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March 18, 2016

Writers Groups - Nasty or Nurturing?

By Byddi Lee

Does the thought of having someone critique your writing make you break out in a cold sweat? Can you feel a pulse in your temples when you see a page of your work covered in pen marks and comments? Do you feel like punching someone who just doesn’t “get it”?

That’s okay. Writers are human too. Of course, we don’t like to face up to the things we are doing wrong, but believe it or not, with practice, it gets easier.

The first time I went to a writers group, I had to sit on my hands to stop them from trembling. I felt sick to my stomach as the first person began, but I was surprised and thrilled when they began with listing what they liked about the piece I’d submitted. When they read out a few phrases that they’d particularly liked, I even smiled. Then came the hard part – listening to “what it needs” and not being allowed to talk!

Even on this first occasion at a writing group, enlightenment struck like a brilliant white light. My mistakes had been clearly identified. Ways to fix them had been offered and that made all the difference. I was lucky. My first critiquing session had been a good one - encouragement balanced with advice. Some of that advice, I had been reluctant to embrace, but when I’d slept on it, and tried out the ideas that had been suggested, it was as if I’d waved a magic wand over my work. It was better – richer yet clearer writing.

Writing groups can go either way. Be careful when choosing your writing group. They can be destructive, nasty experiences that might make a person hang up their pen (or laptop) forever, or they can be a fun, nurturing environment that allows a writer to blossom. This is why it’s worth persevering. Leave a bad group if you must, but keep searching for that great group who will really help you grow and improve as a writer.

You will also be a critiquing others work as a member. It is a great way to learn about writing. Look for a group that has “rules” about how critiquing is carried out. A good critique should have the following elements

  1. What shines in this piece of work? Praise what is good about the writing. Identify what is positive in terms of story structure and how it makes the reader feel. What do you like about the characters? Support the writer.
  2. Highlight what would make this piece of writing better. Does the beginning need a better hook? Does the ending fizzle out? Are the characters too one dimensional? Are the clich├ęs a dime a dozen? Does the writer have a habit of doing something erroneous? For example, “telling” where they could be “showing” or repeating themselves too often.
  3. Suggest ways to fix the problematic areas you have highlighted. Remember, it is ultimately up to the writer whether they employ or ignore this advice.

While you are being critiqued, sit and listen – don’t argue back. Some groups have a rule that you cannot talk while you are being critiqued. I found this forced me to listen more than I would have if I’d been permitted to talk back and compose answers to the comments. It let me off the hook from having to defend myself.

Don’t decide to reject a suggestion until you have slept on it. Often, I find the ideas offered by my group are so good I get really excited about the changes I will make.

If a writing group makes you feel negatively about your writing, walk away from the group before you consider walking away from writing. Find a better group.

Sometimes a group’s interests do not blend well with the type of writing you do. A mix of writing styles and genres can be really beneficial and a great place to learn new techniques. Too many differences, or the wrong combination, may not be so helpful. Literary fiction, horror, romance and a non-fiction, car-maintenance-manual writer might find it challenging to bond as a productive writing group – though it always comes down in the end to the personalities.

Groups are only as good as the people in them.  Watch out for destructive criticism in a group. There are people who seem to enjoy shredding another person. If a group member only points out the negative in your work, without offering you helpful suggestions, consider if you are strong enough to ignore this destructive element so you can extract value from the rest of the group. If not, you may need to find another group. (Remember violence is never an answer no matter how tempting!)

To find groups in your area, you could begin with an online search either using a search engine or websites like Meetup or Craigslist.  Your local library might have a group, and if you are fortunate enough to have a writing center near you, that’s the place to look. Colleges with writing classes may also know of local writing groups.

You are usually not required to submit or critique for your first meeting and you can just attend to get the groups vibe and see if it is a good fit for you.

You can also join writing groups online and through social media.  Always remember that if you post your work online it can interfere with its eligibility to be bought for publication or entered into competitions. It’s better to send files privately and exchange critiques with a partner rather than posting them online. Read the websites rules carefully.

My most valuable writing tool is my writing group. I’m in two different groups and their feedback is invaluable to me. I would never have finished any of my novels if it hadn’t been for the guidance, support and camaraderie I have received from these amazing people.

The bottom line is how you feel after a writing group meeting. It should be something you enjoy doing. If it leaves you feeling excited about your project and looking forward to the next meeting then you know you’ve got a good fit!

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  1. This is a great post. I would be lost without my writing group. Their advice and support has made me a better writer.

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    2. Thank you Lisa. I agree - my writing group is really important to me. Glad you have one that does such a good job.

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