Writing groups are not for the faint of heart. They are the Hunger Games of reclusive wordsmiths: you put your life out for everyone to tear apart and once the dust settles, you see what part of you survived—if any.
While gruesome, writing groups are also incredibly worthwhile and rewarding if you know how to properly utilize them.
- Free criticism
- Solidarity, for this very long and lonely journey
- Some semblance of a social calendar
- Reassurance that you are not crazy
- Free criticism
- Psychological wounds
- Reassurance that you’re not meant for the write life
- Fire and fury
What is the best way to minimize punishment and maximize rewards at the readers’ table? Some parts, we know, are unavoidable and inevitable. We can’t do much about them except to constantly expose ourselves to these stimuli in hopes of desensitization. The other more valuable rewards take time to reap.
Choose the Right Writing Group
- Location and time
- Group size
If you’re new to a writing group, keep in mind that the people may not be all too welcoming. It may or may not be personal. In my experience, people are not overly welcoming simply because turnover rate is so high. Once you become a regular, you’ll have more opportunities to get to know everyone.
Keep in mind that if you’re searching for a writing group, a lot of these have already gone defunct. It’s hard to keep a group together (especially a group of self-deprecating, conscientious, chronic procrastinators.) So, make sure they actually meet. Usually, you’ll see signs of life if the writing group has a website and there are regular updates. If there’s an email address or phone number available, reach out to let them know you’re coming.
Next, Show Up to the Writing Group
- Commit your time to the writing group
Protect your writing group meeting times from other engagements. Then, show up to the meetings. Really, this is the hardest part.
- Engage with your colleagues
Be a good person and remember names. Acknowledge everyone you see, even if it doesn’t feel cool. (Get a grip! You’re in a writing group. No one is cool.)
- Contribute to the conversation
Share books that you’ve been reading, bulletins you’ve found, information on agents and publishing, and other bits on local literary events or resources. The more you share with others, the more others share with you.
Practice Giving and Receiving Constructive Criticism
The scariest part of any writing group is giving and receiving constructive criticism—and the operative word here is “constructive.”
Remember that every writer has the same insecurities, so while you know instantly what parts of your colleague’s piece needs work, say what you want to say in the way that you would want to hear it.
- Never forget to point out the strong parts of the piece.
- Refrain from over-repeating what others have said, especially if it’s negative.
- Offer creative solutions.
Actively offering creative solutions to issues within a piece of work is helpful for a few different reasons. First, it shows that you’re invested. If you’re invested in someone else’s work, chances are, they’ll be more invested in yours when it’s your turn to read. As in you get quality feedback. Second, it’s an abbreviated and speedy writing exercise for you. Third, you establish yourself as prime player at the reading table. This isn’t a move to power trip. But, if you’re showing up every week for a few hours each time, make your time and that of everyone else worth it.
Remember, too, that they are in no way obligated to use your advice just as you are not obligated to integrate any edits they suggest.
When receiving criticism:
- Keep an open mind
- Write everything down
- Defend your creative choices
- Try not to take anything personally
It would be unfair and unwise to assume that there aren’t some mean people in a writing group. Writing groups are not always easy. Here, egos either break apart or inflate beyond reason.
So, what do you do when you get that one person who just isn’t nice? Write them into your next story and then kill them off. No, just kidding. Don’t do that.
Instead, get to know your colleagues.
This is very important. It’s also important to remember that not all your colleagues are your readers. In any given writing group, you’ll have the Scientist, the Romantic, the Cynic, the Grammar Lady, your Friend and the Alpha Male (enough said.) So, pick and choose to whom you listen and why.
- The Scientist may not get your artistic vision, but she’s great at figuring out logistics and questioning logic for continuity.
- The Romantic may not care so much about plot work, but he’s fantastic at understanding character growth and the complexity of emotions.
- The Cynic will hate everything always. So when something catches his eye, you know it’s gold.
- The Grammar Lady is providing free copyediting! What’s not to love?
- The Friend will always be nice to you, but when something really isn’t working in your story, she’ll let you know in the best way possible.
- The Alpha Male may not have anything special to say most of the times, but he’s your average reader, it’s a very medium-well done cross-section of feedback you might get from a larger sample group.
Use Your Writing Group to Improve Your Discipline and Writing
If your writing group is real, you meet in on a regular basis, whatever “regular” is to your writing group. Be sure to show up with pages.
I am guilty of this too: I show up to meetings every week and provide my criticism and time, gratis, and never read my own pages because I didn’t write anything.
But your time is special and valuable. Those three hours you’re spending on other people’s work is time you’re not spending on your own manuscript.
Use weekly writing meetings as a soft deadline for production. Force yourself to read your pages despite the quality. To save yourself from embarrassment, you’ll find yourself hustling to create better work.
Make Yourself Available to Your Colleagues
Lastly, make yourself available to your writing group members. Typically, I find that my colleagues attend more than one writing group during the week. Some split off into their own small groups. If you ask around and get to know your colleagues better, you’ll find a new writing partner quite quickly. More often than not, they welcome the additional accountability and make their support available to you as long as it’s mutual. It’s an extra shoulder to cry on.