Write It Sideways

Writing Groups: Helping or Hindering Your Progress?

You feel a bit strange at first, standing in the doorway with a manuscript gripped to your chest.

All eyes are on you–the newbie.  Why was it you came here, again?  Just the thought of letting someone read your writing is terrifying, let alone welcoming criticism.

You gaze around the room, searching for an empty seat.  In the far corner sits a little round man who bears a striking resemblance to your childhood teddy bear.  He wears a badge that says, “Hello, My Name is Albert.”

Immediately, you feel a surge of confidence.  If Albert can handle a writer’s group, you’re pretty sure you can, too.  You sit next to him.

As scared as you are, over the next hour you discover these people aren’t so bad, after all.  They’re  friendly.  Great listeners.  Oh so creative.  They’re the kind of people who’d buy you a cup of coffee when you’re reeling from a rejection.  Albert’s already invited you to his nephew’s Bar Mitzvah.

Besides, they can’t praise your work highly enough.

You leave the meeting feeling like an old pro for all the compliments.  Come to think of it,  you don’t remember anyone criticizing your work at all.

Helping or Hindering?

Writing groups have their good points.  They can help you meet other like-minded writers, or those that are more advanced.  You might make some interesting contacts in the community.

But how do you know whether yours is giving you the criticism necessary for growth, or just one long, soggy, unproductive group hug?

Here are some signs your group might be hindering, rather than helping, you on your path to publication:

Lack of Skills

Think, for a moment, about those who audition for American Idol, with the intention of becoming the next Kelly Clarkson–not the ones that can sing a little bit, but those who make a strangled chicken sound like Pavarotti.

Now think about your writing group.

When you critique others, do you immediately notice a general lack of skills?  Is it evident the majority of these people can’t string together a proper sentence, let alone pen a novel?

If this is the case, how can you expect them to give you valuable feedback on your own manuscript?

Be wary of writers’ groups of this description. You’re there to learn. If these people have nothing to teach you, you might be teaching them a thing or two, instead.

If you’re okay with that, you’d gain more valuable experience by becoming a mentor or leading a group, yourself.

Poor Moderation

It’s writing group anarchy!

No one seems to be in charge, so who’s running the show, exactly?

A writing group should be moderated by someone who is more advanced and experienced than the others.  In this way, they serve as both facilitator and teacher.

Instead of people turning up and simply reading through each other’s manuscript, one or more specific tasks should be accomplished during each meeting.  These might include assignments such as:

Above all else, each time you leave a meeting, you should come away with something you need to improve.  If you aren’t getting that, you won’t be able to grow as a writer.

Too Much Art, Not Enough Craft

Yes, at some writing groups you will meet people who are so (for lack of  a better term)  ‘artsy-fartsy,’ you’ll want to choke yourself.

You will know them by their eccentric clothing (which includes an obligatory hat, worn even indoors), and their desire to hear themselves talk.

They will discuss art and beauty and metaphysics–most of which will not make sense to you.  Other artsy-fartsy people, however, will smile and nod as if they understand.

A writer’s group based only on the art of writing might make you feel warm and fuzzy, but it won’t make you a better writer.  You need to focus on honing your craft, learning your strengths and weaknesses, and discovering new ways of achieving success.

If you feel like your group-mates are simply blowing hot air, get out (before you start sounding like them, too).

Just Too Nice

What would you tell your best friend if they asked you to critique their story?  Would you have the courage to tell them it’s terrible, or would you simply smile and pat them on the back?

Honesty is hard with strangers, never mind with friends.

The people you meet at your writing group may be the nicest folks in the world. They laugh and tell great jokes, and you really are looking forward to that Bar Mitzvah.  They wouldn’t hurt your feelings for the world.

You might fall in love with them as friends, but if they’re just too nice to criticize each other’s work, the gathering might be more rightly called a ‘social group.’

The purpose of joining is to get necessary feedback on a specific project or your writing skills as a whole.  If you’re only hearing about the positives of your manuscript, you might as well hand it over to your Nana and ask her what she thinks.

Essentially, you’ll get the same response.

What Makes A Great Writer’s Group?

Does all this mean one shouldn’t bother joining a writer’s group?

Not at all–you just need to know what you’re looking for (and not looking for).

Before shopping around, consider the following.

  1. Are the writers of roughly the same skill level as you, or slightly above you?
  2. Is the group facilitated by an effective leader with either writing credentials or teaching experience?
  3. Are tasks set during each meeting to provide participants with clear feedback on strengths and weaknesses?
  4. Do you mesh with the group?  Are you comfortable critiquing each other?
  5. Over time, do you see evidence of success and growth in yourself and among the other participants?

Keep these guidelines in mind and you just might find a group that helps you become a better writer.

And while you’re there, give Albert a hug for us.