Thinking of joining a writers group? A writers group is an informal gathering of writers who meet once a month or more to share their poems, short stories, novels, or essays. They share advice and criticism, and generally support one another through the process of writing and submitting their work to literary agents and editors. These groups are also a great source of writing-related news and industry leads (especially online groups).
Writing is a solitary endeavor, so it’s only natural that some writers are drawn to groups of like-minded souls. No one but a fellow writer can properly appreciate the pain of a terse rejection or the angst of writer’s block. And when it comes to encouragement and constructive criticism, leave it to your fellow writers to step up.
That’s the concept behind writers groups. Reality is often different, and even if you find a group that fits your criteria, you may find that you don’t work well in a group dynamic. If you do work well with others, you may have to try out several groups before finding that perfect fit.
What to look for in a writers group:
Dynamics. Does each member contribute more or less equally? Or does everyone defer to the strongest personality in the group? Does everyone contribute work to be read, as well as read other writers’ work? Or do the same two people do all the critiquing while the rest do all the writing? Look for a group dynamic where equality reigns.
Positive atmosphere. There’s far too much rejection in the writing world already, and an overly negative atmosphere does not do anyone good. Look for a group that offers constructive criticism as well as encouragement and praise. If you feel like a minnow in a pool of bloodthirsty sharks, it’s time to seek out another group.
No fawning! Just as biting comments and harsh criticism hurt, so do the insipid remarks of the well-meaning. While “It was so great!” feeds our ego, it does nothing to improve our craft. Intelligent insight is welcome—vague, obsequious praise is not.
A common goal. If your goal is to build publication credits, find a group with the same collective goal. Or it might be your intent to get your feet wet and start learning how to be a better writer. Find a group that will help you with your particular goal.
Logistics. Obviously, you’re more likely to attend meetings if they aren’t held 40 miles away at 9:00 p.m. And you prefer meeting in a bookstore or a quiet café rather than that punk rock bar in the red-light district.
Online Writers Groups
Online writers groups are also very popular and especially handy for those who live in less populated areas. It’s also convenient to operate this way, as you may pick and choose what you want to crit, when you want to crit. However, this can also translate into a lack of commitment, as folks pop in and out as they like.
In a physical setting, each writer gets their work read and critiqued. In an online group, stories and poems and portions of manuscripts are either posted online or emailed to select members. Critiques can be posted in either a public forum or on the writer’s personal area. You have the freedom to choose to critique work of a certain genre or form (only poetry or horror, for example) or by a few select writers whose work you like.
A word of caution. Sometimes it’s easier to be cruel when you’re not looking a fellow writer in the face, so take care with your criticism when in cyberspace. On the other hand, if you’ve encountered someone who is offensive to you in some way, it’s easier to avoid them than if you sat next to them in a physical setting.
In a real-world situation, you’re generally forced to deal with the members of your group. And while this is a wonderful opportunity to make new friends and gain valuable input from your peers, there are always those members who make you a bit uncomfortable. We’ve listed a few types to avoid if you can possibly help it.
Dysfunctional Writers Group Members
–The Warrior. This is the member who can’t just make a point—he has to win the author over to his side of the argument and fight to the bitter end. It’s all about winning. And chest-thumping.
–The Alpha-Critiquer. Don’t argue with her. She’s right at all times, and you are but a lowly, no-talent wimp.
–The Wimp. This is the member who bursts into tears at the first sign of a frowny face, yet has no trouble whatsoever hurling literary barbs at others.
–The Name-Caller. If you write a passionate love scene, you’re a sicko. Every sci-fi author is a freak, and watch out if you’ve used a naughty word or two—you might be labeled a Perv with a capital P. You know this lady. If it’s not G-rated and based on her idea of classic American literature, she’s not going to like it. And you might end up with a new nickname.
–The Lecturer. This guy has several obscure degrees and was published once in the 1970s. His crits tend to go on for quite some time and are often delivered in a mocking, condescending manner. Gird your loins and grab your dictionary, because this guy uses all the six-syllable words at his disposal.
–The Vampire. This woman lives for blood spillage. She delights in other people’s misery and considers writing a combat sport. Sit far away and protect your neck at all times.
–The Egomaniac. This guy has confused “critique” for “brag,” and he is a good friend of The Lecturer. Everything he says is designed to show others just how much he knows, how insightful he is, and how many books he’s read. You may have to remind him there are others in the room. Don’t be surprised if it doesn’t help.
–The Genre Freak. Everyone should stick to writing in this woman’s favorite genre. Anything else and she’ll try to convert you.
–The Wannabe. She wants to be a writer but doesn’t actually want to do any of the work. So she hangs out with writers and talks the talk instead. Give her a goal of 20 pages a week and watch her slink away.
–The Out-of-His-Leaguer. This guy hasn’t yet mastered the art of a simple sentence, and the last book he read was in 1980. (Unfortunately, it wasn’t a book on improving basic writing skills.)
–The Time-Waster. This woman manages to divert attention from anything related to writing and spends an inordinate amount of time fiddling with her things, clicking pens, searching through her bag, and generally doing anything but paying attention.
