Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Writing in a Vacuum: Why Community is Essential to Writers

One piece of advice that most writers get at the beginning of their careers is this: Don’t write in a vacuum.

What does it mean to write in a vacuum? It means that you never share your work with anyone, or if you do, it’s just with a close friend, spouse, or family member, someone who’s either not qualified to give you honest and useful feedback, or won’t for fear of hurting your feelings.

Why is writing in a vacuum bad for your professional growth as a writer? Because writing in a vacuum means that you’re likely to develop a biased opinion of your own work whether or not that opinion is warranted. Writing in a vacuum means you won’t learn to accept constructive criticism gracefully, something you'll need to do if you ever want to work as a professional writer. Most of all, writing in a vacuum means that you aren’t benefiting from being part of the larger writing community, where people share the same journey, the same questions, the same fears, the same hopes. Being part of a writing community helps you develop networking skills and allows you to step outside your own head once in a while, to see your work through different sets of eyes. And being part of a writing community will help you become a better writer.

Joining a writing workshop or class is a great way to prevent yourself from writing in a vacuum. And if you live in a major metropolitan area, it’s usually fairly easy to find or start a small critique group of your own. MeetUp and Facebook are two excellent tools for helping you find local writers who share your particular passions. Writers’ conferences are another smart way to meet and network with large groups of writers, with the added bonus that conferences also offer educational panels and workshops where you can meet with industry professionals and ask questions.

But even if you don’t live in a metropolitan area or can’t afford to attend a writers’ conference, you can still build a community for yourself in one of the myriad writers’ forums, critique groups, and writing workshops that have recently emerged online.

If you write genre fiction, you may want to consider joining Book Country, the online writing workshop I manage for Penguin. We’ve put together a pretty friendly online space focused on the needs of science fiction, fantasy, romance, mystery, and thriller writers, with a place to upload and critique your work as well as participate in discussions with other members. (And it's free! Woot!) Two other great communities for genre fiction writers include the Critters Workshop (also free!) and the wonderful Online Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror (the first and the original online writing workshop, and a bargain at $49 a year). All three communities operate in slightly different ways, but they have one important thing in common: they're safe spaces for aspiring genre fiction writers to get genuinely helpful feedback on their work and build a network of other writers.

If genre fiction isn’t your thing, perhaps one of these other excellent writing communities will work for you instead.
  • Focused more on literary fiction, poetry or memoir? Try the Speakeasy Message Forum at Poets & Writers.
  • Writing for younger readers? Try Wattpad or Figment, both huge and thriving communities catering primarily (but not exclusively) to younger readers and writers.
  • Looking for less of a workshop space and more of a general writing conversation? Try Absolute Write or Backspace, two great discussion boards for writers.

Or you can simply Google the words "online writing community" and explore the gazillion choices that pop up; because the truth is that no matter what it is you write, there’s a writing community out there just waiting to welcome you.

(PS: Feel free to add links to your own favorite writing communities and conferences - virtual or real! - in the comments thread below. When I get enough good ones, I'll incorporate them into the post above. Cheers!)