Being a Better Writer: Finding a Good Writing Group

Thanks, ocalhoun!Welcome back readers! Ready for more Being a Better Writer? I am! And with one of the more requested topics of the last few months. But first …

That’s right, it’s time for the news. Two things to discuss, snap-quick, and then we’ll be on to the post.

The first is that whoa, did Friday’s Op-Ed on The Indie Hypocrisy blow up. Not with views, though it did do really well there, but with thoughts. I’ve had posts hit 5,000 views that got less commentary than this piece. At the moment, split between here and another discussion forum the piece was linked, I’m clocking twenty-five comments (up to thirty as of the posting of this article, discussing the concept with both other posters, offering their own thoughts on the matter, and just in general making their voices heard on the topic. And as much as I’d like to reply here … this is a Being a Better Writer post. That said, the sheer volume of long, thought-out responses is more than enough to warrant a follow-up post to get everyone’s ideas and suggestions out into the open. So that’s scheduled for later this week.

Second bit of news: Patreon Supporters, expect your December reward this week. Apologies for the delay, but I was really determined to finish that draft of Jungle.

Okay, that’s the updates out of the way, let’s talk about writing groups.

We’re going to start with a giant disclaimer. The kind that comes with a flashing neon sign, and would be said by someone speaking 128 words-per-minute in a radio ad: Only once have I ever been in a writing group. It was for a period of several months, during one of my college creative writing courses. That said, it was still a writing group, and I gave my participation my all. But with only the one writing group under my belt, realize that my perspective on things may be a bit skewed. Most of what else I know about writing groups comes from second-hand advice and stories collected from other authors.

Crud, I’m not even in a writing group now. And honestly, I’m not really interested in joining one. But does that mean you shouldn’t be?

Absolutely not.

The thing is, a good writing group can be great. It’s not a requirement for everyone to produce good work, but it is a tool that, like many others, works better for some authors than it does for others.

Take, for example, the four original hosts of the Writing Excuses podcast: Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Howard Taylor. Of that group, at least one of them I can directly recall talking about their writing group on a regular basis. One other I believe has mentioned a writing group off-hand. The other two are on the other side of the fence, with no writing group whatsoever (though one has been part of a writing group before, just no longer has time for it).

Yet each of them is a highly successful author that consistently produces high-quality work.

What I’m getting at here is that your favorite author endorsing or not endorsing writing groups isn’t a good reason to decide whether or not you should make use of one, because they may be the type of person that works best in a more secluded, focused writing environment. Or not. And you, on the other hand, might be the opposite.

So, as I said above, even though I’m not a member of a writing group and not that interested in one, does not mean that you should adopt the same stance without at least giving it a shot. A good writing group can be an invaluable tool, as some of the Writing Excuses podcast hosts (and indeed, many an author) have pointed out.

I’m not here to write about what worked for me and how it will work for everyone, because it won’t. The point of these posts, especially this one, is to point out how it could be right for you, and what to look for (as well as watch out for).

Got that? Ready? Okay! So let’s start with the absolute beginning and work upward: Why can a writing group be helpful, and why should you consider trying one out?

Actually, let’s start even further back, to cover all the bases: What is a writing group?

Well, it’s pretty simple, at least in theory. A writing group is a group of individuals who get together once a week (usually) to discuss what each other member of the group has been reading. Which means that yes, each member of the group has shared what they’ve written recently with each other member of the group, so that everyone has read everyone else’s material. The group then discusses each individual’s writing—what worked, what didn’t work, what felt very clear, what felt confusing, what they liked, what they didn’t like … etc.

Really, that’s all there is to it, at the most basic. The writing group I was in? We got together once a week, each of us having read the other’s work beforehand and made notes. Then we’d just go around in a circle, one by one, discussing one another’s work.

Okay, it was a bit more orderly than that. We’d pick one member to start, and then each member would discuss their response to what they’d read, and then a bit of a group discussion would start, the writer of said piece would ask question or take notes, and then we’d move on to the next writer in line.

