Features

Group Effort

Writers help each other improve craft and ‘crank it out’
Encore-Magazine-Writers-Groups-Poetry-Dawgs-April-2016
Jennifer Clark, standing, hosts a meeting of Poetry Dawgs at her house. The others attending the writing group are, from left, Elizabeth Kerlikowske, Julie Stotz-Ghosh, Bonnie Jo Campbell and Margaret DeRitter.

No doubt writing is a solitary endeavor, but a number of local writers find that their craft improves with regular feedback and support from other writers.

“Hanging out with writers is so essential,” says poet Lynn Pattison, of Kalamazoo, “and after you leave school and enter the world of parenting, day jobs, etc., you miss the companionship of people who like to scrutinize word choice, word order, placement of an article. This stuff is not usually a part of everyday conversation.”

The Kalamazoo area — with three institutions of higher education, various literary-minded cultural institutions and several bookstores — offers writers many avenues for developing skills through classes, workshops and craft talks by visiting authors. But outside of these more formal settings, writers often find it helpful to share their works in progress with others in a writers' group. They meet regularly to critique — or sometimes just to appreciate and support — each other’s writing as well as to share information, such as where to submit for publication.

The area includes dozens of these groups, covering genres from romance to poetry, from science fiction to children’s literature. In most cases, a group’s members will all work in a similar genre.

Judy Myers, of Kalamazoo, a freelance editor and author of several historical and contemporary romance novels and novellas, says it’s helpful if all members are “writing to the same general audience.”

For example, a poet, a science fiction writer and a memoirist may not be able to comment intelligently on each other’s work. “If you never read in that genre,” Myers says, “you may judge the work through a different lens, and your advice might be steering them away from their target audience.”

Some groups, on the other hand, form around a common interest, such as the Combat Veterans Writing Group, profiled in Encore in January 2014, or Kalamazoo Christian Writers. “Our members’ writing covers the gamut of topics and styles — nonfiction, fiction, memoir and poetry,” says Kalamazoo Christian Writers co-founder Peter DeHaan, of Hudsonville. “Our members write for both the Christian market and the general market. We only ask that they write from a Christian worldview.”

A key reason for writers to join a writing critique group is to improve the quality of their own writing, but that’s far from the only benefit. For Joe Novara, of Kalamazoo, being in several writers’ groups during the past 20 years has forced him to be more productive.

“You don’t want to go (to the group meeting) empty-handed,” says Novara, a retired corporate trainer and freelance writer who has authored more than a dozen e-books for youth and adults. “The writing group enforces that kind of volume that I think makes the difference between the hobby writer and the person who says, ‘I’ve got this assignment, and I’ve got to crank it out.’ It can be kind of artificial in a certain way, but it pushes you into that level of productivity.”

Most critique groups follow some guidelines to ensure that things run smoothly, that everyone’s work receives equal attention and that no one feels under attack. Novara, who is also a former Kalamazoo Valley Community College writing instructor, has developed a protocol for critique sessions. His current group meets at the Kazoo Books store at 2413 Parkview Ave., in Kalamazoo, and the store makes his guidelines available to other groups that meet there.

Novara’s protocol, which isn’t the same for other writing groups, addresses optimal group size and the length of pieces to be critiqued and bans interruptions during the initial reading of a piece as well as during the critique. He recommends beginning with positive comments, keeping criticism constructive and not debating suggestions.

“Critique sessions aren’t the time to argue over who is right,” he says. “Members of a critique group offer their observations on how the piece comes across to them. It’s up to the writer to adjust, or not, to that feedback.”

What writers do with that feedback is an individual choice, Pattison says.

“Of course, an individual needs to maintain ownership,” she says. “No matter what suggestions have surfaced — and there can often be contradictory responses — in the end the writer must go back to their desk and decide what advice they want to incorporate and what doesn't work for them.”

Over time, writers get better at evaluating whether suggestions are useful or not. Myers has found a rule of thumb about critiques through her experience working with editors as well as peer groups: “If they tell you where something’s wrong, they’re probably right. If they tell you how to fix it, they’re often wrong,” she says.

