Working with a Writing Group

The trick to working with a writing group is interpreting it–you have to know what people really mean, and you have to know how that translates into actual changes you should or should not make to your story. Let’s consider, for example, that your writing group is similar to mine: you meet once a week, you read each one chapter from each person, and you give comments. We actually read our chapter submissions beforehand, so we’re ready to go when we get there, but I know some other groups do it differently. To each his own. The important part, for our purposes today, is that at some point somebody’s going to say something bad about your work, and you need to figure out what they mean.

“I don’t understand this character’s motivations.”

Ouch. That hurts. Don’t worry, we all know that it hurts–even published authors, content with our place in humanity and firm in the knowledge that everything we touch turns to Shakespeare, still feel bad when people critique our stuff. That’s actually one of the biggest benefits of a writing group, I think: they help you develop the thick skin you’ll eventually need when agents reject you, editors demand sweeping changes, and readers deride you for ripping off Dexter. (Note: one or more of the statements in the previous sentence may apply to me.) Once you’ve dealt with the emotional kidney punch of knowing that someone finds a fault in your writing, take a second look at what they said: “I don’t understand your character’s motivations.”

That could mean a lot of things. “Your character’s motivations are poorly explained.” “Your character’s motivations were improperly established in a previous chapter, so this chapter doesn’t work.” “Your character’s personality is completely different than what it was last time.” “We haven’t seen this character in so long, because we only read chapter a week, that I can’t remember if this character’s motivations are consistent or not.” “I was hungry when I read this, so I wasn’t really paying attention.” All of these and more are real and viable explanations for what they might really mean. How do you sort them out?

If you’re lucky, you can figure it out through a context born of long association. I’ve been in my writing group for years, with some of the same people off and on since college. I know that if one friend says she doesn’t understand a character’s motivations, it usually means that the plot arc is broken and she can’t tell where the story’s going. I know that if another friend says it, it’s because he doesn’t like the character very much and wishes his motivations were different–he literally can’t understand why anyone would be motivated in that way. That may seem like bad or poorly phrased advice, but it’s absolutely not–know what they mean, and how to interpret what they say, is some of the most valuable advice I get. It helps me know, for example, that the best way to fix that character might be to fix the plot surrounding him, or that certain segments of my audience will be turned off by a given character and I might want to soften or balance him with other traits or other characters.

Of course, if you don’t know your writing group people as well as that, you will need to ask questions. This is okay, as long as you don’t defend your work: let me repeat that in italics. Don’t defend your work. Yes, it may be true that if your readers understood where you were coming from or what you meant, they’d love that thing that they claim to hate, but let me assure you that explaining this to them is a) bad for writing group morale and b) missing the point. You don’t want defensive explanations because you don’t want arguments, and you don’t want verbal explanations because your book is written down on paper. That is how your audience will, knock on wood, eventually experience it. If a person in your writing group doesn’t get something, explaining it to them might help, but it will only help them, and everyone else who ever reads the book, ever, will still not get it. You need to put your explanations and fixes into the text, where everyone can read them, and then instead of justifying an error you’ve fixed one, and no one will ever have to worry about it again because they’ll all “get” it the first time through, and you’ll be a genius, and you’ll sell a million copies. See, your writing group is helping already. But yes, getting back to my original point in this paragraph, it’s good to ask your readers questions as long as you phrase them carefully and keep your passions out of it. A belligerent “What do you mean you didn’t understand his motivations?” is bad, but a humble “please tell me what you mean when you say you didn’t understand his motivations” is good.

Now, once you’ve figured out what your writing group means, you have to decide what you’re going to do about it. Person A thought your character’s motivations were poorly presented, which ruined his ability to empathize with that character. Does that mean you go back to the beginning and start from scratch? Does that mean you go back to the beginning and edit his inner dialogue? Does that mean you change his motivations altogether? What do you do, and when do you do it? The only way I can answer this is by telling you what I do, so here it is:

1) I politely write everything down, even if I think it’s dumb. (Dear person in my writing group who’s reading this right now: of course I don’t mean you.)
2) I ignore any big changes and continue writing my book the way I want to. I’m usually about ten to fifteen chapters ahead of my writing group, and I don’t want to fix half of a book, so I save their comments for draft two.
3) When I finish the full manuscript, I send it out to other readers who can read it under different circumstances (all at once instead of week by week, alone instead of in a group, etc.).
4) When I have a lot of feedback from a wide range of sources, I consider it all carefully and try to figure out what it means.
5) I read through the book again, trying to see it with fresh eyes, keeping an eye out for the things that bothered my readers.
6) I decide which comments are valid, which are outliers, and come up with strategies to fix the valid stuff.
7) I do a new draft of the book, editing and/or completely rewriting as I go, taking into account the various strategies I’ve created to deal with the problems.
8) Steal all the underpants in the world.
9) Profit!

Sometimes I will hear a comment in writing group and think “you’re absolutely right, I’ll start doing that right now as I right the rest of the book,” but more often than not I try to wait for draft 2, and then drat 3, to let each book be it’s own thing instead of a gruesome patchwork of problems and solutions. Taking time to stop and figure out exactly what my writing group feedback actually means, and how best to solve the problems they point out, helps me be a much better writer and makes my drafts successively cleaner and stronger.

Now: it is the weekend. Go outside and play.

7 Responses to “Working with a Writing Group”

  1. Jaime Theler says:

    Thanks for this post, Dan. Great advice!

  2. Christy says:

    As I write I get bogged down if I try to go back and edit every little thing that occurs to or is suggested to me. Great advice to save it for a seperate draft!

  3. Greg Heegn says:

    Dan,

    Great post! Working in a writing group is mostly detective work mixed with a psychological study of people. Once you are able to understand people within the group, then you can start to question their issues with your writing.

    In my writing group we share short stories, chapters of novellas, and scripts. (Yeah, we cover a lot of things!) All of the feedback provided gets used in different ways, and it also depends on the person providing feedback.

    After reading this post, I will do a better job of making sure my feedback is understandable and helpful to the writer!

  4. Rose says:

    Excellent post, thank you for sharing it. :)

  5. Hannah says:

    How uncanny – just yesterday I was reading a friend’s draft. One of their characters (an author) enters the scene to choose a person to write about. He’s only there for a minute, doesn’t need any specific person, and really needs to be somewhere else. So I asked: Why didn’t he just pick one over the phone if he doesn’t care that much?

    The conversation ended with my friend telling me that I think too much and that’s why it’s annoying to watch movies with me.
    The moral: Don’t sk for criticism if you can’t take it.

  6. Guerry Semones says:

    Glad you typed it up again! Thanks!

  7. Brian says:

    I cannot tell you how irritating it is when an author argues with me when I’m giving them my critique. When *I’m* getting the critique, I don’t say a damn thing unless I’m asking questions to further understand the critiques I’m being given. Otherwise, I learn so much more listening to the other members of my group discuss my work and answer each other’s questions as if I’m not there. It lets me know exactly what they think about things and the impact it had on them. Or, sometimes, I realize they took a different interpretation of something than what I meant. If you explain your work instead of just listening, you’re going to miss out on those valuable insights.

Leave a Reply