The topic of writing groups came up, as it will, this week. I’m of mixed mind on them. I’ve been involved with very good ones, but also very bad ones. It seems when I talk to writers who’ve been around for a while, like me, that they have seen similar things. Writer’s groups who were great for helping and encouraging – and what I’ve noted is that these tend to be less focused on critique of the story, and more about learning the business and providing accountability. The critique groups… well, those can get nasty. I saw that in Critters when I was part of it, and talking with JL Curtis this week, he told me about an incident with a pair of writers he knew, who were almost crushed by the savagery of anonymous and ignorant critique. Because a crit group is designed around being critical.
You know who you really want feedback about your writing from? Readers. Not necessarily other writers, because as odd as it may sound, writers aren’t always readers. That, and writers get so focused on the mechanics of writing, they may not be able to pull back to the 20,000 foot view and see the story as a whole. Is it a good story? Only a reader can answer that, and there are very few readers (who are only readers) in a writing group. The difficulty here, I’m told by some beginning writers, is finding beta readers. I’ve heard complaints like ‘I can’t find anyone I know who wants to read my stuff…’ and I have to cock my head and wonder. Some writing is very niche, yes. But there are audiences, I think, for almost anything. Starting by finding that audience, hanging out with them, figuring out what they think of your stuff, then, is a better path than handing your story to Aunt Betsy who isn’t sure what to make of it, but she doesn’t like it.
I know a lot of young writers think they need a writing group, and perhaps they do. However! Only if that group is focused on development. Which does not mean endlessly passing chapters around and verbally shredding them. No, you want a group that is pushing you towards finishing something, and then finishing another thing, and along the way you all celebrate one another’s successes. If this sounds too idyllic to be true, well, there’s a reason most writing groups don’t last forever.
There’s another thing, while I’m noodling along and it popped into my head. Writing groups can sometimes push the authorial voice of a member in a direction it isn’t meant to go in. Writing to fit into the group’s perception of what is ‘good grammar’ can even lead you astray, as I’ve heard stories of paper sheets coming back to an author with the dialogue all fussily corrected. Dialogue is very rarely proper English, and if it is, the character is saying far more than is on the page about them. Other issues arise when the members of the group are all writing very different genres, don’t understand other genres, and want to have stories changed to suit their comfort zone.
All of this to say: writing groups can have a place. But don’t get so wrapped up into one that you aren’t also getting input elsewhere. And find where readers are hanging out (which is not, I say again NOT, Goodreads) and discussing books and listen. At least, if you want to be a professional. If you’re just writing to get it off your chest, this probably doesn’t apply to you. Writing groups, speaking of profession, are great for business. That is, if you don’t know how to make your work into a business, which is a skill you must learn, whether you intend to publish independently or traditionally, then finding a group of pros to learn from is the only way to go. Writing business has it’s own quirks and downfalls, and it’s so much better to learn from other’s mistakes… I mean, this is part of why Mad Genius Club continues to exist after all these years! You have the chance to learn from us. And we, from you in the comments.