So, why was this good, and why should you consider trying it? Simply put, it offers a lot of perspective. Between the various members of our group, we had a wide range of experience, both in writing and reading. Some members of the group were fans of YA Romance, others of Fantasy Epics. Some even went for historical fiction or political thrillers.

Granted, this meant that there was usually a decent number of people in the group who would not be fans of a particular genre of writing, but at the same time this was a good thing. If they were passive about it, you could generally assume what you’d written was pretty good, they could still spot actual errors (such as ‘You swapped a tense every time you would use this statement …’), and if they liked something they normally didn’t like, you knew you’d either knocked it out of the park … or maybe slipped a little too far into a genre that they enjoyed from what you had been writing.

Let me put this another way. Here before on the site, many times in fact, I’ve spoken of having Alpha and Beta readers. I’ve talked about editing as well, and the importance of getting a wide variety of eyes on your work.

Well, having a writing group is similar to having alpha readers going over your work, but they’re going over it as you write, rather than after the fact. And you, in turn, are going over their work. You’ll get feedback, reactions, ideas on how to improve … the works.

Granted, this hopefully helpful advice comes with a caveat: You’ve got to give it as well as receive it. This means that you’ll be spending some part of your week (or month, or however often you meet) reading over someone else’s work and doing some critical thought. So you’ll need to be ready to give as well as get … and you’re going to be doing a lot of giving. After all, in the writing group I was in there were … what, ten of us? That meant that there were nine other writer’s writings I had to read over each week and formulate a response to.

So yes, a writing group does come with a significant time investment. On the other hand, that time investment should serve as a good source of motivation to write if you’re the type that has difficulty forcing yourself to put words on paper. Knowing that a number of other people are waiting to read what you’ve written can be a good impetuous to move forward.

Granted, if you’re a shy writer with a fear of showing your work to others, maybe not.

You get the idea though: Writing groups can offer you a lot. Well … a good writing group. That’s the kicker, and the source of today’s original topic. After all, if you know what a writing group can do for you and want to find one or create one, well … How can you be sure it’s a good one and not a bad one?

And rest assured, bad ones exist. They’re out there, and you don’t want to get sucked into them. They will chew you up and spit you out, ruining your writing capabilities and confidence along the way (yes, even if they build you up, because they’re going to go about it all wrong).

Yeah, none of us want that. So, what should we look for in a good writing group? If we’re hunting around for one, putting one together, etc, what should we be looking to find?

1) Check out the variety. I’m not saying that your group should have one fiction writer, one fantasy writer, one historical writer, etc, etc. Nor that you should make sure your group has a set number of men, women, or ethnic groups (though with that last one, any sort of “proper number” is going to be a warning sign).

No, it’s closer to the first one. But again, I’m not saying you want one representative of each genre. What I’m saying is that a good group will have good variance of opinion, reading material, and ideas. Every member of the group can, for example, enjoy Fantasy … but each of them can come from different areas within that broad scope. One might enjoy High Fantasy, or Literary Fantasy, while another could have been raised on Dungeon and Dragons and enjoy swashbuckling sword-and-sorcery adventures.

The reason this becomes important is because a group that shares almost identical likes and dislikes will often have too narrow of a focus, leaving members of the groups with “false positives.” A group that’s entirely based on sword-and-sorcery fantasy, for example, might not think much of The Lord of the Rings, and a writer trying to create an Epic, High Fantasy in that writing group could acquire a lot of feedback in the negative.

A group with a wider focus, however, is going to offer their writers a better, broader scope of feedback. An aforementioned High Fantasy submission, for example, will find insight focused on that genre from those in the group who enjoy High Fantasy. But in addition, the simple inclusion of someone there with a differing opinion will often cause those who aren’t a fan of High Fantasy to tailor their own feedback and narrow it down. In my own group I saw this happen, where someone would lead with “Well, I’m not a fan of X, so I can’t say much about those aspects of it, but I think this aspect of it was done well/needed work.”

