“Writing is a solitary pursuit,” said award-winning author Robin Hemley, explaining why he has “no patience” for belonging to a writer’s group. You might argue that Robin has reached a level in his career where he doesn’t need feedback from other writers. He is an accomplished writer of fiction, nonfiction and poetry. He directs the Nonfiction Writing Program in the University of Iowa’s esteemed workshop program, and also teaches in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program. It was at last winter’s VCFA residency that I heard him explain that while writer’s groups may be right for others, they were not right for him.
But Hemley recognizes that a critical eye remains essential to him prior to publication. For years, he said, he and a fellow writer for whom he has tremendous respect have shared their work with each other. He didn’t articulate at what stage they share work–rough draft, near-final, just before submission to editors–but he made clear that it was substantial in terms of the number of pages. He also made clear that the quid-pro-quo arrangement was a critical part of his creative process.
I have recently heard this arrangement referred to with a very 21st Century name–beta readers. It even has its own Wikipedia page. As I approach the completion, after 2-1/2 years, of my travel memoir, I find the concept intriguing. I belong to a writer’s group, formed just before I began my MFA program in the summer of 2011. But I have not shared any excerpts of my memoir-in-progress in months.
I have found that with that group, and with workshops at VCFA residencies, the feedback I receive on a particular excerpt provides me little value. That is no slight on my creative peers. It is because of what I seek. What I need now is a more holistic look at the manuscript. I am focused on consistency in voice, steady pacing, a logical progression of narrative lines. You can’t judge the health of a forest through close examination of one tree.
Longtime readers of The Artist’s Road know I am on a journey of discovery, seeking to unearth the many secrets that underlay a successful pursuit of an art-committed life. The practice of beta reading–a one-on-one exchange of manuscripts–is my latest curiosity. I would welcome your thoughts and experiences on this approach to creative peer review.