Over the years, I’ve participated in a lot of writers groups. I’ve sat in teacher-led groups and I’ve led groups. I’ve hunkered down in more egalitarian settings where there is no leader. I’ve done poetry writing groups, sci fi and fantasy groups, and even a handful of journaling groups.
What do I think of them? A good writers group is invaluable. An average one – or a bad one – can easily do more harm than good. At a minimum you’ll waste time and in the worst case scenario you’ll end up processing a lot of egoic feedback from writers who have no business reading and responding to your work.
There’s a lot of ego in a workshop – sometimes it’s shrinking violet energy. You know – somebody introduced everything they write with “this is really terrible but . . . ” Or they praise everything everyone else writes.
On the other hand, are the people who have either an exaggerated appreciation for their skills or are compensating for their insecurity with a big voice. These are the people who have no idea when to stop criticizing, who never blend criticism with praise or helpful suggestions.
And even when people aren’t at those extremes, you’re still in a highly sensitive social situation. Some people just rub you the wrong way. They’re too gossipy. They’re too academic. They’re too hung up on their genre.
It’s almost impossible to find the perfect group, so what you really need to do is figure out how to balance these extremes. Over the years I’ve put together a few criteria to help me sort out the good from the bad when it comes to writing groups. Keep in mind that what fits one writer isn’t going to fit another. You might find my suggestions utter crap. If that’s the case, no hard feelings.
Keep in mind, too, that most writers move back and forth along a fairly broad continuum when it comes to behavior. I’m pretty steady these days when it comes to writing publicly, but I’m capable of being a jerk. A little forgiveness and patience is never a bad thing in life, the more so in writing groups.
The first thing I look for is leadership. Who’s the boss? Sometimes you have an MFA grad leading a workshop. Sometimes you have established writers leading them. Sometimes it’s just whoever happens to feel like posting the notices and organizing the get-togethers.
If there’s a boss, they’re going to set the tone. Talk to them before you meet. What are they like? Can they hold their end of a conversation with you? Are they interested in you? If it’s a solid group, they won’t be letting just anybody in, and they’ll want to be sure it’s a good fit on their end.
If you don’t get along with the head honcho, odds are that you’re not going to make it with the balance of the group either.
It can go without saying that if poetry is your thing then a strictly fiction writing group might is probably not the best idea for you. But if you are writing fiction, it’s still a good idea to get a sense of what type of fiction people are writing.
For example, many years ago (this story makes me look like an idiot so let’s agree that “many” in this case means twenty) I was in a writing group with a talented writer whose genre was fairy tales. She knew them backwards and forwards, this culture and that culture. Her goal as a fiction writer was to rewrite them in contemporary settings.
I had no idea how to appreciate that. I was very limited in that area – had a very narrow idea of what fairy tales were and what could be done with them. And while I’m generally a pretty good critic, I was not for this one woman. I meant well, but my critiques were useless because I had no concept of what she was doing.
If you’re into writing tragic rural realism, you might want to steer clear of a workshop in which all the writers are ga ga over Philip K. Dick. I’m not saying that sci fi or fantasy writers can’t provide an honest and helpful critique of your work in that instance, but they have to be pretty generous and well-read to pull it off.
I also like to get a sense of the format. I like to read work in advance of meeting. It’s very hard for me to really delve into a piece of writing if I’m only just hearing/reading it for the first time. The best writing groups have always shared writing via email at least a week before meeting. We’d print the work, mark it up, and write a (fairly long) letter going into depth about it.
Then, when we sat down, we’d go in a circle. Each member would walk through their letter. When we were done, the writer whose work was on the block would ask questions to get a head start on the rewriting process.
It was a great format, the more so because we met at various public watering holes. If it’s the right mix of people, you can get a lot of work done over food and drink.
There’s no getting around – nor should there be – the fact that writing is a fundamentally solitary activity. If you can’t handle sitting down alone with nothing between you and your thoughts but language, then you should probably look for a new hobby or line of work. Writing groups can alleviate the solitude but they cannot altogether eliminate it.
It’s a good idea, then, to know what it is that you want from your group. Are you going mostly to chat with fellow writers? Or do you really need some people to help you pick up your chops? Do you want help with an existing project or are you trying to start something new?
Once you’ve committed yourself to a group it’s a good idea to stick with it for a while before you bail. A couple of months has always felt right in this regard. You’re a new face and so you want to give everyone time to get used to you. That also means you get to see their better sides, too. Group dynamics are complicated in the best of situations and exposing yourself through writing doesn’t make it any easier.
Finally, some people ask me about cost. What’s fair and what’s not when it comes to paying to learn writing? A group that’s facilitated by a writing teacher is a different kind of beast than a writer’s group. If there’s a cost associated with joining, then you’re not in a writer’s group. You’re taking lessons. And I’m going to handle that issue in a separate post.
I will add that writing groups have provided an important ancillary benefit to me over the years. I have learned a lot about myself. I have seen both my weaknesses and my strengths on full display. I have learned what I do well in respect to other people and I have learned what I don’t do well at all. I have learned how to be patient and I have learned how to be forgiving. These are skills that stand by me in all areas of life, not just writing.
Your writers group is not going to make or break you as a writer. Don’t sweat that particular detail. When it’s right, you know it’s right. If you end up in the wrong setting, make an adjustment. Keep writing. Always keep writing.