Writing Groups: Purpose, Productivity & Professionalism

A Bored Writing Group

Some people can write in a vacuum.  For others, collaboration is essential.  I lurk around somewhere between the two.  I feel it’s important to flush your story out independently before you let other people in who might influence it.  Personally, I don’t want someone else’s visions polluting the story I am writing.

Regardless, at some point, (hopefully after you have finished, or are close to finishing the first draft) you might want to start reaching out and getting outside feedback.  For me, this is the stage before going to Beta Readers and after the first draft.  Essentially, it is an element of my self-editing phase.

I was messaging a fellow blogger, A.M. Bradley, who wrote a post about trying to locate writing groups.  While I will let this intrepid pioneer chronicle the journey of searching for the perfect group, I thought I would touch on what you should look for in one.

lewis-inklings-featuredA writing group is a gaggle of writers who meet to discuss their work and provide useful feedback to each other.  I always envisioned them to be similar to the literary club the Inklings.  Their membership included J.R.R. Tolkein, C.S. Lewis, and many other greats.   They were just a group of brilliant writers, in a pub, talking about their classic works and enjoying each others company.  The sad truth is, a lot of writing groups are full of literary blow-hards who are only interested in quoting other peoples work and listening to themselves talk.  Fear not!  There is a group out there for you, and these are the things you should look for in one.

Look for groups operating within your genre.

You don’t go to a restaurant and ask the chef to give you a close shave, so why rely on someone who only reads and writes romance to provide feedback on your horror novel?  The naysayers are probably going, “But a real literary connoisseur isn’t limited by genre!”  Maybe there’s some truth to that.  I’m just saying, if I’m marketing a book to horror or romance readers I want someone who enjoys these genres to be critiquing it.  Not someone who is forcing themselves to read it to appease a writing group.

There should be some ground rules.

Writing Group Rules.jpgThis may seem like common sense, but if you are new to writing groups and you’ve stumbled into one lacking structure, know that’s a red flag.   The group, upon meeting, should have to stand, place a hand over their heart, and recite from memory the groups rules.  Okay, so that’s crazy.  However, there do need to be rules.

Depending on the size of the group (I would advise a smaller more intimate group) time is going to be essential to the success, enjoyment, and usefulness of your meetings.  For example, each meeting you will submit X number of pages for review the following week.  We each have X amount of time to provide feedback.  We have X amount of time to respond to feedback.  No cell phones (barring emergencies obviously) and so forth.

People should know when to show their cards and when to hold them. 

A Waterloo.jpgSo you’ve found your genre specific group and it has rules.  Good deal.  You are all huddled together in the corner, clutching coffees (or booze), and waiting with baited breath to hear feedback.  The feedback is coming, but wait, this clown missed the point I was trying to make with that passage.  You open your mouth to protest.  Stop.  Just don’t.

Brandon Sanderson, Howard Taylor, and Dan Wells made a phenomenal podcast on their website Writing Excuses about writing groups and touch on this specifically.  Keep in mind, these aren’t my words, they are the words of super-legit published authors (I’m not worthy…I’m not worthy).  If you won’t listen to me, listen to them.

Wells states that, “When your thing is being workshopped, shut up.  You sit, you don’t talk.  If you start to defend your work while others are critiquing it, you will get into arguments, and it will be a useless writing group.”

Taylor adds, “And the other thing to keep in mind, in that regard, is that if you’ve written something and it can’t defend itself without you saying stuff, it’s broken and it needs to be fixed.”

People should know the difference between providing feedback and inciting a duel to the death.

Unwanted Feedback.jpgLimit feedback to match the goals of the group or individual.  Some group members may want you to provide them with ideas as to where the story should go (not recommended). Some just want to know what you thought of what is already written, and why (recommended).

No writer that I know of wants to hear, “Hey, have you considered completely changing your main characters motivations to more align with this?”  That’s not feedback — that’s changing the course the voices in someones head are guiding them down.  We have enough voices in our heads pulling us along without another one derailing us into no mans land.

Even worse, no writer wants to hear, “The last few paragraphs were riddled with typos and didn’t make any sense at all – maybe grab a grammar book and try again?” That my friends is a word bullet.  Rephrase to, “There were some inconsistencies in the last few paragraphs that made it a little hard to follow.  To be honest, it left me a little confused.”  This sort of social awareness should be common sense, but I’ve heard worse statements made.

