So You Want to Join a Writing Group Part II: Don’t Make Excuses for Your Work
Here’s the scenario. Today is your day to be critiqued by your writing group. One by one, your peers provide you with thoughtful feedback, analyzing the ins and outs of your work. Everyone is tuned in to your writing, catching a few things you missed—okay, let’s say a lot of things, which is the way it usually goes. Still, all in all, it’s a good day.
Before long, though, you feel it’s your turn to explain or even defend yourself, and you utter these dark words: “Well, you know, I didn’t have much time to work on it.” Or better yet, these: “Oh, I knew I had to turn something in, and that was all I could come up with.” Maybe you even told them this before the critique began. Either way, everyone has a good laugh and moves on, right?
Probably not. In fact, the next scene may involve your writing group banding together and throwing you into a closet or tossing you out a window onto your ear. At the very best, it’s going to win you some serious stink eye.
Think about it. How would you, as a reader, feel if you’d poured your heart into giving me meaningful criticism, only to have me say, “It took me two hours to write,” “Yeah, I knew all those errors were there but didn’t have time to fix them,” or “That’s what editors are for, right?” It would also make you feel cheated and a little like a free proofreading service.
Those comments may sound a little ridiculous, especially the second set, but I promise I’ve heard all of them and worse. It’s amazing what people will say. At times, they throw out apologies for bad spelling and punctuation or excuses about verb tenses. You might even hear them tell woeful tales of malicious word processing programs. And so on. Deploying these disclaimers might make you feel better or help to ease your mind about the criticisms thrown your way, but they actually reveal more about you, suggesting a disrespect for your fellow writers and a lack of dedication to your craft.
First, let’s think about the lack of respect, whether real or perceived. Writing workshop excuses can make fellow writers feel inconvenienced for having put time and effort into something you don’t appear to have worked hard on to begin with. This is a terrible precedent to set if you’re hoping to establish a good working relationship with these folks.
If I’ve focused my energy into giving your work a solid evaluation, and you tell me it’s not a big deal because you knew it wasn’t that good anyway, I’m going to be less inclined to do it again. From time to time, I hear this sort of comment from students. It’s not acceptable coming from them, and it’s even less so when uttered by a professional writer.
This leads me to the second reason disclaimers are a bad idea: Apologizing or making excuses for your writing gives the impression that you don’t take your writing seriously. Some say that to be a writer, one has to write, which is, of course, true. But what separates the amateur writer from the professional isn’t a fat paycheck. It’s the level of dedication to the craft. It’s natural to have weaknesses, but the difference in the professional is that she identifies them and does her best to make them go away.
As with most things, there may come a time when you need to make a legitimate disclaimer. For example, I’ve been in writing groups where folks were on some kind of professional deadline. In those cases, they would often bring pages right off the printer, hoping for quick feedback on large issues such as plot, dialogue, and continuity before sending the work off to an agent or editor. This kind of arrangement is best agreed upon beforehand, however, and it should be accompanied by bribes. You know, things like chocolate, coffee, fermented beverages, or better yet, something that combines all three.
But if your sole explanation is that you rushed through your story, chapter, poem or essay, why not keep that nugget of information to yourself and set a personal goal to work harder next time? Better yet, if you feel your work requires an apology, keep the manuscript for another week and edit it ten, twelve, or thirty times. I’m not joking about this part. Obsessiveness can pay great dividends, but that’s a topic for another time.
If you feel your writing group’s criticism is too harsh, nitpicky, or personal, and you’re compensating in an attempt to soften that blow, this is an issue you need to consider separately and with caution. But don’t apologize or make excuses.
Sharing writing is one of the most personal acts out there. When a writer works hard at it, the result is nothing less than a piece of his soul. That’s scary as hell, and it should be. If it terrifies you, get in the line that starts over there. It’s a normal reaction, and you should rest easy in the knowledge that you’re in good company.
If you want to become a better writer, you need to take the criticism and get on with the act of writing. Trust me, it gets easier.
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One of the most important and beneficial things an artist can do is join a community with others who are doing similar things. Writing groups aren’t right for all writers, and finding the perfect fit can be a difficult process, but the potential rewards are well worth the effort. This piece is one of a five-part series on the ins and outs of navigating writing groups.