer be objective--it's the voices of several experienced critics who stay with me and shape my decisions.

As a result of the group meetings, I feel more confident about my own writing, especially because my fellow writers can trace its growth. "Your writing is so much more assured now," Cynthia wrote on a recent manuscript.

This Friday I must face the group with a brand new manuscript. While I can sometimes predict their comments about details or style, I am never quite sure what they'll think of the overall product. I've been pleasantly surprised in some cases, bitterly disappointed in others. The disappointments are better learning opportunities, however. I'd much rather have the book torn to shreds by the group than have it rejected by a publisher, especially if there's a problem that is easily fixed.

The manuscripts have been delivered for reading, so there's no going back now. I await their critiques, and I am grateful for them.


Sandra Parshall said...

Crit groups can save you or destroy you -- everything depends on the individuals involved. And the dynamic you have today may not be what you'll have a year from now. When a group is working well, it's a fantastic help. When it's not working, all it gives you is frustration.

Julia Buckley said...

That's good to keep in mind--I take it you're speaking from experience?