Even in my own group, which has been meeting together for years, I have an understanding of how to communicate effectively with each member.  It’s not a one-size-fits-all method.

People should share what they think, not what some amazing wiz-bang published author wrote and would think  (because we don’t really know what they think).

Angry Critic.jpgIf you can’t think of a bunch of feedback, that’s okay.  It means the writer conveyed their story in a well written and interesting manner.  Just say that.  You don’t need to start searching through memoirs, autobiographies, and self-help books to create feedback.

Don’t say, “Stephen King would probably tell you to stop focusing on describing clothes so much.  You know that’s a pet peeve of his?  I read about it in his book On Writing.”  We would all be so lucky to have Stephen King in our writing group — bad news though — Stephen King you are not (unless Stephen King is reading this, then you are more than welcome to cite yourself old chap).  When it comes to writing groups, be you, not the mouthpiece of someone else.

People should take notes.

take notes.jpgNothing says, “I don’t give a flaming crap rocket about what you are telling me,” more then someone who sits blankly and stares at you during feedback and doesn’t take notes. Unless you have an eidetic memory, you should be jotting down notes.  Honestly, even if you do have a mutant eidetic brain you should take notes anyways.

Part of the strength of writing groups derives from the camaraderie of coming together with a sect of like-minded individuals.  If you are sitting down with people you don’t know, taking notes, and being receptive to criticism, it tells everyone you mean business and take this writing thing seriously.

Let me put it another way.  You sit down with two pieces of work to critique.  One is your best friends, who always gives you useful feedback.  The other is some weird guy/girl from your writing group who doesn’t take notes and just mouth breaths at you the whole time you provide feedback.  Which one will you read with more interest and care?  Be the best friend.

Lastly, and most importantly, people should check their ego at the door.

ego.jpgIf you are looking for someone to read your work and gush about how amazing it is, email it to your parents, or girlfriend/boyfriend, or siblings, or whoever.  I’m not saying you can’t be upset about criticism (never let them see you bleed), but if you are going to turn red and go radioactive when someone tells you they aren’t connecting with a character, or idea, then maybe a writing group isn’t for you.  For me, I would rather a small circle of people tear my work up so I can rebuild it stronger, then go willy-nilly into the night and have critics publicly crucify my work on every review website and blog scattered among the interwebs.  (It will probably happen anyways, but hey, that’s writing for you.)

Happy hunting! 

Hopefully, some of this helped.  There’s plenty more hot tips out there, and I encourage you all to share them.  Heck, maybe you disagree with some of this completely.  If you have an experience or differing opinion, share it, I’ll make sure it posts (as long as it isn’t a string of incoherent expletives).

question-markSometimes you just fall into a writing group and it’s hunky dory. Sometimes you have to search far and wide.  Regardless of your situation, don’t settle for a crummy group.  If you can’t find a group, it’s time for you to make one.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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36 responses

  1. Well said. I also go to my writing groups to bounce ideas around; something is not gelling in my own mind and I need to talk it out with someone. I also find my writing groups to be a wealth of knowledge about the publishing industry as a whole. Many are already published, so they know the tricks. Writing really is a journey, and we’re taking that journey together.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for reading and the great comment Judy. You are spot on.

      Within my writers group we sometimes schedule meetings centering completely around brainstorming and flushing out those pesky problems (those meetings tend to run the longest, so scheduling them is advisable).

      You are also right about breaking bread with other writers. Those essential connections you make can make a huge difference down the road. Thanks again for the insight!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Thank you very much for this! I usually write solo and, now that I’m approaching the end of my third round of editing, was looking at joining some literary groups or workshops but was wasn’t too excited by the prospect. What you’ve mentioned above might be the perfect middle ground; a small group of like-minded people all looking to help one another. Now I just need to find the people! Do you know of any sites that might allow me to find local writers?

    Liked by 3 people

    • The best site I can think of would be GoodReads. You might be able to cruise the community pages and put out some feelers. Also this webpage has some really great starting points to consider. It comes from The Write Life website. I tend to find solid information on their site.

      If you aren’t dead-set on local writers and just need beta readers, I would check into GoodRead again. I have heard nothing but really good things about the folks who beta read on that site. You can search for people within your genre and many of them do quick outstanding work. I’ve even heard many of them will fill out questionnaires and provide more detailed feedback if you provide/ask for it.

