Amateur Writers -- Who, us?

Every morning, I read publications for writers before I come here. This morning, I read an article in The Writer about writer’s block that advised writers not to share unfinished work with their writers group, proclaiming that sharing such work would simply lead to “the blind leading the blind.”

Whoa. On behalf of my writers group and writers groups everywhere, I felt affronted. Now, the author of the article happens to be a professional story analyst–someone who gets paid to critique authors’ work. Methinks she had a tad bit of personal interest in writers not finding good writing groups. I also get paid to critique other people’s work, but I wouldn’t wish lack of a writers’ group on anyone. In fact, after my move, I’m going to make my best efforts to return here once a month so I can continue working with my group. Here’s why:

Although the writers in my group may not be professional editors, they are readers who are experienced in my genre. Not only that, but they bring something to the table most casual readers don’t: an understanding of what goes on “behind the scenes” when writing. That means that they don’t passively read; they read with an eye to how you crafted the story, and how they could envision it differently. And no matter what anyone tells you, agents, editors, and “story analysts” are really just glorified readers. If you want to improve your writing, having readers is the first step.

Unfortunately, most fledgling authors don’t have a ton of readers. This can make it all-too-easy to get mired in self-doubt or self-aggrandizement. It can also reduce any sense of accountability.  A writers’ group expects you to have written something new before the next meeting. It gives you feedback when you feel totally stuck. It can give you the motivation to go on, knowing that somebody out there wants to see what happens next. It can also give you a new way to envision your story, making you more likely to rewrite or refocus and less likely to abandon your work.

If someone were simply to listen in on our writers’ group to try to glean some pearls of writing wisdom, they’d likely leave frustrated and confused. One moment, we’re telling a writer that she’s said too much, telling the readers “what we already know.” The next minute, we’re pressing her to include MORE details or to make the connection between events more explicit. There isn’t a single writing rule that applies all the time (i.e.: always give lots of details; always be subtle; always be explicit). It’s all about context — and the only way to truly get the context is to be a reader.

Now, there is something to be said for not letting your writers group dictate your life (or your story). I think the bit of (misguided) advice about not showing your work to “amateurs” may be rooted in a belief that “amateurs” will give bad advice and steer you wrong. But as a writer, it’s YOUR job to work through the feedback and decide what will steer you right, what will steer you wrong. Sure, you might get feedback with which you disagree (consider it carefully anyway), and you might decide to ignore it. That’s both your perogative, and your duty: you must stay true to the story you’re telling. Ultimately, you’re NOT selling your story to your writers group, and therefore, you have no obligation to make the changes they suggest. You can disregard the advice that isn’t helpful — just as I’ve blithely disregarded this crazy bit of advice about not sharing work with a writers group.