I’ve been to several writing groups over the years, starting with my very first one when I was still at college. My dad, for a while, helped out with some adult learning and spotted a flyer for it at the local library and encouraged me to go. Over the years there has been quite a mixed bag and I’ve encountered all of the ones I talk about below.
My least favourite writing group is one full of pretentious arty farty types – think middle aged men in cravats – who think they are qualified to give scathing literary critiques are required because they actually believe their eye is as good as a booker prize judge. They once had a letter printed in the back of the local newspaper and can crush the fledgling writer in their very palm. Which is good, because they haven’t got anywhere and they don’t want anyone else to yet either.
The other side of that coin comes in the group that is too friendly. Great for building up confidence and self-esteem, but if all the feedback is positive then you never really improve. It might be less likely to make you cry, but it’s really no more beneficial than the one above.
All too common is the giant writing group, where you only have two minutes and forty seven seconds to read 800 words and get a whopping 2 minutes of feedback. One of those minutes is usually wasted on deciding on who goes first. Not exactly useful.
So, having run that psychological gauntlet, is it worth being part of a writing group? The answer is most definitely. But there are a couple of factors that have to be, like Goldilock’s porridge, just right.
The Right People
So you all love writing. Great. You have the sum total of one thing in common and you don’t even agree on that. It takes more than being a writer, but doesn’t automatically mean you need to have a heap of other similar interest either. What you do need is a group of people you like enough to trust. Sharing your WIP when it is a new thing, all yours, is an scary experience. If you fear getting shot down, or being given meaningless praise, then you’ll share the stuff that doesn’t matter most to you. You want encouragement, but also suggestions and help that is genuine. Trust will grow over time, but that means having the right people in the mix.
Make sure you’re not all writing in the same genre. This may sound counter-intuitive, but trust me, it’s not. Not because you might see the people in your group as competition – success can and should happen to everyone there if they deserve it – but because it dramatically reduces the group’s perspective. If you write literary fiction, being able to persuade someone who writes YA or SciFi will mean you have done more than just write for those who are already going to like it. That forces you to notice craft and really kick it up a level.
There is great value in having experience which spans from beginner to already published. A group of writers who have one or two rejections between them, have never networked, will by design have a limited perspective. Conversely, a group of published writers are also coming from the same perspective. A writing group comprised of people at all stages means that point of view can be handed up as well as down. No one there has an invalid opinion. Even if you are working on your first draft, you have the perspective that the rest of the group may have forgotten. Sometimes, this can be a handy reminder of why everyone is doing it in the first place. This mix, in my mind, is the most useful element you can have in your group.
Get these things correct and it’ll be smooth sailing. Of course, you might not get it straight away. Every group will evolve naturally over time regardless. But it stops writing from being a solitary experience, where the only people who understand are the people in your head. It will open your eyes to new worlds and perspectives.
My writing group now is a mix of all of the above and it is one of the most inspiring and motivation things I have ever been a part of. When I left for my spell in New Zealand, I felt its loss more than I probably should have done.
Anyone else had a similar experience? Do you know that annoying man in the cravat? Let me know in the comments!