Where a group entirely dedicated to one particular style, the group as a whole will have no problems giving everything that focus. But when there are others around offering dissenting opinions? This can make others think on their own comments and “trim” them, removing the opinion and narrowing their response down to the most focused or critical elements that aren’t opinion.

Speaking of opinions …

2) See how the group handles opinions and dissent. A good group is going to have a range of feedback, yes, but also important to a good group is how they handle that group. If you check out a writing group and immediately notice that everyone seems divided into two camps on just about everything and/or constantly disagreeing without any form of “agree to disagree” you’re probably better off backing away.

Look, a good group will have a good range of opinions. But a good group will also respect one another’s opinions or at least try to have some reasoned discourse about them. If it’s painfully clear that the group is only held together by “we’re writing” and constantly argues with one another to the point of animosity or bad feelings, it’s not going to be a good group.

Again, in my time with my writing group, there were plenty of disagreements. But barring one particular individual, the group as a whole was more than content to leave it at “One of us thinks this works, the other doesn’t.” On the whole, that was good for the group, as people felt free to discuss different aspects of what was being looked at and offer dissenting opinions. And each creator was given a chance to see differing ideas about their work.

Again, you want a place where respectful differing opinions can be shared, where one person can say they like a character’s portrayal while another can feel free to disagree without bad blood starting between the two.

3) Watch out for “Kings” or “Queens” running the group. Look for a balanced leadership. This one is a classic, but two things that can ruin a group for you and anyone else are groups that are basically serving as sycophants to one individual, or one individual acting as though the group is there to be a sycophant to them, and everyone else is inconsequential.

Effectively, two similar things resulting in two different outcomes. Both are terrible for any developing writer, and both grow out of one individual that effectively sees the group as their own personal “loudspeaker” to show the world just how awesome they are (the world, in turn, may just “not get it yet”).

This can destroy a group, or at the very least leave a bad impression and make it difficult for the rest of the group to get much done. We had one of these individuals in my writing group, where they always had an opinion on everything, an opinion that always came back to them and their writing, and how awesome their writing was in comparison to everyone else’s, and where nine times out of then his advice quite literally boiled down to “If you want to be any good at all, you should try to be more like me.” It tripled the length of our meetings, because they always had something to say, which was always the same thing, and they said it whenever they could.

Naturally, they also could not take criticism of their work. Which meant that they also spent a large majority of the time justifying why other’s criticism of their own work wasn’t valid for whatever reason (it literally sometimes just boiled down to “an individual with experience on the topic you wrote about is explaining that you got the basics wrong” and their response would be almost word for word “whatever, I believe you’re wrong”).

This went on, week after week, until said individual left on a three-week vacation. And let me tell you, without them, that group ran like a smoothly-oiled machine. Our meet-ups went from four to five hours … to one or two. We were all more cheerful. More got done. And by the second and third week of this individual being gone, it was voiced by several in the group, and agreed by all, that we all wished that individual would not come back, because the group was so much better off without them trying to make everyone kiss their greatness-destined buttcheeks (but it was a class, so …).

Still, it could be worse. As I mentioned above, sometimes individuals such as this already have a group of sycophants sucking up to them that they’re in charge of. And you do not, repeat not want to get sucked into that group. This is the “high school clique that never ended.” Those groups exist to effectively self-promote one or two people (usually the King/Queen) and woe betide those who come in with any expectation otherwise. You want to sit there and have a whole group of people tear you and your work apart methodically and with cruel intent?

No. No you don’t. You want discourse, not a diatribe. Get caught up with one of these groups, however, and your options become praising the King/Queen … or getting ripped to shreds in a viscious, nasty fashion.

Of course, if you recognize the group for what it is, that can mitigate the sting a little. But it’ll still hurt. If you’ve read my post on dealing with detractors, I go bit more in depth on this kind of circular, self-feeding frenzied group and the types that can get into it, but for the here and now, avoid this one like the plague. Nothing you write will be “good” unless it’s identical to the King/Queen’s, and nothing you do will be good unless you’re praising the King/Queen with every breath.

