In defense of writing groups

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?

8 thoughts on “In defense of writing groups

  1. Catana

    I’m somewhat down on writing groups, which really isn’t fair because I’ve never been in one. Maybe I’ve let myself be too influenced by the horror stories. This is a well-balanced post that should help people better understand why a group can be a good thing, and why it isn’t responsible for what they ultimately do with their work. I would add, though, that the value of any group depends on the knowledgability of the members. If they don’t know enough about the basics and the gritty details of writing, they can wind up sharing kudos for work that is so subpar it would take a miracle to save it.

    1. mirandasuri

      I completely agree with your last point – the group needs to be in sync in terms of experience and knowledge. If you’ve attended workshops like Clarion or VP, you should be in a group with people who’ve done the same.

  2. efkelley

    Yes, definitely use workshops to find people of like minds and skillsets to work with. It seems to have worked well for Miranda and myself. 🙂

  3. Amy

    I like your take, and advice. I haven’t been in a writing group since college (a long time ago :), but I think the biggest thing I learned was the importance of the group staying focused and professional, and avoiding any social vibes – in other words, DO NOT meet over coffee to talk about work and give feedback.

  4. Matt Hughes

    I definitely agree with your comment on experience and knowledge.

    I left my last writing group behind over 7 years ago. It was filled with good people and it gave me a lot of motivation to write. However, it was a very diverse group. Maybe 3 or 4 were into fantasy or sci-fi. No offense but if you only write poetry, your feedback on my epic fantasy novel is not very helpful. And it’s unlikely I’m going to be able to help you.

    On the other hand, the little community I’ve built with Viable Paradise has been perfect.

    Oh, and since I’m a fan – Writing Excuses did a podcast on Writing Groups back in Season 2 (that’s 2008). A fun listen.

    http://www.writingexcuses.com/2008/11/10/writing-excuses-season-2-episode-5-writing-groups/

  5. NicoleMD

    I currently belong to four writing groups (three critique groups and an actual group where we get together to write…well supposedly) so I totally feel what you mean by time sink.

    I gotta admit, I like the more social groups the best. Not that we don’t do work too, it’s just that the strictly professional ones feel too “wham, bam, thank you ma’am” for me. I take my work seriously when I’m writing it, and when I get out of the house, I want to have a little fun too.

    Also, I think some of the best stories often get the harshest critiques, not because we don’t like them, but they are so close to being awesome that it just gets you worked up. That’s why it’s important to give positive feedback as well, so people don’t ditch a story entirely.

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