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Printed from https://www.writing.com/main/newsletters/action/archives/id/10467-Writing-Groups.html
For Authors: November 18, 2020 Issue [#10467]

 This week: Writing Groups
  Edited by: Max Griffin 🏳️‍🌈
                             More Newsletters By This Editor  

Table of Contents

1. About this Newsletter
2. A Word from our Sponsor
3. Letter from the Editor
4. Editor's Picks
5. A Word from Writing.Com
6. Ask & Answer
7. Removal instructions

About This Newsletter

We all have reasons to come to a place like Writing.Com. For me, it's always been you, the members. My life is richer for reading your stories. My writing is better for receiving your wisdom. Writing this column can't repay the debt I owe, but it's my way saying "Thank you," by sharing some of what I've learned. I hope you enjoy what I've got to offer.

Word from our sponsor

Letter from the editor

Here’s a question: how do successful authors write?

Lawrence Bloch, the award-winning mystery author, wondered the same thing. He surveyed authors on the NY Times best-sellers list, asking them specific questions about their methods. He was hoping to be able to learn generalizable techniques that he could apply to his own writing.

It turned out he got as many methods as he had respondents. Everyone was absolutely convinced their method was the best—and maybe only—route to success.

Bloch is a clever guy, and he concluded that they were all right. They had found the method that was perfect for them. Each writer is an individual, and, through practice, will find an optimal—or at least workable—method for producing quality fiction.

I wonder, though, if the method is less important than the practice? Or maybe neither is really important and talent is all that matters? After all, no one had to teach Hemingway how to write.

Talent or Practice?

Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers is instructive. The basic ideas in the book are grounded in scholarly research. One of Gladwell’s skills is that he’s a brilliant story teller. He finds incidents that reveal the truth hidden in mountains of statistical data.

Consider two examples from his book. One is a young man growing up in poverty in Montana. He has one of the highest IQs ever tested. His family struggled, both financially and with abuse, but he made it to the state university. He dropped out after a semester because he decided, probably correctly, that he was smarter than his professors. He read extensively and became a self-taught expert in a variety of disciplines. He’s even developed a controversial Cognitive-Theoretical Theory of the Universe that he claims is the elusive “theory of everything” sought by physicists.

The other example is superficially similar. This young man also grew up in the northwestern US. He learned programming on a borrowed PDP11 at his exclusive preparatory high school. Later, he dropped out after a year at Harvard to start his own software company. He purchased a nascent operating system for Intel processors and parlayed that, with help from his mother who was on the board of directors of IBM, into a pivotal contract in the emerging PC industry.

The first young man spent twenty years as a bouncer in a bar in New York and today runs a horse ranch in Missouri. He’s known as a proponent of what might charitably be called fringe and racist political theories, but otherwise has made little impact on the world.

The second young man is Bill Gates and his company is Microsoft.

There are some obvious differences here, not the least of which are the obvious social and economic advantages Gates enjoyed. But a big difference is that, starting with that PDP11, Gates learned from some of the best programmers and computer scientists in the world. They took the eager young man under their collective wings and encouraged him. Certainly, he dropped out of Harvard and lacks formal credentials, but he’s equally certainly not merely self-taught. He took advantage of the opportunities he was given instead of deciding he was too smart to need them. He was eager for the mentoring he got from those leading computer scientists who were experienced and knowledgeable.

There’s a difference between being self-taught and being mentored, as these two stories illuminate.

Just to emphasize the point, here’s another example. From 1960-1964, an unremarkable band in Hamburg, Germany fronted for big-name stars like Little Richard. This group couldn’t even read music, but they paid attention to what the rock stars were doing. More importantly, the stars noticed them and mentored them, helping them hone their talents and their signature sound. When the band finally returned to their home in Liverpool, they sounded like no other group in the world, and Beatles soon became a world-wide phenomenon.

Hundreds of boy bands failed in the 60s, galloping off to obscurity like Wylde Stallions. The Beatles success was due in part to a unique combination of talent and mentored practice.

Of course, Gates and the Beatles have genius on their side in addition to the humility to accept mentoring. These examples show that talent alone is not enough. But even if you don't have once-in-a-generation skills, mentored practice is a proven path to improvement and even excellence.

