Writers groups are strange, confusing things. All writers talk about how important they are, yet most of us dread submitting our work for the critique of the group.
Why? Probably a lot of reasons (some of which have to do with insecurity or fear or anti-social hermit writer-ness, but I’ll deal with that later). I think one of the main reasons, though, is because sometimes writers can be jerks to other writers, even unintentionally.
As I was thinking about this post, I realized that writers’ groups resemble Bible study groups during prayer request time in a lot of ways, so I decided to compare them. Here are some bad examples from both groups:
Bible Study Member: The Person Who Brags Using Prayer Requests As a Front – Yeah, we get that we’re supposed to rejoice with those who rejoice. But when Joe just lost his job, it’s a little rude for Jane to go on and on about her promotion and salary and new office where she can actually grow houseplants because it has floor-to-ceiling windows.
Writers Group Equivalent: The Person Who Subtly Flaunts His Success – Again, nothing wrong with getting excited about places you’ve been published. But there’s a line there somewhere. Something that helps me is to picture myself as Joe or someone else in the group, listening to the words I’m saying. What would Joe think about Amy based on what she just said?
Bible Study Member: The Person Who Gets Off Track Really Easily – If Jack just said something about his mom’s medical problems, that will immediately remind Janet about how her son is dating a nurse from St. Louis – a place she’s always wanted to visit – and they’ve been together for five months, not including the three days they broke up, and he got her a dissection kit for her birthday, isn’t that sweet? And no one knows how that train of thought got railroaded.
Writers Group Equivalent: The Person Who Gets Off Track Really Easily – This is pretty much the exact same thing, except that Janet hijacks the conversation in the middle of a critique of Jack’s manuscript. If it’s about something related to writing (i.e., “What are the rules about using ellipses again?”), it’s probably fine. But don’t interrupt the group all the time with random personal stories, or nothing will get done.
Bible Study Member: The Person Who Gives Advice Without Knowing Anything About the Situation – If Jane’s nervous about her final exam, Joe gives her study tips. If Jack is concerned about his parents’ marriage, Joe knows exactly how they should reconcile their differences. He even tries to give an appropriate Scripture verse to Janet’s “unspoken” prayer request because he thinks he has the gift of prophecy.
Writers Group Equivalent: The Person Who Wants You To Change Your Writing to What They Would Write – A lot of comments that group members make are valid. Some are mandatory or near-mandatory changes (you left out a word, you need a comma), others are good suggestions (that sentence was awkward, that phrase hit my ear wrong), and some of them are personal preferences (I like the word “might” instead of “could,” people with names starting with J really annoy me). It’s fine to give personal preferences, but make sure you call them that and don’t expect the author to rewrite everything the way you would want him to.
Bible Study Member: The Person Who Is Clearly Judging You and Your Prayer Request – Maybe it’s the facial expression. Or maybe it’s just a snide little comment after some requests. All I know is that if Jack is being ultra-spiritual and looking down on everyone else, people stop sharing their real concerns and personal struggles and keep it to the “safe” requests like “Pray for my friend who has cancer” or “My coworker needs Jesus…even though I’ve been witnessing faithfully to him every day – I promise!”
Writers Group Equivalent: The Person Who Forgot the ‘Constructive’ Part of Constructive Criticism – There’s nothing wrong with pointing out weaknesses and flaws in a piece of writing, but Jack brings a flamethrower to group instead of a red pen. He does not critique; he attacks. The only other person’s work he says anything good about is Jane, because he has a secret crush on her. Everyone else had better look out.
So why is this a Sabbath Reflection post instead of Writing Tip Wednesday? Because I think sometimes we forget that how we treat others matters. This is especially important in a writers group, because it’s one of the few places where someone will ask for you to criticize something that’s very important to him. That puts the writer in a vulnerable place, and the rest of us need to be sensitive to that.
It’s funny. You’d think we’d be more inclined to be kind to others because we know what they’re going through. We get the same nervous feeling when we read a piece out loud and invite comments, so it should be easy to apply the Golden Rule – critique unto others as you would have them critique unto you.
But, for me at least, it’s actually easier to be insensitive in writers groups. I’m so insecure in my own ability as a writer that I feel the need to find things wrong with other people’s writing. I want others to like me so badly that I tend to brag about myself or tell random funny stories from my life so that I’ll be the center of attention. And it’s much safer to act like the authority on all things writing and suggest obscure and unnecessary changes than to admit that parts of someone else’s piece were good just the way they were written.
I do stupid things in critique groups because I feel vaguely threatened or intimidated by other writers. I feel threatened or intimidated by other writers because I secretly think I’m more important than them. I secretly think I’m more important than them because I struggle with pride.
Chances are, you do too. No, I’m not psychic. I’m just assuming you’re human.
Go back and read the four descriptions again. Instead of looking at the extreme behavior of Joe, Jane, Janet, and Jack, put in your own name and see if there are any small ways you display this kind of behavior toward others, just like I do.
It won’t be fun. It wasn’t particularly fun for me to write this, but it did help me get a clearer view of my own weaknesses so that I can work on them. As Christians, loving others is Part Two of the Greatest Commandment. That’s what this list is all about.