Writing Groups

This post intended for Week 6

In middle school and high school English classes at least twice a semester without fail, there is a time during class where the teacher says, “alright break into groups of two or three and read over each other’s papers.”  In most students’ eyes, this is a tool to make students use each other to better their writing because teachers are too lazy to grade both the rough and final drafts.  This is true, but more importantly, it is also meant to encourage students to learn how to lean on their peers and evaluate each other’s work before presenting it to colleges professors/bosses- or at least that’s the theory.

The moment the teacher utters these words, students turn to their best friend or at least someone they don’t completely hate and trade papers, shyly muttering limp apologies about how this really isn’t that good or how they didn’t have time to make it sound right.

After having read the other person’s paper, maybe making a few notes in the margins where there are spelling mistakes, the standard reply everyone gives and can expect to receive is, “this is really good.”  Coming from a friend, this means you’re paper is great; coming from a classroom acquaintance, it likely means that your paper held their attention well enough to where their eyes didn’t start to blur after the first paragraph.  There is also an alternative to “this is really good,” which is, “it’s okay,” which coming from either person means that you’ve got some serious work to do before the handing in the final draft.

My first somewhat real group outside of this setting was senior year of high school.  Gigi, who was in my film class, decided we needed a writing club on campus.  I assume Write Club was publicized on the morning announcements, but really, the only people who came were about ten of our friends, which was more than fine by us.

The idea of Write Club was that we would meet every week at lunch, and trade writing- any writing.  There was no explicit rule prohibiting school-work papers from the club, but unless they were creative, they were looked down upon.

I feel like we had to have met at least twice, but despite these details, I only remember one meeting.

Write Club was held in Mr. Spanier’s, classic film poster-adorned classroom.  We brought in hard copies of our writing without our names attached, put them all in a pile, and pulled out a random one to read.  I read a piece about a boy whose mother had slept with two different men on the same day, accidentally impregnating herself with twins with two different fathers.  The main character’s father was a mostly an absent deadbeat, his brother’s father was rich.  After having read it and making notes about something outside of spelling errors, I found that the writer was my friend, Nick.

Sheila had read mine.  It was a juicy first chapter about a woman who became pregnant via rape, and abandoned the baby a few hours after birth.  The intent was to blow the story into a full-length novel about the child and his identity issues.

I was so excited to hear from her how great my story was, but to my disappointment, she had a list of questions and critiques. I remember the part where the rapist comes out of a street shadow and Sheila made a note that “street shadow” isn’t a thing.  At the time, this was my prized line and Sheila was obviously an idiot for not recognizing my genius.  Looking back, she was right.  “Street shadow,” is not a thing.

I’m sure her criticism was constructive, but I didn’t make an effort to mentally log her opinions.  I’ll bet that copy of my story with her notes on it are still floating around my bedroom at home somewhere, maybe stuffed in a drawer waiting for the day when I can face their input.

Over time, I’ve found the issue with writing groups and workshops is that you have to ensure you are putting forth an effort to get something out of it.  If you’re like me from two years ago, scavenging for pure approval, you won’t grow.

In college, I’ve learned to humble myself when it comes to writing.  I’m excited to share my work with my peers and unsuspecting roommates, asking them to read. Sometimes my poor time-management puts a roadblock in my opportunities to share my writing; but when I’m in a writing group, I try to fully engage myself with their work.  When offered “this is really good,” I counter with an legion of follow-up questions: Was it interesting?  Would you change anything?  Is there something you don’t understand or don’t like?  Did you like it at all?  Why?

At the same time, when entering a workshop,  it is important to be aware of what sort of writing group you are apart of.  If it’s required, it’s important to remember that not everyone may actually be invested in bettering their work.  It is also entirely possible that no one will like your writing; not because it isn’t good, but because it doesn’t cater to their taste.

On that note, when in or forming a writing group, remember to have confidence in your work, invest yourself in other people’s writing, be open to all suggestion, and take criticism with a grain of salt.

Seeking help is exhausting.  

This is Lauren The Largemouth Bass wondering if “street shadow” could have almost been a thing.


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