by Phil Geusz
©2002 Phil Geusz -- all rights reserved
None of us writers exists in a vacuum. Like any other workmen, we network with each other and create mechanisms by which to advance our craft. In modern-day America, these support mechanisms most often take the form of writers' groups. These groups have in many cases existed for decades, often with a membership (typically of between five and ten writers) that has varied little or not at all during the entire life of the organization. In the pre-Internet era, these groups would exchange manuscripts by mail, then meet (usually on a weeknight) once a month in order to comment upon and critique each other's work. Over the long months and years, everyone would get to know each other, and many close friendships developed. If one or more of the writers became successful, they eagerly shared their learnings (and their equally important literary contacts) with the rest. Because the critiquing was done on a face-to-face basis, a certain sense of intimacy and honesty developed.
While many of these kinds of groups still exist today, they are being replaced by and large by Internet-based writing groups. On the Internet, document transfer is faster and cheaper. There is no need to actually print out the stories. And, with group sizes often running to a hundred or more, critiques can often be had virtually without delay. Technology marches onward!
While there are many "plusses" to the Internet-based writing group, however, there are many minuses as well. Internet-based groups, largely (in my opinion) due to the inherent lack of meaningful face-to-face contact, never seem to achieve the level of intimacy needed to promote honest, hard-hitting critiquing. When an on-line writer's group member suggests bringing a story to market, for example, only very rarely have I ever seen another member say something like "It's not up to snuff" or "This story is not saleable in its current form". Yet this is exactly the kind of advice that a budding writer needs to hear most of all!
In many cases, in other words, Internet-based writer's support groups tend to turn into mutual admiration societies instead of hard-hitting critique groups, and the members soon begin to believe themselves to be far better authors than they really are as a result. This is a tragedy, because in my view at least the very act of joining such a group is a statement of one's intention to pursue the craft of writing seriously. Yet, very often, the new member submits story after story only to be told "What wonderful work!" instead of "Your grammar skills suck!" "How imaginative!" the writer hears, when what they need to be told is "Your plot was murky and your characters shallow and inconsistent". As a critiquer on the Internet writer's support group that I belong to, I myself will admit to falling into this trap quite regularly. Face to face, I would be far more honest, and far more would be achieved. Yet, given the already emotionally "cold" medium of e-mail, it is very difficult indeed to be hard-nosed and unyielding. Friendship must be left at the door in a writer's group, in order for it to function effectively. Somehow, this seems far harder to achieve in an on-line setting.
There's another weakness inherent in on-line writer's groups, as well. Most of them will accept as members anyone at all who wishes to join up. The problem here is that if the percentage of genuinely skilled writers is not high enough, then all that can be achieved is for mediocrity to perpetuate itself. No matter how unpopular the notion may be, it is a fact that some individuals are better writers than others. If there are too many unskilled writers in a given group, then they will spend far too much time cycling mistaken notions amongst themselves. New members will be unable to distinguish the good advice from the bad, and no one will improve very much or very quickly. Even worse, the more skilled writers are in a position where they have nothing important to gain from such a group any longer, except to sink long hours into helping beginners that probably will prefer to follow the far less painful advice of their fellow beginners anyhow. In the end, the genuinely skilled critiquers tend to quietly fold up their tents and leave. After all, no one who really needs to listen to them is doing so anymore. They have been drowned out utterly.
Professional editors can and do help to fill this void in credibility, mostly through rejecting low-skill manuscripts by the dozens every single day. Eventually, a prospective writer begins to get the idea that the work that his unpublished friends are telling him is so very good is in fact not so outstanding after all, not in the "big leagues". At this point, he or she has come to the first real lesson of their professional writing lives, and from the moment that this truth is recognized, all of the "Wow, that's great!" critiquing takes on a whole new form and shape. It is only at this point that a writer is truly able to begin critiquing others, and therefore to successfully participate in and benefit from a quality writer's group.
Writing for publication is not an easy thing; most of the prospective authors reading this will not make one thin dime writing in their entire lives. Be very wary indeed of anyone who tries to tell you that it is easy to reach your goal, and remember always that if a critique or review seems too good to be true, then it very probably is.