Keith MacKenzie 26 letters. A million and more words. No limit to stories.

The anatomy of a writers’ group

Everyone’s a critic, as the adage goes. But it’s especially the case when a group of writers get together and assess, analyze, decipher, dissect and evaluate each others’ writing as if they were students in Grade 10 biology class and they have the chance to cut up frogs and identify all the cool little bits they find inside the frog.

One time, when I was in that very class, one of the other students took the opportunity to use his mutilated frog to gross out two Korean exchange students across from him – much to his delight they would squeal, giggle and turn everything into a sideshow.

I’m not innocent of this sort of thing myself – I distinctly recall knowing how long intestines can get if pulled out of a frog’s belly, and so, I freed the intestines from their home and pulled them up so that two feet’s worth of intestines hung from my finger all the way back down into that frog. Much commotion was made of this, of course, particularly by the girls, who groaned when I plucked the intestines as if playing a musical instrument.

I’m sure the biology teacher wasn’t amused. The whole point, after all, was for us to learn about anatomy, not to make a mockery of it. .

Now, some students did take it seriously. They took the time to learn which of the little organs were the stomach, the bladder, the lungs and such and such. And they consulted other students and the teacher, engaging them in mature discussion on the topic.

Who do you think came out of it with a better result? Us mocking kids, or them serious kids?

Them serious ones, of course. They threw a joke back and forth of course – a macabre exercise such as this can be hard to complete without some morbid humour thrown into the mix – but in the end, the objective was clear: learn about what you’re doing, learn how to do it, and most of all, learn from working with others on the same subject.

The same idea can be applied to writers’ groups. I’m fortunate to be the founder of an excellent writers’ group in my home in New Westminster, and for more than two years – and more than 50 meetings – most if not all meetings have resulted in magnificent discussion on the writing craft between scribes who love what they do.

Critiques, if done well, are excellent too. We can’t learn much about writing unless we read other people’s works, learn to assess their work, how to deliver a strong, respectful analysis of that work, and most of all, learn to listen carefully as the same information is delivered to you on your own work.

It’s difficult, sometimes. I’ve heard many a scribe bemoan the lack of civility in writers’ groups, particularly the tendency for groups to turn into incisive cat fights where writers do nothing but swipe at each others’ work with the malicious intent of taking it down a notch.

This tall-poppy syndrome has no purpose in a writers’ group. That’s why rules are needed – and some very simple rules too. I know writers hate rules, but when the rules are clear and concise and uninhibiting, then writers’ groups will benefit as a result. Very quickly, these are the rules I like to have in my own group:

1) If you must criticize an element of someone’s writing, be very specific about what you didn’t like about it and more importantly, WHY.

2) Take the “sandwich” approach to criticism. Open with a compliment about what you did like – again, be very specific – and THEN go into the constructive criticism. Then finish it off with another compliment.

3) Try and be as sincere as you can. Writers can be awfully sensitive to criticism, especially new writers, but if you’re sincere and honest about wanting to help them become better at their craft, they will sense that and respond in kind.

4) Give everyone a chance to say something, taking turns with a timer if need be. This way, no one talks over each other and everyone gets a few minutes to say what they need to say. 5) Keep it respectful, professional and fun.

Those rules are more guidelines than rules, but they’ve served me and the other group members very well.

It’s like the biology class – the teacher has a structure in place for students to learn. When you dissect that frog, it’s exciting and disgusting, but you’re doing it for the greater purpose of learning together.

So, in your writers’ group, you are a critic, and yes, you are dissecting another person’s work. Just keep in mind that if you pull out a page and fold it into an airplane for cheap entertainment, it’s a bloody insult. Take care with the words you read, and take care with the advice you receive. We’re all in this anatomy class together, so let’s try and keep it to good, civil discourse. Everyone benefits as a result – yourself included. Sent from my BlackBerry device on the Rogers Wireless Network

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Four books in the fire. Dozens of short stories fluttering about. Mission: To get the word out.

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