So You Want to Join a Writing Group Part III: Beware of Hobbyhorses
When a writer begins spending time with other writers, he learns that there’s a long and intimidating list of writing rules in need of memorization. It goes something like this: Don’t use adverbs, do avoid clichés, don’t switch points of view mid-scene, do only use “said” as a dialogue tag, and—most of all, folks—show, don’t tell. And so on.
All of these rules have their origins in smart writing advice. For example, using an adverb like “very” is often a form of cheating. If I write that my character is “very angry,” I’m missing the chance to scrap that adverb and exploit the English language for more interesting adjectives like “furious” or “seething,” words that give my reader a deeper insight into my character’s state of mind or appearance. The same goes for other adverbs, which can often weaken our writing when we have characters do things like “walk quickly,” “yell loudly,” or “stand standingly.”
Worn out clichés can have the same effect. Sure, they were brilliant the first nine-thousand times people used them, but now they make your writing sound like a Hallmark greeting card. You should avoid clichés like the—well, not the plague. Anything other than the plague.
Things fall apart, however, when these rules become a workshop checklist, a litany of precepts every writer avoids at her peril. Break these directives, young scribbler, and you run the risk of being called out in workshop, with little to no explanation of why that thing you did was problematic. It’s just wrong. Fix it and get back to us, okay?
Sometimes, folks can become so fixated on these rules that they become what I call workshop hobbyhorses. At a critical point, teachers or mentors told these writers not to do something, and they took it to heart. Man, did they take it to heart, so much so that they now break the same advice out for others, often without a passing thought about the reasons behind the words of wisdom.
True story: I was once in a workshop with an anti-adverb zealot, a guy who did me the favor of eliminating all my story’s adverbs. In fact, he’d gone so far as cutting all my words ending in “-ly.” As I recall, he actually wrote something like “I went ahead and deleted all your adverbs,’ which made it sound like he expected a tasteful gift in return.
There were two problems with his approach. For one, this dude hadn’t given me feedback on anything else in my story. No comments on the plot, characterization, or dialogue. No indication of whether he’d found the story compelling, confusing, or yawn-inducing. Most significantly, he’d marked out the word “family,” which suggested he didn’t understand the concept of adverbs in the first place. I can’t use “family”? Really? What’s next? You’re going to tell me we can’t use verbs, either? No personal pronouns?
Here are a few other workshop hobbyhorses I’ve encountered:
- Don’t write about the past. It distracts the reader from what’s happening in the present.
- Don’t use adjectives. It wasn’t “Don’t use so many adjectives because your ratio of nouns to adjectives appears to be reaching a level of mathematical impossibility.” No, it was just “Don’t use adjectives.” Maybe that person meant to write “adverbs.” Who knows?
- This story needs more marital infidelity. (Interesting fact: My story didn’t have any marital infidelity in the first place. Even now, years later, I’m pondering this one.)
To be clear, these weren’t notes folks gave once and never again. They were items the hobbyhorse riders returned to over and over, pointing them out in everyone’s work, zero-tolerance style.
When you join a writing group, remember that riding hobbyhorses can cause you to miss other important features in people’s writing. Instead of saying something intelligent and useful like “[Word, phrase, or technique] doesn’t work, and this is because [detailed, nuanced reason],” you could easily default to “Don’t do that because, well, you’re not supposed to do that.”
If you’re the victim of a hobbyhorse enthusiast, try to take it all in stride, and remember you can still get something good out of this. Here’s the advice I give myself and others: If you discover you’ve been doing something unintentional in your writing, do your best to stop doing that thing. Remember, this is one of the benefits of being workshopped, when people point out things you’re missing. Then, after you’ve gotten it under control, you can decide whether or not to bring it back. Trust me, once you’ve worked hard to eliminate it, you’ll never let your guard down again.
This works from a critiquing point-of-view as well. It’s important to point out mistakes and shortcomings, but if you want to be of actual help, try to do more than just tell people they’ve done something wrong. If something doesn’t fly, point it out, but go further and provide some solid advice about how they can fix it.
Sure, it’s more challenging to be thoughtful and assess your fellow writers’ work without resorting to platitudes, but it’s what separates the amateurs from the pros. It’s also what makes us all better at our craft.
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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.