Writers often get the advice, “you need a writing group.” As someone with a bit of experience with writing groups — and in my fifth year of leading my own — I happen to believe that’s true. But not all groups are created equal. The right group will help you grow far beyond what you could’ve accomplished on your own. The wrong group can simply waste your time or worse, set you on the wrong course.
If you’re looking for a new writing group or re-evaluating your current one, keep a few important considerations in mind.
Yes, you do need a writing group.
In art school, professors told us all the time: you don’t create art in a vacuum. If you have any interest in getting your work out into the world, you shouldn’t write alone — especially as a new writer. A critique group will expose you to other writers’ styles and help you see your own writing from new angles.
Not only that, we all lose perspective on our work after we spend enough time with it. After so many hours of meticulous editing and rearranging, you may not have any idea if you’ve written something good. You need a third party who knows the craft and can see your manuscript as the reader, not the architect.
Most important, a writing group should have your manuscript’s best interests at heart. My group has pushed its members to cut some of our most beloved scenes and chapters. And the work has been better for it. A fellow writer with no emotional investment in the manuscript or their personal relationship with you has the freedom to give you that difficult-yet-necessary feedback.
Not every writing group will suit every writer.
When I founded my group, I made our mission clear: we’re serious writers looking for serious feedback. The group suffered a lot of attrition at first, but the few who remained were very committed. A few members have come and gone over the years, but the group culture has remained stable.
I didn’t beat myself up over the people who left my group. You shouldn’t worry about getting out of a wrong fit, either. Think about your group’s (or prospective group’s) expectations around attendance and submission of work for critique. Will you be able to meet them? Do you want a group that does readings and discussion, or just critiques? Is the group made up of hobby writers or does it feel more serious and professional? Be honest with yourself. If it doesn’t feel right, find a different group.
Before committing to a writing group, you should also read some of the other members’ work. They should be writing at a comparable (or higher) level to you. An experienced writer may not be able to get useful feedback from a group of green beginners. Look for a group of writers whose work you admire and who you feel confident will help you grow in the right direction.
Someone needs to lead.
Several years ago, I joined a writing group I found via Meetup.com. A few months into my membership, the group’s leader announced plans to move out of the area. Rather than appoint a new leader, the group decided to manage themselves collectively. After all, they all felt committed to the group and to their writing. They didn’t need anyone to force them to meetings.
The group disintegrated immediately. Even a dedicated, well-established group needs a leader: someone to do the unsung work of creating schedules and securing meeting spaces. If that work becomes everyone’s job, it quickly becomes no one’s job.
While a motivated group of writers can thrive with a mostly hands-off leader, someone should feel responsible for maintaining a group culture that feels safe and productive for everyone. A leader will tactfully and firmly address any issues that arise and make sure the group is doing what they set out to do. If nothing else, most groups will quickly veer off agenda and do more socializing than critiquing without someone to provide the occasional nudge. Remember that the leader of a writing group sets the tone. Make sure that tone feels like a good fit for you and your writing.
Writing groups — both local and online — are plentiful. You can find them via Twitter, Meetup.com, or regional writers associations. Take the time to evaluate these groups and find the right one for you. Just because a writing group exists and meets regularly doesn’t mean it will help you become a better writer. However, your writing group can help you succeed beyond your wildest ambitions. It’s worth putting yourself out there to find one.