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Writing Groups Might Be Terrible

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…but you probably need one

Does this sound familiar?

You’re in the hot seat. Your scene is in the hands of five fellow writers, and it’s your turn to be critiqued.

“This whole page seems like a lot of throat-clearing to me,” Jack says.

“I’m sorry?” you say. “‘Throat clearing’? What does—”

Lucy, the group’s founder, hisses, “The author isn’t supposed to talk, remember”.

You subside. “Throat clearing” isn’t a technical writing term, so you have no idea what Jack means, but you make a note.

When Jack’s done calling out what he didn’t like in your chapter, he hands you his marked-up copy, and the next member of the critique group starts in. It’s Marveita. She’s the “praise sandwich” type. Always makes the effort to buffer her critical opinions with thin slices of compliment bread.

“Good word choice in line six on page three,” she says. “I don’t know what ‘encomium’ means. I had to look it up. And that brings me to the problem with this whole scene. Your sentences are too long.”

“It’s historical,” you whisper. Lucy shushes you again.

The rest of the writers critique your scene–Tanya by catching a couple of typos, Alec by arguing about transitive versus intransitive verbs–he’s sure you’ve misused one of them. Meng Meng likes your long sentences but can’t believe your main character would say that. “Something feels off,” he says, shrugging.

Charma loves everything you write and finds no fault at all.

Around the room you go. Proofreading and line-editing, praising pretty language, asking one author to tone down the swearing, another to amp up the erotica, a third to back off the political views.

“Don’t write like you write,” everyone seems to be saying. “Write like I write.”

What else can they do? They’ve all come here ostensibly to help their fellow writers, but really they all just want feedback–preferably positive–on their own work. They can’t help you write better; they can only express opinions.

As Neil Gaiman says, “Remember: When people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

Shawn Coyne has argued that there is no value in writing groups or critique groups. They’re just the blind leading the blind.

So why bother?

Writing is a lonely occupation.

Writing is solitary. Our work involves sitting alone at a desk in front of a page or a screen weaving tales entirely in our mind. Sure, we have to get out and live if we want ideas to bring to our stories. But if we want to be successful, we still have to dedicate a lot of our time to staring at the page, willing words to come.

And the more we stare at the words that have sprouted from the depths of our subconscious, the less clearly we can see them.  Our scenes and characters are so distinct in our own minds that we can fail to notice what we’ve left off the page. They’re so dear to us that we’re blind to the need to make cuts.  

We need feedback. Fresh eyes. We need encouragement. We need to feel like we aren’t so alone in our thoughts. So we join a writing group. What could be better than connecting with other writers who are also struggling?

While a writing group might help with minor, polishing-type problems, if the group doesn’t understand story structure, they can’t help you turn an early draft into a manuscript ready for submission. How could polishing the prose of a story that doesn’t work possibly help you as a writer?  

The Pros and Cons of Writing Groups

The typical writing group requires you to submit writing on a deadline, which can be helpful if you need external motivation to get your writing done. But it might also be stifling. If your work in progress isn’t yet fully fleshed-out, you’ll wind up being corrected on details that you already know you’ll be fixing in a later draft. And if you submit a highly polished scene from a novel that the group hasn’t read, what can they do but express their personal taste? They don’t know enough to comment on anything more substantive.

Typically these groups don’t let you explain your overall story, and often you’re not even allowed to talk. You have to sit there as people who may or may not be qualified rip your story apart based on how it felt to them.

That’s harsh. And rarely helpful. It makes you feel worthless. Your writing may not be half as bad as the group thinks it is, but if the mood of the group is negative that day, or they don’t understand what you’re trying to say, you’re likely to come away believing that what you thought was pretty good is the worst thing on the planet.

So much for connecting with other writers sharing in the struggle.

That type of group won’t take your draft the distance. It will probably leave you running circles in your own mind, confused about what even constitutes good writing.

You might decide instead to stay in your writing hole, avoiding the world altogether.

But it’s still important to get feedback.

The hard truth is that there’s a giant gap between what we write and what’s ready to be published. A typical writing or critique group won’t help you bridge that gap. A professional editor might, but hiring one to take you from rough draft to publishable novel will cost a lot of money.

“It’s a hard fact of the twenty-first-century book biz that the writer, for all intents and purposes, has to be her own editor. You and I are expected to deliver a Story that works, a manuscript that’s flawless, a book that’s ready for the printer.” –Steve Pressfield

So, what else is there? What can help you take your draft closer to finished than you can take it entirely on your own?

***

How about an editing group?

Once you’ve been introduced to the Story Grid method, you can see how futile it is to sit around and read other people’s submissions when neither you nor they have any idea what kind of story they’re writing. How can you assess the merit of a few pages of text if the author isn’t “allowed” to explain what they were going for, where it fits into a larger arc, which draft they’re on, what else they’ve tried?

