The Cautious Writer’s Guide to Writing Groups

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Do a Google search about writers’ groups, and you’ll find a plethora of articles and resources touting its benefits for aspiring writers. But dig a little deeper, perhaps seek out discussion boards about writers’ groups, and you’ll get a very different picture. For example, a discussion on Quora reveals mixed reactions from participants about writing groups. Some had positive, even transformative experiences, while others expressed dissatisfaction with the groups they were part of, citing disinterested or dysfunctional members.

Certainly writers’ groups have their place. They provide a safe space to experiment with your writing, for example. They provide an outlet for socializing with other like-minded people so you can escape the solitariness of your writing life. They provide an opportunity to share resources and best practices, seek motivation, and help yourself and others to stay on track toward your writing goals.

But despite the positive impact they can make on your writing, they can also prove troublesome, according to Script Magazine. If getting too involved in writing groups, they can become a form of procrastination, taking you away from your real work as a writer. There can be a certain competitiveness among members, even jealousy, if one person is perceived to monopolize the conversation or if one person is published while everyone else is still trying to find their writing voice.

Most group members will tend to be at the same development level in their craft, usually just starting out or if they have been writing, still unpublished. As newbies, they may not have the perspective to share meaningful insight about your work. For more experienced and confident writers, writers’ groups may offer little value because they have passed that phase of their career.

Sometimes, members will comment just for the sake of commenting or to appear as a constructive member of the group. But that doesn’t mean they understand your work or can provide any meaningful suggestions.

Many people join writing groups for the socialization. That’s certainly a bonus. But writing is not a group effort. You still have to do the work, and that work requires significant alone time. The sooner writers accept and learn to tolerate the solitary nature of the work they do, said one of the Quora participants, the less need they will have for writers’ groups.

If you still believe joining a writers’ group is good for your career, think about these issues:

1. Decide what you want from the writing group. Do you want your work critiqued? Or do you want a place to gather and socialize, learn new techniques, share best practices and get encouragement for your work? If you are not clear about your expectations, you may join a group whose goals do not align with yours, or they don’t provide the support that you’re looking for.

2. What is the level of experience of the other members? A group consisting of people of different ages and backgrounds can offer alternative perspectives that can benefit your writing. If all group members are at the same level of development, that could limit the depth of knowledge and experience exchanged among group members.

3. Will the group members represent different writing genres, or are they all from the same genre? No matter what genre you work in – novels, screenwriting, short story, memoir – you can benefit from other writers of other genres. The only exception might be poets, who may not understand the nuances of narrative writing. Likewise, novelists and essayists may not understand poetry well enough to provide meaningful feedback to poets.

4. Will one person be moderating the discussion at each meeting, or will members rotate? A rotating schedule can ensure each member has a chance to lead the discussion and be engaged in the learning process. Conversely, having one person facilitate the discussion can provide consistency to the group. Some members may simply not want to take the leadership role.

There are other guidelines for starting and joining a writing group, including this piece of advice from author Jane Friedman. If you do decide to participate in a writing group, make sure you are clear about your own goals and expectations. As you become more successful in your career and gain more confidence, you may find you no longer need to be part of a group. They may not meet your needs as they once did or that you’ve simply outgrown them. Sometimes, group members simply grow apart or life gets too busy.

Writing groups are not for everyone. Critics of these groups say they can do more harm than good, hinder your progress as a writer or provide unnecessary distractions. There is no rule that says you have to be part of one in order to enjoy success as a writer. Only you know what is best for your career path.

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