Some thoughts on the value of peer review groups.
approximately 1200 words
Peer Review Groups
Malcom Gladwell writes nonfiction, but he's still a master story-teller. In his book Outliers, he weaves tales that are relevant to aspiring authors. Here's a quick summary of some of the most compelling examples from his book.
From 1960 to 1964, an unremarkable rock band fronted for big-name stars like Little Richard in Hamburg, Germany, giving over 1200 performances. When the band returned to Liverpool, they sounded like no other in the world, and soon after the Beatles became a world-wide phenomenon.
Of course, innumerable bands thumped away in garages in the early 1960's and vanished into oblivion, like the Wyld Stallions in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. What makes the Beatles different?
In 1965, a thirteen-year-old from Seattle managed to acquire, through the PTA at his exclusive prep school, access to a Teletype ASR 33 terminal and a block of computer time on a General Electric computer. He parlayed this into five years of access to a local PDP11 computer, spending thousands of hours learning how to code from professionals. In five more years, this young man dropped out of Harvard to found Microsoft, and today Bill Gates' name is synonymous with technology.
In contrast, consider the case of Christopher Langan. He's roughly the same age as Bill Gates, and his IQ has tested off the scale--probably higher than Albert Einstein's. He, too, dropped out of college for various reasons, including financial challenges and the probably correct feeling that he was smarter than his professors. Yet instead of achieving the kind success that marks Einstein or Gates, he worked twenty years as a bouncer for a New York night club and currently runs a horse ranch in Missouri.
What distinguishes the Beatles from the Wyld Stallions, or Bill Gates from Christopher Langan?
Gladwell proposes a simple answer to this question. Basically, he observes that no one succeeds in a vacuum. In particular, no one succeeds without extended and deliberate practice--a lot of it. Considering examples as varied as the Beatles, Gates, medical residencies, and the requirements to become a "Professional Engineer," Gladwell proposed that 10,000 hours of intentional and intensive practice are required to master any skill. To be sure, the Beatles and Gates already possessed extraordinary innate talent. But they succeeded where Langan and garage bands did not precisely because they had the opportunity for extended and deliberate practice, enabling them to master their craft.
So what's the lesson here for aspiring authors?
Certainly, one lesson is that you must practice any craft, including writing, in order to master it. The ten thousand hours number may seem arbitrary, but it corresponds fairly closely with the apprenticeship time required for many professions, including medicine, engineering and architecture.
But the examples of garage bands and of Langan--who read and wrote extensively on his own--show that not just any practice will suffice. The practice must be intentional, informed, and deliberate. Gladwell concludes the best practice is guided by mentors who help the novice acquire the specifics of a craft. This is obvious in the case of medical residencies and other professional apprenticeships. But it's also true for the Beatles in Hamburg, where they were working with the leading popular music groups of the era. Contrariwise, guided practice is absent from the activity of garage bands, or from Langan's experience, who eschewed formal mentoring.
This brings us to peer review writing groups. These provide an opportunity for the kind of intentional, informed and deliberate practice that that can lead to mastery of craft.
In truth, not any peer group will suffice. For example, it's better if there is a mix of experience in the group. But even if there is not, if the members are serious about learning craft, they can teach one another. Anyone who has been in a successful peer review group knows that every author finds different things in a work of fiction, both positive and negative. This diversity of knowledge, skills, and viewpoint helps the members' practice be informed, intentional, and guided. Members of the group search out articles on the craft of writing, share them, and become information junkies. Eventually the results of that practice--the short stories and novels--improve as the members' works begins to embody the craft of writing.
In short,, these groups contribute to exactly the kind of guided, mentored learning that Gladwell advocates in his book.
To be sure, there are other factors involved in making peer review groups successful. Each will have its own unique personality and social dynamic. One author might thrive in a group that another finds loathsome and constricting. Finding the group with the right mix of skills and personalities can take some effort, but it's well worth it.
I can attest to this based on my own experience. My first efforts at fiction were horrible. I'd read a lot, from authors as varied as James Joyce and Robert Heinlein. But I hadn't learned to read them critically, with an eye to understanding their craft. I knew that writing mathematics--which I spent five years in graduate school learning how to do--was different, but I didn't have even a basic understanding of how writing fiction was different from writing mathematics. Then I joined my first peer review group. It included published authors and novices, like me. Many of the members prospered, but I had the opposite experience. The critiques were not helpful because they "told" me how to write instead of "showing" me why there was a better way. Being a scientist and academic, I needed to know the reasoning behind the suggestions. Eventually, I found several peer review groups here on WDC that were populated by gifted authors who were also generous teachers. My writing got better, and in weeks I made my first commercial sale.
As a scientist, I also know that the plural of "anecdote" is not "data." Gladwell's arguments are impressive, but they are at the end of the day just a string of anecdotes. However, the basic idea of 10,000 hours of guided practice is founded on sound psychological research.1. There's more to this than a string of interesting stories.
Of course, it's also true that 10,000 hours of practice alone won't suffice. I have a friend who has practiced golf religiously for decades, and he's still no better than he was in high school. There are at least two additional factors that contribute to success. First, not just any practice helps. Repetitions alone don't necessarily lead to improvement, especially if you're repeating mistakes. What is important is positive feedback that reinforces improvement and applies knowledge to guide the repetitions. Secondly, innate abilities do matter. The Beatles and Gates already had exceptional skills. Not everyone can become a neurosurgeon or a research mathematician, and not everyone can become a best-selling author. However, for most of us, guided practice helps us improve. We may not write best-sellers, but many of us, perhaps most of us, can achieve commercial sales.
There are many peer review groups out there for aspiring authors. Most medium sized cities will have local groups that meet regularly. If that doesn't work for you, there are many online groups available, including here on Writing.Com. Not every group works for every author, but it's worthwhile seeking out and finding a group that fits your schedule, your personality, and your artistic goals.
Thanks for reading. I hope you found this little essay informative.
For other musings on the craft of fiction, please visit the folder "Thoughts on Writing" .
Examples of my fiction are in the folders "Short Stories by Max Griffin" and "In-progress Novels" .