What if, instead, everyone in your “critique” group was committed to becoming editors of their own work? What if your group was founded on Story Grid principles, and everyone in it agreed not to proofread, copy-edit, line-edit, or police style or content?

What if all you looked at was story structure?

What if it wasn’t a writing group at all, but an editing group?

That’s what SHEG, the Super Hardcore Editing Group model, is all about.

The model was designed by a couple of Story Grid fans, Anne Hawley and Sue Campbell. It’s been going strong for three years. Three of the four members–we call ourselves SHEGGARZ–have finished novels that they first ran through SHEG as early drafts. One is published, one is in the hands of an agent, and one is making the agent rounds.

Two of us—Anne Hawley [https://annehawley.net] and Rachelle Ramirez [http://rachelleramirez.com]—have since become Story Grid Certified Editors and one of us—Sue Campbell [https://suecampbellpdx.com]—has become a Certified Book Launch Coach. That’s how serious we are about taking our writing to the professional level.

So how does it work?

We submit by Tuesday night for a Friday morning meeting. We share our scenes with the group via Google Docs. If someone doesn’t have a scene to submit, they still read and leave comments on the other submissions, and commit to bringing their brain and ideas to the meeting.

We meet the following Friday morning via audio-only web conference. We’re in different cities, but even if we were all in the same place, web conferencing means no driving, no makeup, no serving of refreshments. Pajamas are okay.

Each member gets half an hour. During that time they can ask about the comments everyone has left, hash out story problems, explain what they’re trying to do, ask for moral support, whine about Resistance…whatever.

The author whose turn it is absolutely does not sit there and “take it.”  There’s a general discussion of the scene. We brainstorm for each other. When the half-hour is up, we move to the next member.

We start on time and we end on time.

We wind up the two-hour meeting with commitments for next time. We meet again two weeks later.

What makes the SHEG model so productive?

  • Rules: Yes, we have them. Everyone has read and agreed to the “SHEG Manifesto.” It’s reproduced below. If you want, you can make your own copy of the original here
  • Regularity: We meet every two weeks, same day and time. We encourage each other to write and submit SOMETHING for each meeting. We use the same online meeting “room” and the same document sharing platform every time.
  • Commitment: SHEG is a priority for all of us because writing better stories is a priority for all of us. We don’t cancel lightly. Only one member has dropped out in three years.
  • Agreed-on goals and methods: We’re not all 100% pure Story Grid nerds, but we agree on Story Grid principles as the basis of our work together. We read for story structure. We don’t line-edit, copy-edit, or proofread. (By the way, this makes reading each other’s submissions fast and efficient. No painful line-by-line discovery of missing close-quotes or comma splices.)
  • Diversity: Different ages, genders, time zones, cities, genres, and styles.
  • Basic writing attainment: We require members to have completed at least a rough draft of at least one novel. We don’t care whether it’s “good” or not. We’re here to help make it as good as it can be.

What’s surprisingly NOT important:

  • Similarity of skill, style, or genre. We don’t care. Some of us have been writing novels for years, some are newer to the craft. We’ve got Love stories both sweet and steamy. We’ve got Society, Status, and Action. We’ve even got a Western. Settings are super realistic, historical, fantastic, and absurd. Styles run from farce and comedy to literary meta. We’ve always got some Genre Still To Be Determined.

We leave personal taste and preferences at the door, and do our best to encounter every submission on its own story merits.

It’s okay to submit a rough, unfinished piece. Our fellow SHEGGARZ, with Story Grid principles in mind, know how to read it, because we understand what kind of story it’s a part of and where it fits. That’s because all of us are encouraged to share our outlining documents (Foolscap, spreadsheet, etc.) and our summaries, loglines, and blurbs.

And in return, our fellow SHEGGARZ know they can say, “I’m glimpsing a Worldview story here–is that what you’re going for?” or “Are you SURE this isn’t a love story?” or “What’s the force of antagonism?” or “I’m not clear on what this character needs.”

We never leave a SHEG-style meeting feeling shredded or silenced, because our work hasn’t been “critiqued.” It’s been thoughtfully and positively analyzed in a way that leaves us feeling charged, inspired, and lifted up.

***

Here are the Super Hardcore Editing Group’s principles and guidelines:

SHEG: Super Hardcore Editing Group

Helping each other do the hard work of writing better

Purpose

Apply structural analysis to our own and each other’s work in order to make good stories great, and great stories publishable.

We believe that

  • There’s a structure to good stories, and it’s not a secret. There’s no point reinventing the wheel: story structure has been demystified, and there are practical steps for nailing it.
  • We can learn those steps, apply those techniques, and WRITE BETTER STORIES.
  • Inspired writing happens in solitude, but editing it into a polished, marketable product is a group endeavor. This is that group.