      Hope some of this is useful to you. I was kind of lucky in that I fell into a great group and we have been trucking for years now. If you find some some good people you should do a blog post about it – I’m sure there are plenty of people trying to do what you are doing now. Good luck and happy hunting!

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Writer’s are an impossible bunch! They barely exist in my part of the world, and when I do find them, they’re just a bunch of pretentious dimwits that write pseudo-philosophical literary fiction. It’s hard writing fantasy on an island…

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Excellent post! I have tons of thoughts on this subject, so forgive the long response. (And you have only yourself to blame–you did invite further tips!)

    1. Sometimes it’s good to cultivate writing buddies as well as, or instead of, a formal writing group. Don’t worry about weekly meetings; just word war on line instead. Set a timer for thirty minutes–go! Start writing! You don’t have to share at the end, just write.

    Call each other up to kvetch about a story or brainstorm new possibilities for your outline. Yeah, I tend to be okay with brainstorming with friends. I understand your reservations, but you can find writing buddies who will just help you throw stuff out there, not twist the story to their liking.

    Email your latest outline/scene/chapter/whatever for betas or line-edits or formal critiques. We all tend to learn who to ask for what. And we offer all our critiques privately. Email me your story. I’ll read it, make my comments and suggestions, and send it back. You can peruse my thoughts at your leisure. (And vice versa, of course.)

    Hang out in person when you can; if you’re too scattered, make the online stuff work. My extended group of writing buddies falls into the scattered category, but a bunch of us are meeting up in October. We’ve got a block of hotel rooms booked so we can spend a long weekend brainstorming, word-warring, coming up with insane and inane writing games, chilling and, of course, critiquing.

    2. It might seem impossible sometimes, but there are lots of places to find writing buddies and/or future members of a potential writing group. I agree that Goodreads is a great idea! I met most of my writing buddies through my fan fic communities online, plus one from my RPG table-top group and two from my synagogue. I’m sure that WordPress can be a good place to meet someone too, as can NaNo.

    Sometimes, though, it’s scary to put yourself out there. I was lucky–one of my first real writing buddies, whom I met through fan fic, reached out to me.

    3. Don’t discount online forums like Absolute Write or LegendFire or . . . well, there are so many. Maybe just choose one where you can get to know people and find the critiquers who seem to get your kind of story. (I have writing buddies who are outside of my genre, but we still mostly ‘get’ each other, if that makes sense.)

    4. I love your advice about offering critiques. When I watched one of Brandon Sanderson’s courses on YouTube, I took his instructions to his students about critiquing to heart. Now I always talk about how a story affects me, on what I was thinking while reading it. I avoid anything that smacks of, “You should do such-and-such.” Nope. I stick to, “The description here was a little too detailed for me; I don’t have a long attention span, so I started skimming. But once I got to this line of dialogue, I was hooked! That whole conversation felt genuine and really brought the characters to life for me.”

    And, okay. I’ve finally run out of things to say on this topic. 😉

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you so much for sharing all of this! you provided so many great nuggets of knowledge here. I love getting tips from other folks who are in the trenches. You should copy and paste all of this and make a blog post yourself because this is great information!

      When the sand in the hourglass fills up and I flip it (i.e. recycle this post months from now), I will be sure to include these awesome suggestions in the body of the post and link it over to you. If (and it’s totally up to you) you generate your own post, I’ll link it into this one when it recycles and likely use it as a Feature Friday spotlight.

      I was planning on featuring you anyways solely for the Tarot Tuesday posting you generate. Not that you don’t have other awesome things on your page, but I’m allowed to have favorites 😀 I’m finding the Tarot Tuesdays immensely enjoyable because there are so many ideas you can glean from them.

      One a side note, when I was reading your insights on 4, it reminded me of, Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott (I’m almost positive you mentioned reading this). Somewhere in there she talks about a writing conference where a lady really goes to town on another writer with feedback (in a harsh way). Lamott said something to the extent of, you can stab someone with a sword or you can point it at them. Sometimes it’s best to simply point it. I didn’t think of adding it to the post, but maybe when recycling day comes along I will.

      Thanks again for taking the time to read this post and offer your thoughts. You’re the best!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’d be honored to be featured, for any reason!

        Meanwhile, the thing about feedback–I keep reminding myself that I don’t have anything objective to say (except on basic SPAG issues). The best critique I can give is my subjective reactions to the story as one particular reader. So I explain what hooked me, where I skimmed, which characters I’m really into and why, where the dialogue seemed spot on and where it seemed stilted . . . stuff like that.

