Every writer needs readers, but most new writers are shy about sharing their words. Writer Sarah Farley, course moderator for the Professional Writing Academy, dispels some myths and celebrates the creative power of writers’ groups.
I’ve run many courses for new writers – both online and face to face. The most common thing people tell me when starting out is how nervous they feel about working within a group and sharing their stories. I understand this because it’s exactly how I felt when I started writing.
In 2009 I began an MA in writing and quickly discovered I’d have to share my work with a group of peers. We all had to give detailed critiques of each other’s writing – both face-to-face and online – a process known as peer review.
I’d never shown my writing to anyone other than close friends and family, and found the idea of sharing my work with ‘real writers’ terrifying. I was full of doubts: had I understood the exercise correctly, was my writing any good, would it stand up to scrutiny, and, as a new writer, how on earth was I qualified to critique other people? I was not alone in feeling this way – it turned out that almost everyone else in the group felt the same.
Four years on, and I wouldn’t be working as a writer were it not for the things I learned from fellow writers in my writing group. They told me the things I needed to know: not only what I was getting right, but, more importantly, where I was going wrong. And they did it in a supportive and encouraging way. When I began writing I would have given up many times were it not for the encouragement of my writers’ group – they picked me up when I had doubts and gave me a push when I needed that, too.
As a writing course moderator for the Professional Writing Academy online courses, I’m now on the other side of the fence. And I often hear new writers question why we ask them to work in peer review groups. The simple answer is: because it works. It’s almost impossible to edit your own work when you’re first starting out, but by critiquing others you can learn to turn that critical eye on your own work and become a much better editor of your own writing. This, in turn, makes you a better writer.
During my MA, each time I read my work through someone else’s eyes my mistakes became obvious – clichés, meandering monologues, switching from one point of view to another mid-paragraph. All common mistakes made by new writers and to which we are often oblivious when we start out.
But the benefits of writers’ groups are not just confined to writing courses – they’re an increasingly important way for writers to collaborate on larger projects. Author and co-founder of writers’ organisation 26, John Simmons, sees them as a means to champion the power of words. He’s even challenged the idea that fiction is a solitary affair with his latest project: a collaborative novel written by 15 writers.
Even though I’m no longer taking a fiction course, I continue to work in a number of writers’ groups – on and offline. I value feedback on my writing – all writers can always improve – and it’s so good to hear when you’re getting it right. But, most of all, the support I receive makes the solitary task of writing not quite as lonely as it would otherwise be, and, importantly, working with other writers pushes me to write better. To experiment with my writing, to work harder and to not limit myself creatively.
If you’d like to learn to write within a supportive group, you might like these online courses:
How to Write a Short Story – starts January 20 – for beginning writers.
Storytelling for Screen – starts January 27 – for screenwriters and TV/film creatives.
Exploring Genre – starts February 24 – for intermediate writers looking to experiment with crime, romance, sci-fi, humour, YA and historical fiction.