Pattison, the author of three books of poetry, says her writing group has helped her become a better critic of her own writing. She is a founding member of Poetry Dawgs, a critique group started by writers who had taken a workshop with local poet John Rybicki and wanted to continue to share their work.

“What is always surprising to me is how much I learn about the poem I bring, just in reading it to the others,” she says. “I can read it aloud at home and think it’s done, but reading it at Dawgs, even before anyone comments, I sometimes hear what didn't work, what doesn't need to be there, what is clunky.”

And while it’s never easy to hear one’s work criticized, having self-confidence and being open to other ideas can serve a writer well. “It’s humbling, but I think it’s a marvelous way for adults to learn from each other. It’s learning in process rather than in theory,” Novara says.

And writers' groups are not just for aspiring authors. Bonnie Jo Campbell, a National Book Award finalist whose fifth book of fiction, Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, was published last fall, says she no longer meets regularly with her longtime fiction and poetry writers' groups but still depends on occasional feedback from a few trusted writers she met through the groups.

“Writing groups are so important, and especially when you’re starting out,” she says. “I’m a believer. I’m always trying to pair up my students (in the low-residency Master of Fine Arts writing program at Pacific University in Oregon) because once they realize how valuable feedback is, they want more from me, so I’m trying to show them that they can do this for each other.”

Not all writers' groups are critique groups, however. Some groups gather to write together, using peer pressure to boost productivity, while other groups allow writers to provide each other with much-needed moral support. Kalamazoo psychotherapist Nancy Hayes, the founder of the Kalamazoo Aspiring Writers Meetup, says her group is “friendly and supportive, not into critical feedback but honest reflection. As 'host,' I keep the group safe, meaning all members are respectful and kind,” she says.

“Some people in the group have no intention of getting published — they just want a safe place to share their writing. If someone in the group is looking for editing, they ask for that.” 

Finding a writers' group

Kazoo Books, which has two locations in the area, has positioned itself as a headquarters for literary events. In addition to hosting readings, workshops and book groups, the store’s Parkview Avenue location is currently the meeting place for five writers' groups. Kazoo Books has also hosted two orientation sessions to help new groups form.

“With the colleges here, there are a lot of writers and would-be writers in the area, and finding a place to have a meeting that is stimulating and cozy is harder than you think,” says Kazoo Books owner Gloria Tiller, “so we just started offering a space for these people to meet.”

Groups open to new members can also be found online. The Kalamazoo Aspiring Writers Meetup, for example, is found at Meetup.com, and Kalamazoo Christian Writers has a Facebook page.

It helps to go into a group knowing what the other members are looking for, says Myers, a veteran of many critique groups. She says groups “can be so variable, depending on the personalities of the people involved.” She recommends making sure a group’s members’ “aims are sufficiently congruent.” In other words, groups work best when everyone is seeking publication or when all members are hobbyists, rather than a mixture of both, “so that you’re not breaking people’s hearts or wasting each other’s time,” she says.

Myers, who moved to Kalamazoo two years ago, also recommends joining a national organization with a local chapter, such as Romance Writers of America or Word Weavers International. If you don’t know any other writers in the area, she says, it’s a good way to meet like-minded people, especially if you are serious about getting published or writing in a particular genre. Myers is currently in a “write-in” group with people she met through the Mid-Michigan chapter of Romance Writers of America.

Groups can also arise from classes or workshops. A side benefit of taking a class or workshop, Myers says, can be finding other writers who are interested in forming a group. Poetry Dawgs, which started that way, has been meeting for more than 15 years and has grown well beyond a critique group.

“A stable critique group builds trust,” Pattison says. “That is essential to being able to accept and value constructive criticism. At their best, such groups build strong ties. Our group is a place where successes are celebrated, tragedies are mourned. A sisterhood. We encourage and support each other.”

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Writing groups are so important, especially when you’re starting out. I’m a believer. I’m always trying to pair up my students because once they realize how valuable feedback is, they want more from me, so I’m trying to show them that they can do this for each other.

– Bonnie Jo Campbell, author and National Book Award finalist