Sunday, November 28, 2010

Writing groups

Although there is now an increasing number of writing courses and qualifications available to aspiring and emerging writers – not of all of which offer value for money, but that’s another post – the humble writers’ group is still an effective, and much cheaper, way of improving and developing as a writer. Most groups I’m aware of provide a mixture of support and feedback, while a more limted number focus only on support or concentrate on giving and receiving more rigorous critique.

My own experience of writing groups has been, in the main, very positive – I’ve received invaluable insight from others who have given up precious writing time to read and comment on my drafts, and if (to paraphrase Oscar Wilde) I received good advice I couldn’t possibly use, I most certainly passed it on to someone else, hopefully without undue haste.

As well as the privilege of having others pay attention to your work, there is also the opportunity of learning how to give feedback to others, and the realisation that by closely reading and critiquing another’s work your understanding of your own strengths and weakness as a writer expands.

At best, writing groups provide a sense of community, insight and critique, the opportunity to develop your voice and present your work to a first, supportive audience. And having an audience, no matter how small, who takes you seriously, is not something to be sneezed at.

However, the essence of writing groups – the fact that they are a voluntary group of peers - can also be a potential pitfall. While group members obviously all have areas of competence and strength, without input from writers with more experience, insight and technical expertise it is easy to get either too comfortable – we all like each other’s work and don’t really want to change anything - or to get buried by feedback that is ill informed or just plain wrong in a technical sense. Ineffective feedback is often an issue of not possessing the right (technical) language, or of not having the confidence to use that language to express intuitions, feelings or opinions; and there is the fear that the other person will not understand (or be hurt) by what you are trying to say.

So, writing groups have always presented me with a dilemma: I love the sense of equality and community , the give and take of feedback, the conversations not just about writing but about what it means to be a reader; but I’m also aware that I, and others, often flounder when it comes to giving feedback on the technical or craft aspects of writing. And it seems to me that these are the very areas we all struggle with and want to get better at, and the mastery of which has the potential to make us more successful, even great, writers.
It would be interesting to hear about other people’s experience of being in writing groups – what your focus is, what has worked for you, what issues or dilemmas you’ve faced, how you organise yourselves, what you have, or would most like to achieve. Feel free to comment or to use the community page to post information about your group.

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