If you’ve taken the step to start writing, you might be curious about writers’ groups. Are they worthwhile? Should you join one? What are the pros and cons? I’m going to share the best advice I’ve received about them, as well as my own experiences. Apply what you can, discard what you can’t…just like the criticism you might receive at your writers’ group!
You’ll Meet Other Writers
As we all know, writing is a solitary endeavor. It requires hours upon hours of alone time, and it’s hard for your non-writing friends and family to truly understand—even if they’re supportive. A writers’ group will put you in touch with like-minded people, and that can be a blessing. Sometimes I need to talk out a plot point I’m stuck on or seek advice. I’ve been able to do both by being in touch with other writers.
But, Find Your People
Writers’ groups are like any other social setting in life: you gel with some and not with others. Seek out your people. Find a group, or person, within the organization with whom you connect. Ideally these people should be about your ability level (beginner, intermediate, published, etc.), like or at least appreciate what you write, and be courteous yet helpful with criticism…should you seek it.
Identify What You Want
The best writers’ group will fulfill what you wanted when you joined. Were you looking for a sounding board? Find a more social band to talk about the writer’s life. Were you looking for advice on craft or the business? Maybe you want a structured organization that has guest speakers once a month. Do you need an accountability group? Make sure there’s a requirement to show new work. Are you seeking a review or critique partner? Wait and see how the group handles this part. Every writer needs feedback, but only useful feedback is valuable.
Can You Handle the Truth?
If you join a writers’ group to find a critique partner or way to assess how “good” your project is, ask if you’re ready for feedback. The best feedback is:
- Delivered in a non-personal, kind way
Are you ready to hear that your book baby needs work? Can you emotionally handle being told it’s anything other than great? If you’re going to fall apart from a bad review, you might want to wait on this step. If you’re ready, assess how the group handles reviews before you submit your own. Is feedback truthful, specific, and kind? Make sure it is before you move forward.
Is Everyone Too Nice?
Although you should expect kindness, that’s the not the same as insincere praise. Look, writing a book is hard. I know my first manuscript felt like a marathon I could never run again. I wanted to be told it was perfect because I didn’t think I could stomach revisions. However, the first draft is not done. Ever. No matter how naturally talented you are.
Ed Catmull, president of Pixar, wrote a book called Creativity, Inc. In it, he explains how Toy Story, a beloved tale, wasn’t right at first. They had a hard time nailing Woody’s character. Who knew? If they had stopped revising before it was perfect, Toy Story wouldn’t be the legendary movie it is today. They overcame the shortcomings of the story through an honest assessment of what was missing and how to fix it. Your story needs this treatment too.
If possible, you need to find a fellow writer who is also a good editor. Not all are. She needs to be able to tell you what works and what doesn’t and why. The explanation part is key because even if your critique partner is correct about what’s missing, if she can’t express that to you in a way that you see it, it won’t help. If the only evaluation offered at your writers’ group is faint praise, seek edits elsewhere.
So now we come back to the main question: are writers’ groups worthwhile? Like everything else in life, it depends on who’s in them and how they’re run. For me, I find my writers’ groups to be invaluable from the perspective of having a professional network. I’m able to get feedback about the business and referrals when I’ve needed them. As for revisions, many friends have provided helpful feedback, but the edits that have helped most were from a developmental editor. And I paid for those. If you’re on the fence, give it a try. Just be aware that it might not meet your every need…which doesn’t mean it won’t meet any.