Mentored Practice

We all know the old joke about how you get to Carnegie Hall: practice. But not just any practice will do. Many licensed professions have a “practice” component. These include medicine, engineering, architecture, and social work. Students acquire knowledge through formal training, but they learn how to be a member of the profession via monitored practice. The idea is that they practice what they have learned under the watchful and helpful eye of an experienced practitioner. This kind of mentored practice is a common feature in diverse disciplines because it works.

I can attest to this from personal experience, even though I’m not a member of one of these licensed professions. But while I was earning my PhD in mathematics, I attended countless hours of seminars in which we—the students—presented mathematical research to each other and the faculty. That’s where I learned how to think like a mathematician, how to use inductive and deductive skills to construct a mathematical proof. I learned the particular economy of argument that mathematicians call “elegance,” arguments that sing for like the best poetry for those with ears that can hear.

Later, when I became a graduate dean, I saw the same transformation occurred in every discipline. It didn’t matter if it was history, or creative writing, or physics. The students learned how to think like other members of their chose profession. They often even laughed at the same jokes. Yes, even mathematicians have a sense of humor. Think about what the acorn says when it grows up. Pun

These mentoring experiences, even the informal ones I had in graduate school, share common features. They include a group of apprentices learning how to apply knowledge under the guidance of experience mentors. The apprentices learn from each other, and their learning is guided and encouraged by the mentor. The mentor doesn’t teach—the apprentices have already learned the basics. The mentor provides context and depth.

In the professions Gladwell studied, he found that the typical mentorship lasted roughlty 10,000 hours, giving rise to what he called the “10,000 hour rule.” That’s certainly true for the licensed professions I mentioned earlier, but it’s in line with what I experienced in graduate school.

Implications for Writing Groups

I’m a great believer in groups where authors exchange critiques of their works.

Certainly, there is value in receiving thoughtful critiques of your own writing. Everyone benefits from “beta readers.” Even Joyce held readings of sample chapters of Ulysses prior to its publication. All critiques are helpful because they reveal whether the author is achieving their artistic goals, but reviews that point out ways to improve craft can be golden.

However, receiving critiques isn’t the only value of being in a critique group. Writing reviews of someone else forces you to think critically about the writing. You have to consider what the authors are trying to achieve and what techniques they deploy to achieve those goals. You are thinking critically about the artistic goals as you read as well as following the characters and the story. You can see how tension ebbs and flows, and how the author hooks the reader. Thinking critically doesn’t mean you’re looking for mistakes; it means you’re being analytical. You hone your analytical skills by giving reviews, and thus become a better writer.

The point is that peer review groups are a good thing and everyone benefits. However, peer review groups can run the risk that you wind up practicing your mistakes.

If your group’s membership has a range of experience, it adds another dimension. If there are experienced authors in the group, published authors, they bring perspective to conversations that’s beyond mere knowledge.

The luckiest thing that happened to me in my writing career was being permitted to join a peer review group on Writing.Com called “The Erotica Harem.” The group is now long-gone, although its members are still scattered about active. I was uninterested in writing erotica and was reluctant to join. However, a member of the group was giving me the best, most valuable critiques I’d ever gotten, and he was relentless. I finally joined.

It was like coming home. It was like the math seminars I was in years ago. The short story I posted to the group immediately got a half dozen reviews, each full of useful suggestions. Two, in particular, were from members who, it turned out, were editors for an online press who also had extensive resumes as published authors. Their generosity as mentors made all the difference. Within six weeks, that first short story was accepted for publication. I learned almost all I know from the people in that group. The were and are an inspiration to me.


This is a long argument in favor of writing groups. Each group has its unique culture, and not all of them will provide the right mix of personalities and interactions for any individual. But finding a writing group where you fit in can be invaluable. If you’re lucky enough to find one that includes mentors as well as peers, it can make all the difference.

Editor's Picks

"Skeletons in the Attic - Chapter One"   by KD Miller
"A Mind for Sale"   by jdennis
"Summer Kiss"   by Schnujo
"The Corridor"   by Beholden
"Low Expectations - Chapter 1 by Robert Edward Baker
"Nightmares"   by Thankful Sonali I AM WRITING!
"At Rainbow's End by hullabaloo22
"Performance Review"   by Oran Kell
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