The One Surprising Thing That Helped Me Improve as a Writer

This article was originally published on my Substack.

Since January, I’ve been in Second Draft writing group, which is offered by Writing Class Radio. I was curious to see how Second Draft compared to First Draft.

Second Draft is more intimate and more expensive. Eager to find out how Second Class would impact my writing for the better, I started noticing a common theme.

As the months rolled by, I began to understand the thing that was clearly helping me—listening. Yep, that’s it. Such a simple thing has profoundly changed the way I think and write.

In today’s newsletter, I’ll convey how listening to what others write and talk about in First Draft and Second Draft has improved my own writing.  

Second Draft vs. First Draft

Second Draft is more intimate than First Draft. There are only six people in the group and they don’t allow more than that. If you want to join and the group is full, you have to wait until the start of the next enrollment period, which is based on a three-month-ish time frame.

First Draft usually has 15-ish or more people and it’s an open group, meaning, you can join at any time, no matter the month.

Second Draft is a longer class (~ 1.5 hours) and more in-depth in terms of getting feedback on your personal essays. Unlike First Draft (1 hour), you must come to class prepared with an essay you want to read (when it’s your turn). 

Why I joined First Draft

When I first started searching for a writing group, I was overwhelmed. There are tons out there. There are groups that meet on Zoom and just write—no talking or feedback. There are other groups that write about a prompt in real time and then read and give feedback. I knew I wanted more of the latter.

Then one day when I was listening to Writing Class Radio’s podcast, I heard Allison (the host) talking about First Draft. I was intrigued. So I went on their website and joined since the first class is free. 

Once or twice a week (there are two different days offered), we gathered on Zoom to write and then share. 

I didn’t realize it, but listening is such a huge part of writing. In First and Second Draft, I listened to how other writers structured their essays. I picked up on things like engaging dialogue, immaculate prose, and meaning. Then, I listened some more as other writers gave feedback.

At first, I was intimidated, mostly because I was new and wasn’t familiar with what was going on. But as the weeks went on, I got more comfortable and started giving feedback as I listened for what I liked or didn’t, and why.

With Second Draft, I realized I was getting a deeper listening experience. The class is longer and you can really get into discussions that spawn from the stories that are read in class.

I was training my brain to alway ask, “What is this story about?” 

Why I joined Second Draft

After being a First Draft member for several months, Andrea (the host) emailed me to let me know a spot was open in Second Draft. 

I knew it was more expensive at ~ $150 a month (vs. $35 a month for First Draft), but for me, it’s all about value. I was already getting a ton of benefits from First Draft, so a smaller setting appealed to me. 

How Second Draft works

Three people are chosen to read in each class. Each person (called “the narrator”) gets about 20 minutes to read their piece and for feedback, so it’s a good amount of time to read and receive feedback. 

Sometimes, mini-debates unfurl—why people thought certain parts worked or didn’t. I am fascinated by these discussions and how so many opinions force me to think in a different way. It gets me out of my own head.

I think of it like baking banana bread. I know my recipe is pretty damn good, but then I hear about John’s method of tweaking the temperature or how Mary uses a 1/2 cup of boxed cake mix, and my baker’s mind is blown. 

I started getting better at listening for things like:

  • What is this story about? Does the story stick to that one concept? Or is it really two essays in one? 
  • Were there parts that confused me? Why? 
  • Meaning and what resonates with the audience. Is there something relatable and universal in the piece? 

How this group helps me with my memoir

When it’s my turn to read, I sometimes share scenes from my memoir or drafts of certain Substack posts. I like having a trusted circle of amazing writers I can share my work with. Everyone is direct. I know it can be hard to hear criticism, but because I’ve been writing for most of my career, I’ve grown thick skin. 

I want my writing to get better, so I lean into the punches. My classmates aren’t afraid to say, “Cut this,” or “That added nothing to the overall story because…” 

It’s not all bad of course. It’s a lovely dance of praise and criticism. 

When I sat down and worked out scenes in my memoir, I could almost hear my classmates. “What are you trying to say in this part? Do you need to ramble on about that?”

These thoughts consumed me each time I’d write to the point where I took a huge step back on the first manuscript I had written. I kept wondering, would my memoir resonate with my writing group and a bigger audience, in general?

My gut told me it would not. So I changed the direction of my memoir. 🫣

All of these things are helping me to write better scenes in my memoir and remove all the parts that readers won’t be interested in. This isn’t easy when you’re writing about your life and seeing it through your lens. Second Draft helps with this so much.

Getting your personal essay published

Second Draft is geared towards writers who want to get published in a top-tier publication. It’s so inspiring when it happens to the hosts—they both had recent wins in The Washington Post and Huffington Post. Sometimes my classmates also get their stuff published too. 

I’d love to get a personal essay published somewhere. To me, it would be a huge accomplishment and help give me that “writer street cred,” since I have yet to publish my book. 

I’m learning more about what it takes to get your stuff accepted in a top-tier publication, including:

  • What to write in a pitch letter (in a way, this is helping me understand what to write when I need to come up with a pitch letter for the publication of my book).
  • Which publications accept what kind of essays—Andrea and my classmates often have suggestions for where essays would be a great fit for submission.
  • Getting the inside scoop on which editors to email. (This is when Andrea receives a specific request from an editor or sees something on Twitter, for example.)

Writing groups help with motivation

Most days, I have no problems working on my memoir. I write in the wee hours of the morning at my desk— a mug of coffee on my left and a scented candle on my right (I have a weakness for those three-wick candles from Bath & Body Works). 

But sometimes, I get stuck on the structure or why a particular scene should or shouldn’t be included. This is when I start to procrastinate or feel myself deflating.

Sidenote—when I feel this happening, I don’t force it anymore. Instead of harping on what isn’t working, I switch gears and do something else, like start on my next piece for Second Draft, my Substack, or I go on a walk. Or when it’s Tuesday, I jump into First Draft and write to a random prompt. It forces me to think about something that is not my memoir.

When I write about something else and then return to my memoir, I feel refreshed. Sometimes, this helps spark new ideas. (I sort of wrote about this idea in why we should write more uselessly.)

If you’re struggling to keep your motivation going or want to hone your craft through the power of listening in a writing group, come on by—the first class is free. Just email Allison or Andrea:

Also, the people in First and Second Draft are just… cool. I could probably have coffee or hang with anyone in the group. It’s a great community of mostly women. I look forward to seeing everyone’s smiley faces each week.

One last note, the hosts didn’t pay me or ask me to write this review. I find tremendous value in these groups and it’s one of the major ways I can tell I’m getting better at writing.

If you write, I’d love to know what’s helping you. Feel free to comment here or on Substack.