A Common Writers Group Rule You Want to Break

Last week I did a guest post on the hidden pitfalls and unexpected benefits of writing groups on Christi Craig’s fabulous blog, Writing Under Pressure. Today I woke up thinking, but wait, there’s one more thing! Because it’s not just about the feedback you get, it’s also about how you respond to it. That is, if you’re allowed to. And therein lies the rub. Because often in writers groups, writing classes and in workshops, there’s a rule that goes something like this: When given feedback, just listen, don’t argue or explain, then go home and think about it.

On the face of it that sounds perfectly reasonable. If you’re six years old, that is.

First, the nugget of truth here: as we all know, the worst thing writers can do when given feedback is to argue or explain why what they wrote makes perfect sense, if only the group was smart enough to understand it. After all, their mother, BFF, high school English teacher and cocker spaniel understood it perfectly well, and besides, everything is fully explained in the last chapter, anyway.

Writers who argue with critiques not only alienate the group, but cause members to begin pulling punches. Hey, who wants an argument? And when it comes to agents and editors? Writers who can’t take notes don’t tend to be taken on as clients. Life is too short.

But to treat adults as if they’re incapable of mastering the impulse to argue is, well, condescending. As if to say, “I know that if you speak, you’ll be defensive so, shhhhh!” Makes you want to set someone’s hair on fire, especially since they’re already picking on your story. In fact, feeling singled out, stressed and silenced, often causes your brain to shut down – literally. Instead of listening, you’re melting into a cortisol-induced puddle of “Gee, their lips are moving, but I can’t understand a word they’re saying. I just know it’s bad.” And so when you get home, instead of reflecting on the critique, you eat a pint of vanilla ice cream and watch old movies until dawn. Or maybe that’s just me.

And to top it off, such feedback is rarely as helpful as it could be. Because the most effective feedback is not a monologue. It’s a dialogue.

Of course you should be allowed to explain what you wrote. You have to. Why? Unless the group knows what you were trying to convey in a passage that doesn't work, how can they suggest what might work instead, or pinpoint exactly where, and why, it went wrong?

And even more beneficial, very often when a writer says, "What I was trying to get across is . . ." something comes out that not only isn’t on the page, but that changes the meaning of everything that is. Often this is the writer’s own “aha” moment, catapulting them in to breakthrough city. It’s just about the best reason to belong to a writer’s group, second only to the cookies. What about you? How does your writers group handle feedback? Does it work?