Murder your Darlings

Last night’s writing meetup began with a lively critique of a zero draft. Building a frame from the pulpy beginning is the most entertaining part of the process. It’s a barn-raising. “Develop the scaffolding like this.” “It needs a 10-point list and then the explanation.” “You’ve got to figure out which of these two things you are doing, because right now you’re trying to do both and it’s not working.” The author, all grace and nods, filled three pages with notes. She knew she had brought us rubbish. Her excitement about taking the suggestions home was infectious and everyone was giggling by the end of the discussion.
It turns out proofreading for a government contracting journal can be more pleasant than a root canal.
The benefits of writing group participation are obvious to anyone who has been in one. We know anecdotally that the combination of camaraderie, accountability, and feedback keep us moving towards better work. If only my frazzled doctoral students would drink the kool-aid. They hear it from everyone then hear ten more times from me: Cobble a group together early. Like first-year early, well before you head off to the Balkans or Omaha or wherever your research strands you. Before you discover you must birth this monster all alone.
Curious about the scholarship out there on writing groups for graduate students and hoping to find a study correlating participation and degree completion (I didn’t), I dug around in the education literature. The piece I wrote on the topic, Writing Better Together, notes that the intuitive benefits of group participation are supported by the research. Students who participate in groups report improvements in output, skills, and confidence.
Surely, we hoi polloi can glean a thing or two from the findings. Here is one: Groups with diverse membership showed the greatest gains. The ideal setup is a mix of native and non-native English speakers with various levels of experience and a mix of research interests. Participants are forced into a greater awareness of the reader and more dexterous communication with a wide range of audiences.
Here is another: Some folks complain that groups are a time-suck and that energy is better spent attending to one’s own work. This doesn’t pan out. Collaboration and group participation contribute to productivity, even when the attention is on others’ material. Beyond the obvious improvement from receiving feedback, folks are often surprised at how much their own writing develops as a result of giving feedback. The reciprocal advantages of peer tutoring help explain why attending to the form style, and clarity of some other fella’s work can improve the writing of the one doing the critiquing.
Finally, a good writing group thwarts the doubt, insecurity, and fear of rejection gumming up the works. Regardless of variance in skill levels and topics, folks who stick by one another report being more productive, confident, and motivated to write.
We are lucky. Our first Tuesday meetup has a solid core surrounded by a porous outer layer. The folks who stick with it have come to depend on each other. Taking our work out of our private alcoves and placing it into rough, human hands makes it better. Or rather, it makes us better at making it. Signing on forces the choice: improve or keep hiding.
Last night near the end of the gathering, our own Sir Edmund Hillary led us into a heady conversation about criticism. “What was the best critique you ever received?” Around we went, re-living the mortification of having mentors and friends pierce our inflated egos. Here are some of the scars that make us marginally better today than we were yesterday:

  • Where’s the “so what”?
  • The first draft is always garbage.
  • Clear writing = clear thinking.
  • The reader doesn’t care about this subject unless you are in love with it.
  • Don’t be boring.
  • Be the reader’s surrogate.
  • Murder your darlings.

We go home and hammer away at our projects. Someone who knows we are capable of better and more will be asking us about it in four weeks’ time.
Commitment is a cruel mistress. She cracks the whip.
Now, how to get my students to enlist?