–The Obsessed. This writer uses one theme and one theme only for all her work. Or all her characters have red hair and green eyes—no exceptions. Mention this trend and watch her head explode.
–The Creep. This guy’s work is a little too focused (obsessed) on preteen girls and their physical development. Plus he wears a trench coat all year round?
Create Your Own Writers Group
If you have tried out a few groups or searched in vain for anything resembling a writers group, you may have to start your own.
–Find like-minded writers. Teachers, librarians, people who hang out in bookstores, and college students are great candidates. Don’t feel guilty about picking and choosing members carefully—it’s important to find a good mix of personalities and writing styles.
–Some groups find it best to keep the skill and experience levels of their members similar. You may want to ask for a writing sample from prospective members to make sure they are serious.
–Keep it small, between four and eight members. If you have twenty members, you’ll find yourself buried in critiques. Create a plan to keep membership under control.
–Lay out the specifics up front and in writing. When and how often will you meet? What is expected of each member? How much is each person expected to submit and critique?
–Agree on a setting that is quiet and doesn’t distract from your work. Avoid meeting places where you have to spend more than the price of a good cappuccino, and make sure it’s a location convenient for everyone.
–Set time limits for crit sessions and stick to them. Each person may have ten minutes to evaluate the writer’s work, and then it’s time to move on.
–Discourage too much chitchat and avoid a happy-hour atmosphere. Make plans to socialize after the meeting.
–Set a positive tone and encourage submission goals. Support, support, support.
Learn more: Networking in the Writing Community
Critiquing another’s writing is helpful for you as well. You hone your self-editing skills and fine-tune your sense of what works and what doesn’t. You don’t have to be filled with the wisdom of the ages to give a good critique. Your input as an intelligent person and a lover of books is valuable. If your first impression is that the work is jumbled and disorganized, the plot difficult to follow, or the characters contrived, the author needs to know this. More experienced writers/critiquers will likely spot more technical problems, such as transition or weak character development, than the general, overall suggestions of the newer writers in the group—but both perspectives are useful.
A critique may well be glowing, but this kind of review is rare and may not be helpful. What is more helpful are specific areas of praise: I loved your transition to the city scene in Chapter 2, or Great metaphor! Criticism sounds like a negative word, but constructive criticism serves a higher purpose. It is designed to give insight from a fresh perspective, and if delivered politely and respectfully, again with concrete examples rather than “I just didn’t get it,” then it is a positive thing.
Keep an eye out for elements of pacing, characterization, plot, transition, conflict, and dialogue. This is not the time to point out comma errors or typos, unless you’ve been specifically asked to proofread. You may go over the work more than once with different elements in mind.
Listen to the writer and take your cues from her. If she is a new writer and hesitant to hand over her work, be gentle. This is not the time to tear into her work, or she may never get up the courage to share it again. Some broad, helpful advice is warranted here. On the other hand, if she insists that you be “brutal,” then she’s looking for some honest advice no matter how hurtful. If the work is posted online, be sure that it is work open for criticism and not just posted for sharing.
Take a moment to assess what the writer is trying to accomplish before you begin your critique. If you take the time to realize the author is going for a dark, humorless stance, you won’t irritate him by insisting that he “lighten up.” Give specific suggestions and comments. Don’t ask the writer to explain himself. This is a group endeavor, not a debate.
Keep it short and to the point. Unless you’re posting online critique, you don’t want to take up the others’ time with long, rambling speeches. It’s not feasible to cover every point you’d like to make in one session. Take notes and approach it from another angle next time, if appropriate.
If the writer is hurt or angry over a critique, back off. There may be many reasons for her defensiveness, and you’re not going to help the situation by belaboring your point.
Dealing With Criticism
As a writer, you’re used to dealing with rejection. Be sure you are able to accept constructive criticism as well, as painful as it may be. Especially when the wide-eyed youngster joins your group and says, “I really loved your characters, but the plot was, like, totally boring!” It’s especially painful if the youngster is right. What won’t help is to take a defensive stance. If you feel the need to clarify the point, a level-headed discussion is fine if time permits. Sometimes these discussions lead to wonderful and enlightening conversation, but, for the most part, your job is to sit back and LISTEN.
Take notes and review them later when the critique is less fresh (read: less painful). After your ego has had a chance to recover, you may find that your critiquer had a valid point.
Be prepared for many different forms of critique. You may get a story or poem returned with only technical errors pointed out, while another’s take might be more theme-oriented. Some members may hate your work, while others love it. Embrace the input as a whole, and take away what you find valuable.
End on a positive note, even if you have to fudge it a little. Egos are fragile, and it takes courage to lower the walls of defense and share your most personal creations. Don’t kill this spirit of sharing by trying to be too “helpful.”
Learn more: Dealing With Your Internal Critic
The common lot of writers—whether you’re in a writing group or not—is that we all share the anxiety and fear of rejection, whether we’re newbies or experienced, published authors. And we all share the love of the written word. So, set your ego aside for a while, and open yourself up for a little constructive criticism from your writers group. If it doesn’t kill you, it’ll make you a better writer!