Writing Groups: do you need one?

I’ve been a member of a writing group for almost ten years now and I can’t tell you how valuable it’s been. The comments and criticisms I’ve received have been very helpful and the regular input and support from people who understand the writing process is a huge benefit. You soon learn whose opinions to take seriously and not to get too hung up on negative comments. Even when the other fourteen members all agreed that the latest chapter in my WIP was rubbish. To a man they fell, like a row of dominoes, queuing up to tell me how bad my work was. The criticism went round the table like a Mexican wave. I went home bruised, and questioning my ability. What was I doing wrong? I put their behaviour down to mob mentally but at the time, it hurt. I mean, none of them were even published.

Reader, I forgave them. It was an aberration; it’s never happened to that extent again, though the group is still capable of delivering a cutting critique where it’s needed. After I’d licked my wounds and considered what had been said, I reckoned it was much better to be a member of a group like this, with enough confidence to point out the failings in my work and offer suggestions for improvement, rather than the other kind…

You know the sort I mean, the mutual admiration societies where the idea of a critique is, ‘I love this.’ You will probably like what you hear at these groups, but you won’t hear what you need. Everyone likes to bask in praise from time to time, but if members shy away from pointing out flaws that could be easily remedied they are not helping their fellow writers improve. Constructive criticism is always useful.

A lot will depend on what you want to get out of the group, so choose it wisely.

  • How is the group run? Does everyone get an equal chance to speak, uninterrupted, or do some individuals hog the limelight and talk over other members? A good coordinator will manage over-excited rowdiness and make sure everyone’s voice is heard.
  • Do you need help with spelling or punctuation? Join a group with similar concerns, one that prints out work for proper consideration. More experienced members will also be able to point out problematic tenses and point of view changes, identify grammatical issues and comment on tone and structure.
  • Those groups where work is only read aloud might not pay much attention to the written word; mistakes won’t be heard so they will go uncorrected and you will not learn the error of your ways. Of course, spelling and grammar don’t float everyone’s boat to the same degree, but if you have aspirations to be taken on by a major publishing house, or even win a competition, you won’t get past first base without them.
  • Does the group hold workshops, have guest speakers, set homework? Does it have a website or blog? Is any members’ work published? Some of these considerations are more important than others depending on your personal writing aims.

Some groups, like the one I attend, have been going for a long time and it can be daunting for new members to break into what looks like an impenetrable clique of good friends. It’s important to feel comfortable and at ease with other members, as well as with the way things operate, but it’s equally important for existing members to welcome new blood. New people can be nervous and a friendly and open-hearted attitude is everything.

And I find cake is a great ice-breaker. Everyone loves cake.

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4 thoughts on “Writing Groups: do you need one?

  1. I’ve been wondering about joining a writing group and found this very helpful; inevitably more questions arise. How do you chose the coordinator? Are potential new members able to attend one/ a few sessions before committing? What’s a good number? How do you deal with members who aren’t participating in a positive way (if this has occurred)? Sorry – now I feel I’ve given you homework!

    • Hi Jessica, thanks for taking the time to comment. If you are thinking about setting up your own group, you can be the coordinator. If the role doesn’t appeal, maybe better to join an established group. You can find out about them on the internet (many have their own website), or your local library. There’s a register of UK writing groups here: writing groups
      Some groups have a committee, others are more informal. Some charge per session – this depends on a number of factors, including venue rental, guest speakers expenses, any printed material, etc etc. Most groups allow potential new members to attend one or two sessions free of charge before committing. The optimum number will depend on how long each session is. For instance, if you have, say, one and a half hours, not everyone will get the opportunity to read their work/speak/critique if there are twenty members. Too many members make for unwieldy sessions that can quickly get out of hand. There’s a useful related article here: http://www.publishingtalk.eu/writing/thinking-of-joining-a-writing-group-ask-yourself-these-8-questions-first/
      In my experience, and hearing from others, the best way to deal with difficult members is for the coordinator to have a private word. If this doesn’t have the desired effect, members may have to vote on whether they stay or go. This is only fair if they are being disruptive to the detriment of other members.

      Hope this helps, Jessica. Good luck!

      Maggie

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