Keep your distance. Look instead for a group where everyone seems to have a voice. Sure, there might be someone taking the reigns from time to time, but look at how they use them. Are they steering the group to stay on task, or are they shuffling things back toward their own self? Are they leading with an iron fist, or does the group in general have all the input and a few individuals just act to summarize or be a mediator as the situation requires?

A good group will give everyone a nice, equal opportunity to speak, share their opinion, and gain a response. Look for a group where you can see this in action.

4) Look for a group that does know what it’s talking about, or at the very least is willing to learn. This is a big one. There are writing circles out there that, quite honestly, don’t actually know much about writing, but worse, don’t want to learn. As far as they’re concerned, any information to the contrary of what they already have is not desired.

This won’t suit you well at all. Writing is a learning experience, and no matter how good we are, we should always strive to be better. But to get better, we need to learn. A group that doesn’t learn isn’t going to be much use to someone who wants to be a serious writer. Likewise, you’ll want a writing group that knows a little bit about writing. A group that looks confused the moment you mention “I’m trying to write a Hard Sci-Fi” and follows up the comment with “Hard? What’s that?” or worse “You mean like Star Wars?” isn’t going to be able to offer you much. Not until they can answer their own questions.

Granted, you can’t expect a group to know everything, so don’t. But you should look for a group that’s at least on whatever “page” you’re on, or close to it.

5) Don’t be the jerk. It’s kind of a given, but as you’re looking for a good writing group … don’t be the wildcard that’s going to create a bad writing group. Like that adage “Be the change you want to see?” Do that. If you want a good writing group, be the kind of group member you’d want to have in your group. Be polite. Be sure to read and offer good, critical feedback on other’s works (which, remember, is different than just being a critic).

Offer good feedback. Be understanding of differences of opinion and perspective. Don’t take it personally when someone offers a critique of your work, even when you feel it’s unjustified or that they’re wrong. Keep a cool head.

Be a good group member, not a bad one.

All right. I’ve said a lot today, but I think this is where I’ll cut it off. Just remember, the point of a writing group is to help everyone involved improve. You might try it and find it’s not for you—that’s fine. You don’t need to be in a writing group to be a good writer, but some of you may find you prefer it. And when you go looking for a good one, remember:

Check out the variety among the group members. See how they handle different opinions and dissent. Watch out for Kings and Queens. Look for a group that’s similar in experience, knowledge, and writing capacity to your own. And last, don’t be a jerk! Be the kind of group member you’d like to be working with.

Good luck. Now go get writing.

EDIT: So one of my readers left who is far more active than I in writing groups pointed out that my summary of the advantages of writing groups was a little lacking, and added some of their own experience in a comment. They’ve given me permission to repost it here.

In addition to feedback and critique, a writer’s group can also provide cross-promotion and collaboration.

My one ‘legitimately’ published title is because I participated in my group’s annual short story anthology project (all proceeds go to the group, and since the anthology sold 100 copies or so between ebook and print, we no longer need to charge dues). And, while I was at book signings for that one, I actually managed to get a couple new readers for my MLP stories, as well as quite a few who expressed interest in the novel I’m polishing. For this year’s round, I’ll be on the editing board for the anthology.

Which kind of fits into another big benefit: resume-building. Because of the anthology, I can claim one (soon to be two) titles on my ‘resume’. And they’re not even technically self-published; the group officially acted as the publisher. Not only that, but because the group is small, but has an official-sounding name, they hand out awards like candy. Which makes me not only a ‘published’ author, but an ‘award-winning’ author. When you get into the nitty-gritty of just how I got those platitudes, it’s not at all impressive … but at first glance, to a prospective publisher or on an Amazon page, it looks good and may help make that sale.

Thanks, ocalhoun, for sharing your experience!

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