The 4 Hidden Dangers Of Writing Groups

The 4 Hidden Dangers Of Writing Groups

Writers love the idea of writing groups. Writing is, after all, a very lonely pursuit. You sit alone in a room wrestling your ideas onto the page, struggling to fend off the constant attacks of doubt. Your regular friends probably don’t quite get what you are doing and can’t help. So it makes perfect sense to join other writers who can help you navigate the joys and sorrows of the creative process.

Unfortunately, the reality of writing groups is far more complicated than that. Underneath the good intentions there are serious dangers lurking.

In my work as a book coach I often see the damage that writing groups do, and it is not benign. Writing groups can cause fatal frustration, deep self-doubt, and sometimes years of wasted effort. In this post I’m going to outline the most common dangers of writing groups, and will also propose some ways you could improve your group to give you more of what you need—and less of what you don’t.

Creativity IncTo illustrate my points, I’m turning to wisdom shared in Creativity, Inc by Ed Catmull, President of Pixar and Disney Animation. In this book, Catmull shows the many ways that the powerhouse studio has managed creativity, and in the process produced some of the most resonant and beloved stories of our time. He talks about the concept of management on a really big scale—department hierarchies and multi-million dollar movie projects—but the fact of the matter is that we all must manage our own creativity if we are going to do any good work, and his wisdom applies to all of us.

1. No one tells the truth and no one really wants to hear it.

Most writing groups tiptoe around glaring weaknesses in the work being shared and sometimes tell outright lies about it, because they don’t want to hurt people’s feelings. All the writer hears is praise or vague criticism that isn’t very actionable, and so they assume that what they are writing is solid (if not awesome) and they plow on creating fundamentally flawed work. 

Praise is wonderful—it feels good to hear it—but it is not very helpful for the writer committed to writing a book that engages the reader. Writers must find a way to welcome criticism, even harsh criticism, but writer’s groups tend not to foster this skill, and as a result, no one grows, no one learns, and people become deluded about their work—believing it to be better than it is.

At Pixar, truth-telling is a central part of the creative process. As Catmull writes:

In the very early days of Pixar, John, Andrew, Pete, Lee, and Joe made a promise to one another. No matter what happened, they would always tell each other the truth. They did this because they recognized how important and rare candid feedback is and how, without it, our films would suffer. Then and now, the term we use to describe this kind of constructive criticism is “good notes.”

Before we get to the good notes part, let’s look at the promise to tell the truth. That’s the critical thing a good writers group needs—not an implicit promise, but an actual commitment. Every single member of your group needs to understand the promise about telling the truth, believe in it, commit to it, and welcome it when it is their turn in the hot seat. This starts with a shift in mindset, which Catmull describes beautifully:

Naturally, every director would prefer to be told that his film is a masterpiece. But, because of the way [our group] is structured, the pain of being told that flaws are apparent or revisions are needed is minimized. Rarely does a director get defensive, because no one is pulling rank or telling the filmmaker what to do. The film itself—not the filmmaker—is under the microscope. This principle eludes most people, but it is crucial: You are not your idea, and if you identify too closely with your idea, you will take offense when they are challenged. To set up a healthy feedback system, you must remove power dynamics from the equation—you must enable yourself, in other words, to focus on the problem, not the person.

Try the following fixes for your writing group:

  • Every writer in your group needs to agree to speak the truth and to accept the truth. It helps enormously if the writers in the group have a similar level of expertise and experience, and if they share the same clearly stated goals. Someone writing a book because it’s cathartic and fun is in a very different place from someone writing a book for publication, and it could be that you need to shake up the composition of the group in order to be able to make a commitment to the truth. Making these changes can be heartbreaking—but that’s part of truth telling, too.

  • Each member needs to speak with deep kindness and a sense of hope when it’s their turn to offer a critique. Mean-spirited attacks that leave you gasping for breath and feeling small are among the most damaging realities of all. There is a difference between telling the truth and being mean. Don’t allow mean.
  • Each member needs to take a deep breath and welcome the truth when it’s their turn to hear it. Remember that when someone is criticizing your work, they are not criticizing you.
  • Finally, the group needs to make a commitment to understanding what giving good notes is all about. Which brings us to No. 2 below.Read More Here >>>

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