We qualify for SHEG because

  • We’ve mastered the basics of prose: spelling, punctuation, grammar; sentence structure, style, point-of-view, etc.
  • We’ve read and absorbed one or more of the structural guides to story in the suggested reading list below.
  • We’ve completed a draft work of storytelling that’s now ready for structural editing, or, alternatively, we’ve started a new (but not first) work that we want to structure before we get too far into the writing.
  • We can offer at least a rough summary statement, genre, theme, premise, concept–something to let our fellow SHEGGARZ know what they’re working with.

We laugh in the face of geography by

  • Meeting regularly at an agreed-on time via voice web conference, and splitting any fees associated with the virtual meeting space.
  • Submitting work via Google Docs, permitting collaborative inline commenting.

We participate fully by

  • Submitting work to the group in an agreed-on format several days before each meeting. Work might include:
    • a full new scene or chapter
    • a revision of something previously submitted
    • an outline or other developmental document
    • a writing problem we’re struggling with that has prevented any of the above
  • Giving written comments on all other members’ submissions prior to the meeting. We’re allowed to see and add to each other’s comments.
  • Understanding where our fellow SHEGGARZ are in the writing process, and commenting accordingly. That means:
    • Providing trenchant but constructive feedback, always focused primarily on story structure: does the scene work? and how does it serve the story?
    • Abstaining from proofreading, minor copy-edits, line-edits, and opinions about style (although calling out stuff like ambiguity, unclarity, or inadvertent hilarity is okay).
    • Never “rewriting” someone else’s work. Inline suggestions are okay. Deleting and replacing are not okay. We allow each other to comment, NOT to change.
  • Openly discussing feedback at the meeting. SHEG isn’t a traditional critique group; authors can explain themselves and ask for ideas. SHEGGARZ can spitball, brainstorm, interrogate and suggest.

…And we always

  • View each other’s work as potentially great and totally fixable.
  • Accept the subject matter, genres, and stylistic approach of each other’s writing without judgment – we read as editors, not as “target audience”.
  • Respect each other’s privacy and intellectual property.
  • Respect our differences as writers and as individuals.

The SHEG suggested reading list

Here’s a link to the document in case you’d like to start a SHEG of your own. Download a copy and make any changes you’d like.

The promise of pushing your draft to a professional level

“A great editor sees the Story globally and microscopically at the same time. He has x-ray vision. He looks down from thirty thousand feet. A great editor can break down a narrative into themes, concepts, acts, sequences, scenes, lines, beats. A great editor has studied narrative from Homer to Shakespeare to Quentin Tarantino. He can tell you what needs fixing, and he can tell you how to fix it.” —Steve Pressfield

What is the important thing that writers do when they finish a draft? They hand it to an editor. An editor. Not: They send it to some friends for some thoughts. Although they may get some great help from friends, it’s ultimately the editor with whom writers collaborate.” —Ryan Holliday, The Perennial Seller

Nothing can replace a real editor. You’ll need one to turn your draft into a professional manuscript ready to take to agents, or to self-publish. While not all editors are equal, most have one thing in common: they don’t want to take your money to fix a draft that’s not ready for an professional editing. Some will (especially if you insist), but they probably don’t want to.

To learn more about the types of professional editing and how to choose an editor, see

 

There’s no getting around the need to hire a professional editor before publishing or submitting your work, but an editing group like SHEG can go a long way in helping you reduce the work you pay an editor to do. And that has the potential of saving you quite a bit of money.

So here’s the deal: get yourself a tribe of people you trust to help you write a better story. Take the time to improve your draft.

Then, when it’s ready—when your story is as tightly structured and compelling as you can make it using the tools that you and your editing group know how to deploy—you can take it to a professional editor in the full hope and expectation of winding up with a polished, professional final manuscript.

Naturally, we recommend the Story Grid Editors. We’d love to hear from you.

Download the Math of Storytelling Infographic


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About Anne Hawley

Anne Hawley is a developmental editor specializing in literary historical fiction and stories set in fantasy and science fiction worlds. When she's not editing, she's creating courses for writers at Pages & Platforms, a women-owned business aimed at helping diverse writers tell the best story they can—and then market it to its intended audience. Anne is the author of Restraint, a queer love story set in 19th Century London, and the forthcoming The Footman, set in the same universe. She lives and rides a bike around Portland, Oregon.

About Rebecca Monterusso

Rebecca Monterusso helps writers get their stories on the page and confidently share them. Her podcast, A Story That Works, and website, Creativity Through Constraints, work together to help writers figure out and solve their problems with starting to write, finishing their stories, and sharing their work. She is a writer, world traveler, and self-proclaimed story nerd. She believes that stories are the only way to change the world, which makes writers mighty powerful people. Find out more at www.CreativityThroughConstraints.com.