by Scott Rhoades
If you have ever been serious about improving your tennis game, you know that the best approach is to play against people who are slightly better than you are. You want to play against players who challenge you, and who will most likely beat you, but against whom you have a chance to win when you're really on your game.
It doesn't do you any good to play against somebody whose serve is unreturnable. Likewise, you don't want to play against someone who can't return your serve. If your opponent is too good, you're more likely to get discouraged and give up than you are to improve. If your opponent can't keep the ball in the court, you're not going to get any better.
The ideal tennis partner is one who forces you to give your best if you're going to stand a chance, but who you can beat, even if it's only once in every ten matches.
Your writers group should be similar. If you want to get better, you need to be in a group where the other members are good enough to challenge you, and who know enough to point out the areas where you can do better.
Writing is a complex exercise, so it's possible to excel in one part of the game while needing a lot of help in others. The ideal group is composed of people who are excellent in different areas, and who can each push the other members to improve that part of their game, while still benefiting from the expertise the other members have in other areas.
I'm lucky enough to be in a group where each member excels in at least one area of writing, but nobody is so dominant that the others can't contribute. We have people who are excellent at voice, at grammar, at plot, story concepts, characterization, queries, and other aspects of writing. Each of us has our areas where we excel and our areas where we need help. Nobody dominates, and when somebody can't participate for one reason or another, their strengths are missed. People who are less experienced are no less important because there are things that they do especially well, or problems they are especially good at spotting in the work of others. People who are more experienced aren't so amazingly good that they have nothing to learn from the rest of us.
We all have strengths and weaknesses, and we also have some areas where everyone in the group needs to improve. You know what I mean--those things that are hard to see in your own writing but are easy to spot in others' work. In our case, it seems to be bringing out the emotional responses of characters.
If you've ever been in a group where one person dominates and others always defer to his or her expertise, then you know how easy it is to lose the balance that makes a group work. Plus, you have to wonder what the dominant member of the group really gets out of it, when nobody else can help him or her improve.
So, when you look for a group, find one that is going to force you to grow and stretch you skills, but who will not leave you discouraged and feeling outclassed. Your game won't get any better if every serve is an ace. You also won't improve if you consistently win without giving your best effort.
Getting creamed in any game is no fun. Neither is creaming the other guy every time. Every game should require you to play your best, and should reward you when you have a good day.
There are so many writers out there with so many skill levels that you should be able to find the right group. I wish you luck in your search. It can make the difference between continuous improvement or stagnation.