Today I want to talk about writing groups. For some reason, I’ve been hearing a lot of flap lately about the downsides of writing groups. Personally, my experiences have been largely positive, but I’ve heard horror stories, too. So, I thought I’d chime in with some thoughts about the pros and cons.
A whole host of issues can crop up when you get a group of writers together to share and comment on each others’ work — bruised egos, hurt feelings, jealousy and all that. Find the right group of folks, though, and these problems largely disappear. Frankly, interpersonal issues are not a writing group problem, but a group dynamic problem. If you were introduced to a circle of friends who had negative energy, you probably wouldn’t hang out with them again. The same should go for writing groups. So, step one: find a group with a good dynamic.
A more serious concern is the time suck. Participating in a regular writing group is time consuming. You’ve got to read the subs, write your critiques, and make time for the meetings. Some writers feel this takes away from their most important task – actually finding time to write. No doubt, this can be a problem, but all that work reading and critiquing is valuable in of itself. In analyzing and pulling apart another person’s story, you learn a lot about what works and what doesn’t. In offering suggestions, you improve your understanding of how to structure and shape a plot and characters. The key here, though, is being in a group where the other writers are at (or just above) your own level of skill. If you’re reading material substantially substandard to your own, you aren’t going to get out as much as you put in. Finally, if you still feel like you spend all your time critiquing, maybe your group needs to meet less often, include fewer members, or limit the word length for subs.
One of the biggest (and, in my opinion, most legitimate) criticisms I’ve heard about writing groups is that they can have an effect counter to their purpose. Namely, members of writing groups sometimes end up not subbing their writing for publication because of the writing group. Rather, they spin round in a cycle of revising, sending the piece to their writing group, receiving critical feedback, revising…and on and on. Eventually, they abandon the piece as not good enough and never send it out.
If you find submitting your work to a writing group is preventing you from eventually sending that work out into the world to sink or swim…well, honestly, that’s your own fault, not the fault of the writing group. Remember, it’s your story. The reason you’re writing it is to try and get it published. So, set a limit for yourself on how many times you’ll send it out for critique. After all, the job of your crit partners is to provide critical feedback. No story is perfect, no matter how many times you revise it. If you keep sending it to the writing group, of course they’re going to keep giving you feedback. At some point, you have to trust your own instincts about when the story is ready to go out.
So…my experiences: I currently belong to two writing groups, each very different from the other.
The first I’ve been part of for about a year and a half. It consists of seven members, all of whom met in person before forming the group. We submit writing via email on an ad hoc basis; when someone has something they need critiqued, they send it out to the group. Members of the group provide feedback within a week or so, replying to all so everyone can follow along. The other group is brand new and has met only once so far. There are only three of us, not all of whom have met in person. We submit work on a monthly basis on a set date, prepare critiques, and then “meet” on Skype to present our feedback. Thus far, both groups have worked out very well, providing valuable feedback, diverse perspectives, and a community to share successes and failures with.
I’m curious to know how other writing groups function and what you find beneficial (as well as detrimental) about them. Tell me what you think. How are your writing groups set up? What works and what doesn’t? And, in your opinion, are writing groups worth the trouble?