Cast in the amber glow of a solitary lamp, the lone writer lays pen to paper. Their words flowing from one mind to create one story. This monolithic narrative stands as an unsullied testament to the author’s creative genius. The bound pages, smelling of ink and glue, are passed from author to reader in direct communication of art and idea.
Nope. Stop. That’s not how it works.
I think many people have an impression of writers as this Thoreau-esque figure, stuffing themselves away in the woods or a closet somewhere far from the influence of others. It’s true that some do. Maya Angelou famously rented a hotel room for use as a personal work space each time she had a new project. For most writers however, the isolation of writing only exists during the time keys are clicking and ideas are flowing. Also, when we stare into the abyssal blank document with its taunting cursor, frozen, scared, so alone…
It’s the eyes and thoughts of others, either during or directly after the drafting process, that help the author pound their work into its final, beautiful glory. This feedback comes in many forms. Be it from writing groups, alpha readers, beta readers, agents, editors, or even just frantic, late-night emails to a friend, each has a place and a specific use.
Living in a foreign country where I do a piss-poor job speaking the language (sorry France, I’ll try harder), I’m more isolated than many writers. Still, I’ve been lucky enough to find a place in three different writing groups. Two face-to-face groups here in Paris and one online group. Each provides me with a unique take on my work.
The first of my in-person writing groups has a few regulars but is mainly a rotating cast of authors from multiple genres and at multiple skill levels. This group helps me understand how my work relates to a wide audience. Much of the feedback is useful but not all, so I have to think about what’s been said and who’s said it. I’d like my work to sit well with a broad readership but I have to remind myself that the audience I’m actually writing for is much more specific and that I can’t please everyone.
My second flesh and blood writing group consists of five unchanging members. We all write in closely linked genre’s and the feedback I receive is more laser focused. It’s still my work and so I have to weigh their comments but more often than not, the critique is sound. This group acts more or less like alpha readers.
My final group is an online writing group. Critiques do take place but it acts more like a community than a traditional writing group. Picture a cul-de-sac where each house contains a writer. Various writers pop out of their front doors and chat with the neighbors about what’s going on, interesting things they’ve come across, the latest news, etc. Those same neighbors also talk shop and are able to understand what we are all going through as writers. They offer encouragement and condolences, thoughts and ideas.
Writing groups aren’t for everyone. It can often just boil down to dumb luck. Some groups are supportive, nurturing, and helpful. Others are just plain toxic. Do you need a writing group? No, but I’ve found some I love and I’m sticking with them. What you absolutely do need is are at least a few people who can look at your work and see the flaws that we as authors are often blind to. We need others to spot typos, point out logic flaws, and pin targets on the backs of our darlings. The best we can do and the best our work can be are rarely the same thing.
If you are someone who plans on being a solo writing, editing, and publishing three-ring circus, all I can say is good luck.