Writers’ groups – picking the right one

Do you belong to a writers’ group? My little group had a meeting last weekend, and as always it was enjoyable and stimulating – especially given that strong Greek coffee! It got me thinking about previous groups I had been in. Some good, some not so good. I’ve seen tall poppies ruthlessly cut down, but I’ve also seen self-doubting writers grow and flourish. Writers’ groups can be a great way to learn and grow, as long as you pick one that’s right for you.

Even better than tea and sympathy!

So how do you choose? Here are some of the considerations:

What do you want from the group?

You need to know what suits you before you start hunting around. Do you prefer large groups or small? Formal or informal? How regularly are you able to attend meetings? Some groups meet weekly, some monthly, some less frequently. Try to pick one that can fit into your schedule.

Keep in mind what you hope to gain from the meetings. Do you want your work examined and critiqued, or do you merely want to be with people who share your enthusiasm about writing? Either is fine, but be upfront about it, both with yourself and your fellow writers. Personally, I don’t want large groups of people looking at my work. Especially when it’s still in that crappy first-draft stage. I prefer to enjoy other writers’ company, where we motivate each other and celebrate our successes. If I want feedback on my writing I’ll ask a select few, and only when I’m ready.

Formal versus informal

Some writers’ groups are established entities, and you join by seeking them out and signing up. They might be held at libraries, writers’ centres, cafes, or clubs. They might (and should) have rules regulating the participants’ behaviour. Other groups are informal, generally created by a few friends with a common interest. The one I belong to is informal, and we take turns hosting lunch meetings in our homes. Good friends, good food, and good conversation. Works for me!

Helpful critique

Most people joining a group want feedback on their writing. This is where you have to be careful. I once joined a group where there was a considerable clashing of egos. Some of the critiques were brutally destructive, bordering on personal attacks. I left the group after wincing through a few sessions of witnessing people’s work ridiculed. Another group I joined was the polar opposite. Everyone praised each other fulsomely, but no criticism was given at all. Nice environment, but I didn’t learn much. I eventually drifted away.

The ideal is, of course, constructive criticism. Writers genuinely trying to help each other improve. How do you know if the group you are eyeing off does this? Ask a few of the existing members if you get the opportunity. The only way to really know, however, is to go along and see.

Goal setting

This is particularly important, even for my group’s laid-back, low-key sessions. At the end of each meeting we set our goals. What do we want to have done by the next time? How are we going to go about it? We give each other suggestions if we can. Then, at the start of the next meeting, we tell each other how we went. My current goal is to finish the first draft of a young adult novel I’m writing – eek! If we fail to meet our goals, we explain why. Knowing you have to account for yourself is motivating, to say the least!

The final measure

Joining a writers’ group can be a positive or negative experience. When it comes down to it, the final question is, ‘How does this group make me feel?’ If you leave a meeting happy and motivated, you know you’re in the right place. If you leave a better writer, make the most of it and keep going back.

How about you?

Do you have any stories to share about your experiences with writers’ groups? The good, the bad, the ugly – I’d like to hear from you.

Photo credit: joeszilagyi / Foter / CC BY-SA  angietorres / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

2 comments

  1. Nice article, several valid points. My own practical experience with writing groups – both here and in LA – is that the majority are really for beginners, hobbyists, or people just seeking social interaction with like-interest others. As Stella says, there’s nothing necessarily ‘wrong’ with this … so long as one does not come into a new group with higher expectations. What tends to be lacking is a more professionally focused group that is willing and able to give credible and well thought out feedback. Yours Truly has tended to become an unofficial facilitator/coach in every group he has insinuated in. Which is nice, but leads to an unequal balance in terms of who is making the most effective contributions at every session.
    –Steven Fernandez

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