Writing With Writers

Posted: March 3, 2013 by Matthew Ridenour in Matt's Words
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Since this is a writers blog, and many of us have already discussed the value of a writers group, I’d like to express what this means to me. What Stonehenge has done for my writing, how, and why. And how you can start your own. Maybe even join ours.

I’ve often expressed that I wrote a book before I knew how to write, but how did I learn? Well, with a solid group and a little dedication, it could mean the equivalent of a free MBA, and practical world experience. Many of us have degrees in various arenas, some of us are subject matter experts. All of this helps, but is it all necessary?

What’s important is you find a solid group of writers with similar goals. Certainly, the quality of the writers is valuable, but what matters more is the feedback. The ways critiques are expressed, the format of the meetings, their frequency, and measurability of improvement.

Here’s the way we do it. Of course, this doesn’t mean this is the way it must be done. Certainly, there are other formats that work better for different people, but I would highly recommend starting with something similar.

  • Frequency: We meet every week. Some believe this is too often, but I’ve found that a small core group of people show up every week, and everybody else will show up when they can – some every other week, a few only once per month. Personally, I attend every week. It keeps me motivated to write, gives me a reason to get out of the house and socialize, allows me time to meet with friends and professionals of the same mind, and always forces me to improve upon myself.
  • Reading Aloud: This is one of the most valuable tools any writers group should use on a regular basis. I stated above that different formats work for different people, but all writers groups should read each others’ submissions. Aloud. Why? The flow of the language, the clarity of ideas, realistic dialogue, pacing, word choices, the sound of grammar and sentence structure, transitions, and simply to catch anything that otherwise would be difficult to uncover. This alone has been worth its weight in platinum.
  • Submissions: This can vary from group to group, but here’s what works for us. Depending on the tenure of our writers, volunteers bring in a 2-6 page submission to be read aloud by peers. We have nights where longer submissions are preferred, and they are detailed below. But why, do you ask, are they so short? Well, it is amazing what can be intuited about the rest of a piece by a short slice of it.

Advantages of Short Submissions: The writing style of the author can be quickly determined. Have they developed their voice? How is their pacing, sentence structure, formatting, grammar? How do they show emotion? Action, reaction, interaction? Does the short piece capture the attention of the reader? What is the driving force of the scene? Does it move the plot? Short submissions can be read aloud, which aforementioned, is one of the most beneficial experiences a writing group can have. More often than not, focusing on short submissions, (especially if brought in consistently), will also indirectly affect the next section.

Disadvantages of Short Submissions: Here are a few things that short submissions cannot directly capture. How does the overall story flow? What are the main plot points? Are they consistent? Does the story follow an overall structure – such as the three-act structure? What are the overall themes? Are the questions posed at the beginning getting answered in the end? What are the character arcs? How does the protagonist change? What about the antagonist and supporting characters? And the big question, how are all of the aforementioned points addressed in a group that works primarily with short submissions? Keep reading, we’ll get there.

  • Format of Meetings: There are usually 10-15 writers at each of our meetings, and 5-7 submissions total. The submitter brings a copy for each of us, (sometimes we need to share), and the submitter chooses somebody else in the group to read it aloud. While the piece it read, we mark up our copies. Some of us are strong with grammar. Others – pacing and flow. Others still – word choice. Tense agreements, dialogue flow, clarity, brevity, transitions… When the reader is finished, each of us take a turn expressing our overall impressions of the piece. And because time is a factor, our finer points are left on the page, to be read by the submitter at a later time. During this time, the submitter must allow the rest of us to express ourselves, but it is very important that we do this correctly. Writing is personal. For many of us, it’s difficult to accept criticism. We are a self-conscious bunch, and when one of us musters up the courage to bring something in, it is the responsibility of the rest of us to be aware of that when offering criticism.
  • Difference Between Opinions, Qualitative, and Quantitative Analyses: Writing is an art, first and foremost. But as with any art, there are rules – well, more like guidelines. Grammar and spelling are mostly quantitative – meaning they are hard, measurable rules that do not vary much, except over the span of decades and centuries. (But that’s for a different post.) It is important to know the rules before we can break them, but since writing is an art, there are many opinions on the matter. These are more qualitative analyses, and as close as we can come to becoming scientific, it ultimately comes down to opinion. So this point is important when discussing others’ work. They might not have the same opinion as you, and that’s okay. When offering criticism, speak in a positive, encouraging manner, but always be truthful. Some of us prefer a more blunt method, others need a lighter touch. And it is the responsibility of those who submit to listen. Listen. Do not speak unless clarity is necessary, of if there is a misunderstanding. Our group is a little more open about this than others, as I believe healthy, respectful debate can oftentimes root out the real issues, and get to the bottom of a problem, but this needs to be managed by a facilitator. Someone needs to be in charge who will keep the night rolling, keep the meeting from getting bogged down. This is a must. But still, every member of the group needs to understand that most of what we say is based on opinions and experiences. And we have a variety of members who come from many walks of life, which is fruitful because of the differing number of perspectives. And now, after the critique, it is up to the writers to decide which suggestions they approve, and which ones to discard.
  • Change It Up: As mentioned above, short submissions are highly beneficial, but are not the keys to everything. We have featured author nights – where one author submits a long piece ahead of time, and is critiqued before the meeting. There’s the option of choosing Beta readers for finished manuscripts that are discussed outside of meetings. Make a night of discussing outlining, or industry evolution, or story structure. I find that once per month, changing up the format of the meeting keeps the members challenged, increases learning, and sparks highly interesting discussions.

So if you aren’t convinced of the benefits of a writers group by this point, try to join one and see for yourself. It might take some time to find one that works for you, or one that has the right mix of fun and work, or even one that offers critiques in the right manner, but if you haven’t tried, or if you haven’t yet found the right one, keep searching. I recommend searching meetup.com to find one in your area, or start one yourself. And if you haven’t already, check us out at meetup.com/Stonehenge.

Writing is a journey. It’s work, but it is also a passion. Be consistent, know your value as a writer, be realistic about where you’re at in your journey, but keep those passions and goals alive. Never lose yourself, never lose that spark of life you infuse in your work. And most of all, have fun doing it.

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Comments
  1. sryeager says:

    Nice article! Needs more emotion.

    I’ve learned so much just hanging out with the other writers in Stonehenge and being inspired by them. Brings a tear to my eye.

  2. Great “how to” on running a writing group! I know having a circle of insightful people to offer feedback and perspective on my writing has been invaluable for me–for my writing, and for the awesome people I’ve met!

    • Matthew Ridenour says:

      Thank you for the encouragement, Cheryl. Oftentimes, it is difficult to see if our critiques are having a positive impact on the submitter. But when they continue to bring in submissions, and show marked improvement each week, this shows that both the critiquer and submitter are working in tandem in a positive way. Personally, I learn just as much by critiquing as I do by submitting.

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