I was once in the world’s worst writing group.
The group’s leader was a pleasant guy, an editor at a prominent local publication, but he was burdened with the world’s worst case of writer’s block.
“I really want to write,” he’d say every week. “But I’m not ready to start yet – I have to work on my skills first.”
Thus, he dedicated our meetings to reviewing grammar. And any time some poor soul actually tried to read a piece to the group, he or she rarely got past the first sentence before our leader and a couple of his editor friends ripped it to shreds. Forget plotting, characterization, or voice – the truly deadly sins to this bunch were inconsistent formatting and punctuation.
“Wait,” one of them cut in after I’d read a few phrases from a piece of mine. “Did you write out ‘two’ right there or use the number 2? The Chicago Manual of Style says you should write it out, you know!”*
I wish I were making this up.
From this experience, I learned what I didn’t want in a writing group. And since then, I’ve identified a few secret ingredients that make a writing group click – and make its members even better writers. Here’s my take on what to look for in a writing group:
A group with a stable, committed membership is better able to provide quality critiques than a shifting group of occasional drop-ins. Consider this: Who would you rather have critique Chapter 5 of your novel – a group of friends familiar with the first four chapters and your challenges writing them, or a bunch of total strangers who’ve never read any of your work?
A positive and supportive atmosphere
Constructive criticism is a necessary ingredient in any writing group – but nobody enjoys being insulted. A good writing group should feel, as one of my early writing teachers said, “safe”: Everyone should feel confident that that they will be treated with respect, no matter how misguided their writing experiments turn out to be. This does not mean, however, that a supportive group is always one where everyone loves your work unconditionally – like close friends and family, good writing groups should be willing to dole out the tough love when needed. Yes, it’s possible to be both frank and diplomatic when giving constructive criticism – good groups honor these principles.
Diverse tastes and interests can add vitality to a writing group – projects in my WAG critique pod range from prose poetry to short horror stories to a comic mystery novel. However, we have many core values in common: Most of us are working seriously towards getting published, and we all have a high tolerance for uncomfortable subject matter. Because of this, everyone can submit what they want – and give honest feedback– without worry that anyone will be offended. Those with more gentle sensibilities may not feel comfortable with us, or vice versa.
The takeaway: Choose a group that’s right for your writing, not your schedule. If your passion is, say, splatterpunk or erotica, don’t even think about joining that pleasant group of Christian writers your neighbor belongs to, no matter how convenient their meetings are.
A culture of accountability
Joining a writing group is like joining a gym – you only get its benefits if you show up and do the work. If you’re serious about your writing, you need a group that’s as serious as you are – look for one that meets regularly, gives detailed critiques, and whose members think seriously about each other’s suggestions. If you regularly feel a twinge of guilt because everyone in your group keeps asking you to write more and submit more, congratulations – you’ve found the right group!
A clear sense of purpose
In a good writing group, everyone should have a common goal or at least a mutually understood reason for being there. This goal doesn’t need to be a detailed corporate-type mission statement – it could be just an implicit common goal such as “finish our novels” or “improve our craft.” But this should be a strong enough consideration that the group’s meetings are dedicated to advancing this goal. This will ensure that everyone comes out of meetings a better writer than when they came in.
Depending on your interests and experience, other criteria – such as members’ familiarity with your genre and members’ writing backgrounds – may also be useful to consider when choosing a group. How do you envision your perfect writing group?
*Yes, formatting matters – editing is my day job, so I should know! But there’s a time and a place for everything, and the time to obsess over Oxford commas is not in the midst of a rough draft that’s bound to be rewritten multiple times. So yes, you have permission not to sweat the small stuff until your piece is ready for submission.