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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Writing Groups: Help or Hell?

Have you ever been in a writing group, or thought about joining or starting one? This post about it got me thinking. I was in a writing group years ago, and it fizzled (first for me; then eventually for them). My fizzle was my fault, I'd say, for:

a) not having enough current writing to make it worth going, and worth the group's time to critique me;
b) not realizing that there's limited value in having critiques from people whose writing expertise is based in entirely different markets or styles of writing (unless they are very eclectic readers and/or very astute critiquers), and
c) not being willing to commit the time to prepare pieces that are polished enough to benefit from critique and set aside time for the meeting itself.

And although I didn't find competitiveness an issue in that group, I think that also has to be part of the process when deciding whether to join a group or figuring out membership if you're starting one.

It seems that while writers long to break the isolation and yearn for meaty feedback from people who aren't our "bosses" (our agents, our editors, or others for whom we work) or our friends/family (who may be biased and/or tired of hearing about it), finding people you can learn from, and who can learn from you, is not an easy thing.

If you've ever participated in a writing group that worked well for you, what do you think made it succeed? And if you've been in groups that tanked or weren't at all helpful, why?


  1. As someone who both leads writing workshops (paid leader) and has participated in writing groups (no paid leader), I'd have to agree with you that finding people you can learn from is not an easy thing. But at a certain point in the writing journey, it's the most important thing. Deadlines and support are important, too, but as a writer grows in skill in confidence, I think discerning and appropriate feedback become even more important. And if you're thinking of starting or joining a writing group, it's hard to know in advance what the quality of the feedback will be like. I've encountered plenty of very good writers whose feedback to others is not nearly as astute as you'd think it would be. On the other hand, I've encountered smart beginning writers who observations are quite useful. They may not know exactly how to communicate those insights most helpfully yet, but their instincts are excellent.

  2. I said during a meeting once that a friend/writer/writing teacher always tells her students not to ask for feedback from anyone who depends on them for sex, food or money. I would add don't share your half done work with another writer.

    I realize that is a hard line to take but I have had clients come to me basically beat up from writers groups and don't think it is worth the risk. On the other hand the writing group here that has all the best writers in it can't get to the writing because they are always talking about the business. As professionals, that is what is going on for them.

    I am a Freudian. I think you have to pay for the help or you can always dismiss it, skip the meeting, day dream while another writer's work is being discussed,just waiting for your turn, which they will then do to you.

    I think when we are in a writing mode we are in our most selfish mode and that is a great thing. We are in that place where we tune out the entire universe including husbands and children. But for me, it has to be inviolate, no phone,no food,in a room of my own.

    Late revisions might benefit from readings.