6 Life Lessons Learned from Writing Groups

Hemingway's_writing_desk_in_Key_West WC

From the Floating Liars’ Club to the Speculative Wordsmiths, I’ve been a member of one writing group or another for almost two decades. It turns out, many of the skills you learn in writing groups also apply to life in general. Listicle time!

1. Don’t be critical of something you don’t know a damn thing about.

I once sat an listened to a woman give feedback on one of my stories. The more I listened, the more I was convinced that she had no idea what she was talking about. After about five minutes, I interrupted her tirade and asked, “I’m sorry, did you read the whole story?”

“Oh, no, but I figured out what it’s about from what others said about it.”

Immediately, that woman lost all credibility to me. I completely disregarded every word that came out of her mouth during that session and all sessions going forward. (Surprise – she didn’t last long!)

If you want to have an opinion about something that someone else put a lot of work into, make sure you’ve done the basic work to read/watch/listen to whatever it is you’re about to offer your opinion on. Otherwise, remember the old adage about opinions and assholes.

2. If someone else was thoughtful enough to have spent some hours of their life trying to understand what you’re doing, have the common sense (and respect) to write down their feedback.

Don’t pretend you can remember every word someone else says. If someone else gives you thoughtful feedback, write it down. It will help you remember it and it will help you internalize what the other person is saying. This isn’t true just of feedback, it’s true of basically anything important you’re trying to learn.

It also shows some basic respect towards the person who is giving you feedback and shows them that their feedback matters enough to you that you can be bothered to write it down.

3. Just because someone gives you feedback, doesn’t always mean what you did is totally wrong or broken.

Sometimes, a person that gives you feedback that doesn’t hit the mark. Maybe that person just doesn’t understand what you’re trying to do. That may be a problem in and of itself, but sometime people just miss the mark. Don’t automatically assume that if someone offers you negative feedback, that you did something wrong. Not every book/story/song/film/piece of art will resonate with everyone.

As a corollary, just because someone gives you feedback doesn’t mean something is totally broken and should be discarded. Sometimes, you may just need to tweak your approach. In fact, I have found that oftentimes, the more detailed feedback you get, the more someone else is invested in what you’re doing. And they’re usually invested because you are on the right track in the first place. So don’t give up what you’re already doing right!

4. Don’t take it personally! Criticism of your work isn’t criticism of you!

This one is especially difficult for writers and artists, especially those of who who derive a sense of identity from the creative work we do. An attack on our work can feel like an attack on us.

But hear it for what it is – a response from another human being on your attempt to transmit your ideas into reality. The criticism isn’t a criticism of you or your idea – it’s a criticism of the manifestation of that idea. And the best criticism is an assessment of whether or not the reality is living up to the idea.

If you feel threatened by someone’s feedback, in life or in art, you’re going to shut down and close off to them. And then you’re not going to learn anything.

If you have a particularly difficult time hearing critical feedback, ask the person offering feedback to be specific about addressing your work, not you.

Also, sometimes you just need to feel good about your work. Don’t be afraid to ask for some cheerleading from time to time!

5. Listen, don’t argue.

The first reaction when someone tries to offer you critical feedback is to explain what you meant or to try to explain what you were trying to do. That’s a very human response, but in most cases, not very helpful.

The thing is, if you’re trying to explain yourself, or worse, arguing, you may not be understanding what someone else is trying to tell you. Better to listen and make sure you understand first.

You aren’t going to be there to explain what you were trying to do to every reader/viewer/listener. That’s the whole point. Your work has to explain itself so that you don’t have to.

And don’t argue with someone’s feedback. They’re telling you what they thought about your work.  It’s what they thought, how they reacted to what you have shown or shared with them. They may misunderstand, but they’re not “wrong.”

6. Learn to give good feedback.

Good feedback isn’t given by nitpicking the details. It’s given by trying to understand what someone was trying to do and then judging whether or not their attempt meets their goal. Ask yourself: What was this person trying to do? How does their work achieve that goal and how does it fall short?

Pointing out someone’s comma placement doesn’t do any good if they’re going to need to throw out the first three pages!

Also understand that all feedback is, to some extent, personal. Some things just aren’t to my taste. I prefer the Beatles over Elvis. The thing is, I can still appreciate Elvis, and I can still give feedback on whether or not a story is achieving the goals it’s author has set, whether or not it resonated with me.

Good feedback also isn’t about telling someone else how to do something. It’s about helping someone else to see what’s working and what’s not working and letting them sort out the details.

And pointing out what’s working is just as important as pointing out what’s not working. If the first five minutes of a film aren’t working but the last 45 minutes are great, you want to let someone know that so they don’t get the wrong idea from your feedback and wreck the parts that are already working!


That’s it for this time! I’m off to Taos Toolbox to work on my novel for a couple of weeks. See you when I get back!



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