        That’s the kind of critique I like to receive in return (again, unless I specifically ask for a SPAG crit/line edits). Just tell me what worked for you, personally, and what didn’t, and do your best to explain why.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Solid advice as there are tons of writing groups out there that do a lot of the things you bring up as red flags. Then again, I don’t really do writing groups so maybe I’m a red flag?

    At any rate, great post and I learned so much from it. I loved the reference to Kings “On Writing” because I’d always chuckle when I read that book about some of his peeves. Xp

    Liked by 3 people

    • It was a touch ironic when I wrote this because I haven’t been a member of too many writing groups. I fell into one years ago and it’s been my mainstay. I have attempted some other collaborations with people I didn’t know very well, and these tips are the result. Now that I’m a stay-at-home dad, and part of a military family, I’m a nomadic hermit. Because of this, I haven’t attempted to even find a local writing group. I have my doubts as to whether I will too.

      I agree with you on King’s book. While it’s loaded with some great info, I couldn’t relate to a lot of it with my own writing. But who am I to talk? I’m still an unpublished greenhorn 😀

      Thanks for leaving some thoughts and reading today! I know I haven’t been able to make the rounds as often as I would like, but work has been rearing up for me (which is good). Plus Thor has moved from three naps to two, which has effectively subtracted about an hour and half from my day. Time grows shorter every day it seems.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I’m glad I wasn’t the only person who couldn’t relate to some things that King wrote in his book “On Writing”. He has tons of solid advice though and I respect his writing.

        I grew up reading him and in many ways I looked up to the guy when I first really started taking writing in more serious terms. Now that I’ve grown up etc. I simply respect the guy as a fellow writer and still love reading his work to this day!

        I don’t so much look up to him per say, if that makes sense, but I’m still very much a fan. Xp

        Also, yes, as they get older you are going to quickly find, children sleep less. They will fight sleep till they literally crash! It’s adorable though too. Our son is getting better about this (He turns 4 today), but he does still fight it.

        No worries on making the rounds. Also quite familiar with the nomadic life. Xp

        Enjoy your son while he is still little. They grow up very quickly!

        Cheers! ^_^

        Liked by 2 people

      • “Enjoy your son while he is still little. They grow up very quickly!”

        Shhhh…don’t say it! Hah! I saw a stupid car commercial about a dad letting his kid drive for the first time today and got emotional! Having a baby has turned my emot-o-meter up to eleven, when it used to max out at six.

        Liked by 1 person

      • It’s okay. Fatherhood will do that to you. I cried when my son was born. I couldn’t help it and certainly didn’t expect to do it. I was just overwhelmed with happiness.

        They had an ad a few years back about being a Dad and watching your kid grow up, and it made me cry a lot. Totally manly tears. Xp

        No worries, these things happen. It certainly isn’t a bad thing. Kids change your very souls.

        Cheers! ^_^

        Liked by 1 person

  6. It’s been too long since the Brown Pipers formed up. I’ve been meaning to push ideas, but there was the vacation, and now I’m moving (I have a list of excuses I hope you will accept one as a token of my lack of desire to prioritize).

    The feedback there is just the immediate payoff. For me, it’s the discussion about the craft I enjoy. One thing I think works, especially for you and I, is we cover the spectrum. You’re a literary House M.D. using all that knowledge to point out things that a gardener like me wouldn’t think about. Meanwhile I’m a literary Perry Mason, using case law and case study to form my commentary. (I won’t say arguments because we never have those). So having a good mix of feedback is important. Sometimes I’ll get feedback, and I’m just not understanding it. Then someone else comes along and presents said feedback in a medium I understand better.

    Whatever the case, I’m with you man. Writers’ groups are essential. Most of my high-productivity pushes are results of consistent feedback with other, equally-motivated writers.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Your knowledge of fiction really helps me. I know when I need solid case studies, you’re the one to ask. It’s one reason I’m so happy you are doing the book reviews on your page. There aren’t a lot of reviewers out there who offer breakdowns of books that aren’t laced with huge amounts of bias. You are one who not only summarizes a book well, but you break down the mechanics. While this information may not matter to the average reader, to a writer it’s gold. It’s super valuable information when you don’t have time for trial and error.

