Writing is hard, and everybody who does it needs help. But most writers don’t get any help, even if they work on a magazine or a newspaper staff. No matter where you work, even alone, you know some other writers who want help. So start a writers’ group.
You need three things for a writers’ group: two writers and something written to discuss. The most helpful sessions use work in progress; simply talking about it at all will usually improve a piece. You can also do post-mortems on your own published pieces or on classic works, such as those in various “Best of …” anthologies, like the Poynter Institute’s Best Newspaper Writing annual.
The usual way to discuss works is to “tear them apart,” listing everything that’s wrong. This kind of critique makes writers afraid and despairing, and should be avoided at all cost. Savage critiques do not improve writing.
The better way is to ask, “What works, and what needs work?” The first question says that parts of this piece are under control or finished or evidence that the writer is not hopeless. The second question implies that anything can be made better with more effort, which is mostly true.
You don’t get substantially better as a writer by getting rid of what’s wrong or bad. You get better by magnifying strengths. You figure out what you’re doing well and improve that. The bad stuff tends to go away when the effective parts get better.
In any writers’ group I join, negative criticism would be forbidden.
You can also have more than two writers, even a club meeting regularly. To start one, just announce it. I was eating lunch with a group of reporters on a paper that wrote badly, where nobody helped anybody. Two writers told me they wanted to start a writers’ group, but they were afraid nobody else would join. I stood up and announced the group, and everybody joined. If you build it, they will come.
Some writers’ groups are official, sponsored and financed by the publication, and meet regularly. Usually they involve staff lunches, sometimes with visiting speakers. The best one I attended featured two firefighters explaining what to look for at a house fire. The success of official groups depends on the quality of the program.
Writers get better not just by writing better, but also by talking about writing. So call a friend and create your own help.
[What’s your experience with writers’ groups?]