We’ve talked here about having people read your work in progress and give you feedback. We’ve talked about when to do it, how to ask for it, and who to ask. (Check out this post and this post.) But what I realized we haven’t really done is explore the different labels that get thrown around for the people who might help you with your book. How is a critique group different from writing buddies? How is an editor different than a book coach?
Let’s talk about why we would even want one or more of these types of partnerships or writing groups in our lives. I’m talking to you, dear fellow introverts who would rather hide under a blanket at home than share our work with anyone, let alone have to hear their critical feedback. I’ve said this before but I’ll say it again. At the end of the day, writing is a solitary activity. You alone are the boss of your story, you get to make all of the decisions up until it gets into the hands of a publisher (and even then, you’ll still get to make decisions!) However, writing alone doesn’t work for most of us. Some of us need partners for accountability. Some of us need to have someone in our lives who understands this crazy writing life.
And all of us need objective eyes on our work at various points in the process to help us find plot holes, flat characters, and all of the other things that can slip under the radar because we, the writer, have it in our heads but can fail to get it on the page.
So let’s run through the types of writing groups that we hear about and what, in theory, they might offer. And as I’ve said before, the labels aren’t as important as what the group is actually doing, so the descriptions matter more than the titles.
Writing buddies are about accountability and producing pages. Writing buddies might meet at a coffee shop or at someone’s home and write for two hours every Wednesday evening. Writing buddies might email each other once a week or every day with a report on how many words or pages they produced. Writing buddies are not reading each other’s work. Writing buddies don’t need to be writing the same genre. Writing buddies are simply supporting each other in what is, for many of us, the hardest part of writing: getting words on the page.
Writing buddies are great because they are social and highly motivating. If you are someone who craves that external accountability for getting writing done, this is a great type of partnership to look for. A pitfall with these types of groups or partnerships is that it’s really easy to just not show up or make excuses for why you didn’t get your writing done. Your feet will not be held to the fire in quite the same way they are in a critique group. If you are planning to team up with writing buddies and external accountability is a big need for you, I recommend that you find additional ways to reward or motivate yourself in addition to this partnership.
Critique groups offer accountability in the manner that you have a deadline by which to submit pages. Critique group members read each other’s pages and provide feedback, often in a setting where everyone shares their thoughts at the same time while the writer listens and takes it in. Critique groups are usually writing the same genre, but not necessarily.
A benefit of critique groups is that it raises the stakes on accountability AND provides you with feedback as you go. On the other hand, a critique group usually has a handful of people in it, which means that you are getting a variety of feedback which may conflict with each other, leaving you unsure of how to proceed. And, to be frank, not everyone in a critique group is going to be highly skilled in giving feedback to other writers. Being able to write and being able to give constructive, useful, and yet respectful feedback do not go hand in hand. So if you are considering joining a critique group, I recommend that you sit in and listen to a couple of sessions first before committing. That way you will have a sense of what you are getting in to.
Let’s switch gears a little and talk about people that you might hire to help you with your book, when you might need them, and why they are valuable.
When I say “editor,” you might first think that I’m talking about the person at the publishing house who helps you polish the book once it has been selected for publication. That is one type of editor, but not the one I’m talking about today. Freelance editors are available everywhere to help you do a great deal of polishing before you even begin to look for an agent or publisher. The editor will look at the entire manuscript and give feedback based on the type of service you hired her for. (Side note: there are several different editorial services; I’ll put a link in the show notes to a great article that breaks these down.) When I wrote the first draft of my first book and then revised it to the best of my ability, I hired a freelance editor to do a developmental edit on my manuscript. After reviewing the book, she wrote me an editorial letter with several pages worth of suggested revisions to specific scenes and chapters.
This kind of feedback is monumentally helpful. It is professional and knowledgeable feedback that will point you in the right direction for revision. The downside of this is that it is typically a one-shot deal. You send off your pages, they send you feedback, and that’s the end. Unless you pay again for another edit, which I ended up doing with my book.
A book coach works with a writer throughout the writing process and, depending on the coach and/or the service purchased, into the revision and pitching stages. There is regular communication — weekly or twice-monthly in most cases — deadlines, and regular written and verbal feedback. There is the opportunity for conversation about the writer’s intentions and what is coming across on the page…and how to bring them together.
A book coach serves as your biggest champion, another person who is (almost) as invested in your book as you are. A simple comparison might be this: a gymnast performs in a competition. The editor is the judge who is giving feedback on the performance. The gymnast will take that feedback when she goes back to practice for the next competition. The book coach is the coach who has worked with the gymnast along the way and now stands on the sidelines at the competition, cheering. Both services are good; it just comes down to what you need in the moment.
So why did I share all of this with you today? Because as you head out and look to build your writing community, I want you to think ahead of time about what it is that you are actually looking for, and then review the options with a critical eye to make sure it’s a good fit. There are stories of people who have stopped writing because of bad experiences, and I don’t want that for you. You and your story are too important.