      I think Brown Pipe Gang triumvirate has turned into whatever the word is for two (Duumvirate? It’s 2:20 a.m. and I’m tired…). Regardless, I’m still catching your chapter revisions of Caught as you send them. I’m probably going to tackle the last group in a batch and send them all back at the same time. Hopefully anyone who is trolling the comments will see this and head over to you page and check out the book, because it’s going to be awesome 😀 Good luck with the move. If I was there, I would pack boxes in exchange for cold beverage and pizza, but alas, I am states away.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. The first writing group I belonged to was great. We spent about half our time at meetings discussing our various writing projects, reading out loud (not my favorite thing, but it was necessary) and listening to what everyone else thought, and half our time just socializing with other people who “get it” concerning what it’s like to be a speculative-fiction writer. Friends who could rely on each other to give honest, relevant, informed feedback — the ideal combination, in my opinion.

    Then I moved to another city, and the next year I found another writing group to join, This one met at a public library, and it was all-purpose rather than being focused on a small range of genres of fiction, and… Well, it was a mess. for one thing, the group was too big: more than thirty members who attended every month, and more who showed up occasionally. There were people there looking for help with papers for school, one person who was writing a book on how to sell one’s house, and LOTS of poets and memoir-writers. Fiction writers were a small minority, and there were only three members — including me and my twin — who wrote any flavor of speculative fiction. (II think someone who never reads horror and dislikes that genre is not qualified to tell a horror author how to write her own story, and ‘I don’t like all the violence and scary stuff — you should get rid of those parts’ is neither helpful nor relevant.) There was one group member whom everyone else seemed to think was the Best Writer EVER — he’d written more than a hundred short stories (and refused to so much as spell-check ANY of them, because what do those magazine editors know about Good Writing, anyway — they’re just rejecting all his stories because they’re jealous, right?) — so of course he had to be really good. (Bradbury was incorrect; it IS possible to write fifty bad stories in a row.) Because I prefer writing groups where all members are treated as equals — some better at some things than others, but everyone’s opinion given fair hearing and consideration, and no “One Author to Rule Them All” nonsense — I quit after just a few meetings.

    That was a bit more than a decade ago. I haven’t joined any in-person writing group since. I’d LIKE to join one (I’m actually a very gregarious hermit), but there aren’t any around here.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yikes. That second group sounds like a nightmare!

      Have you tried putting together your own on-line group via Google Hangouts or Skype? Might be worthwhile, especially since you know what a good group should be like. Plus, maybe you can arrange the occasional meet-up if you have enough people willing to travel for a weekend.

      Liked by 3 people

    • Nomadic hermits…join hands and begin whispering incantations! When I was in college I had some VERY similar experiences as you just described.

      I was 26 when I started college and already an “old man” compared to my peers. Plus being a veteran who had just left the military, there were some mannerism I had developed that I didn’t realize made me sort of intimidating to younger people. Up to that point, my editorial experience was in fiction (news writing/journalism) and I was used to giving feedback to ‘grown ups’ in the military. It seemed no matter how nicely I attempted to offer feedback, what the people wanted were accolades, not a fresh perspective. Anyways, long story short, that was one of my last REAL attempts at a writing group.

      Now I stick to my tiny circle and we meet via web conference every now and then (when the stars and planets align). Maybe we should toss one together! We could be potentially collaborating in the future anyways.

      Liked by 3 people

      • The great thing about giving feedback to grown-ups who know how to ACT like grown-ups is that you’ll never have someone shout, “F-Y-and-G-T-H!” (literally) at you because you liked their story overall but had a few comments on places where the narration was unclear.

        (*deletes long paragraph about Murphism and quantum physics*)

        Liked by 1 person

      • Well that sounds like it was awful. I don’t know why people like that even bother with getting feedback. Personally, I would rather issues be sorted be a few people than have critics crucify me in online reviews. Horses and water and all of that though…

        Like

  8. The hardest part I’ve always seen is checking the ego at the door. Great post! Love the break down of what to look for! I don’t Know if you’ve ever done NANOWRIMO but they have a pretty great grouping system for finding local writers in your genre!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’ve heard only good things about it, but haven’t tried it before. I usually don’t have any issues pounding out words. And I also have a pretty decent little circle of readers/reviewers. Perhaps when the well runs dry I may give it a try. Thanks for the suggestion, though. I do agree that it’s a wonderful resource for those who need it.

      Liked by 1 person

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