Why You Need A Writers Group…

… And how to do it right.

I was once told that you should never take your writing to another writer to get a critique because they will not be able to be objective.  Other writers will read your work and try to rewrite it in their own style.  This little piece of advice appeared to be proven true to me when I gave my dad a bit of something I’d written and he tore it to shreds.  (My dad is also a writer)  The piece was a Historical Romance.  He told me that my writing was good but I spent too much time focusing on the relationship between the hero and heroine and not enough time on the plot.  …  Yeah, he had no idea what he was talking about.

I also once took a creative writing class in college.  Let me tell you, a whole lot of mud was slung and a whole lot of knives and scissors were brought out.  That class was all about tearing babies apart.  I was pretty much scarred for life and turned off of writers groups.

Until I found the RIGHT writers group.

I’m lucky enough to have two Writers who are also coworkers at my day job, J.R. Tague and Jessica Bunsick.  We meet (try to meet) regularly to talk about writing and our works in progress.  We’ve gone to conferences and workshops together.  We get out there and do stuff as writers together.  And guess what?  It’s awesome.  We’re there for each other, we understand what each of us is going through, and we keep each other motivated.

And that, my friends, is why it’s essential to be a part of a writers group.

Writing is a difficult to impossible pursuit.  It requires long hours of brain-melting, unpaid work.  Isolated work.  Writing is the exercise of taking a mental crowbar and forcing vast, intricate worlds out of your brain.  It’s not something that should be undertaken alone.  It’s too easy to give up and accept defeat if you try it on your own.  When you have a support group of like-minded lunatics you have a place to go for moral support and encouragement.

Just the other day J.R. Tague came wandering over to my desk and sighed the phrase “Okay, I have a problem and I need your help.”  Now normally if someone where to say this to me I would be looking for my emergency medical cards or a hotline of some sort.  But this is another writer we’re talking about.  She proceeded to tell me about how her protagonist had agreed to do something for the shifty government in the world she’d created and how now that he (the protagonist) was back in the forest she (Tague) didn’t know what he would do.  We sat there for a good 20 minutes (don’t tell our boss) volleying ideas about what could happen in the forest, where the plot could go, and what would happen if there was a hermit who lived on a hill who had the answers to all of the mysteries of the world.  Okay, well, that was my suggestion and she just laughed at it.  But who knows!

I think the chat-session was useful.  Heaven only knows the number of times I’ve walked over to her desk and proceeded to spew complete, unconnected nonsense, only to have her throw out a few “what if’s” that put me back on track.  Neither of us every tell the other person what to do or how to write their story, we just bounce ideas off of each other to see what sticks and what has us laughing to the point where our other non-Writer coworkers look at us like we’ve had too much sugar.

Having a writers group is also a seriously good way to keep yourself writing.  I wasn’t necessarily going to do NaNoWriMo … but they made me.  The result is that I’m writing something that may or may not ever see the light of day, but I’m writing.  And so are they.  I tend to write volumes, so 50,000 words in 30 days is nothing to me.  They don’t write like that and are both amazed that they’ve gotten so much accomplished so fast.  In fact, Jessica is way ahead of the rest of us in terms of word count right now.  We keep each other going.  We push each other and are pushed, and supported, I might add, in return.

So.  Do we swap manuscripts and read them and mark them up and go over them with a fine-tooth comb and tell each other all the things we’ve done wrong and how we think they should be fixed?  Um … we started out that way sort of.  We swapped chapters and things in the beginning and gave our feedback.  But at one of the workshops we attended together recently the speaker, Jonathan Mayberry, stated that writers probably shouldn’t form critique groups per se, but rather writers groups where writing is discussed but not picked apart.

I think this is what my writers group has done by default.  We do a lot more talking about our writing than we do critiquing it.  Besides, we’re all novelists and the only effective way to critique an entire novel is to do full-fledged novel swaps.  And since none of us have the time to write and to read it works better for us to discuss things in general terms.

In my humble opinion, a good writers group needs to function like a good parenting group.  You get together to talk about your babies, to discuss where they are going, what they are doing, and the problems they have.  You look for outside, expert sources and discuss the ideas they present.  You can offer suggestions and exchange ideas about the babies, but in the end you can’t tell anyone how to raise their children or write their books.  Both child-rearing and writing are a intensely personalized processes with a right and wrong way that varies depending on the circumstances.

Writers groups should be support groups.  Your Writing Buddies should be the people you go to when you have a problem, or when you have a success.  These are the people you should feel comfortable calling in the middle of the night when the baby has a fever and you don’t know what to do.  You should want to go to them when things get hard, when you’re stuck and want to throw your computer out the window and burn every hard copy of your manuscript.  Save the scissors and pitch-forks for your beta-readers and editors.  Your writers group should be where you go for help, not critique.

Oh, your writers group should also be the people you go to Cheesecake Factory with to “talk about writing” while stuffing your face with cheesecake.  Just saying.

So are you a part of a writers group?  Do you have any fabulous tips or tricks to share with the rest of us?

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10 thoughts on “Why You Need A Writers Group…

  1. I joined a writers’ group earlier this year, and since NaNo started I’ve been meeting up with fellow local Wrimos at the library each week to participate in word sprints and keep each other motivated. I was initially quite scared about joining a group, thinking I would be forced to read out my rubbish and sit silently as people pulled it apart, but really it’s more about support; having a group of people around you who understand when you have to stay up until 3am to get that chapter right, or who understand not being able to head to the pub last night because your protagonist was having an identity crisis. A group of people who understand the quirky lifestyle of a writer, who won’t judge you for it, and who are there to offer constructive feedback for your writing whenever you ask for it.

    Because writing is such a solitary activity, it’s easy to forget that ultimately you are writing for an audience, so to have people read your work and give you feedback is an important part of the process. Of course each person is going to be subjective in their reading, but your readers will be no different. What’s needed is the ability to differentiate between constructive criticism and personal preference. If 10 out of 10 readers say they don’t like your work, maybe you need to look at how you can improve it. *But*, also make sure those readers are the intended audience of your work. Don’t give a young adult fantasy fiction novel to a group of adult non-fiction readers and expect rave reviews. I was told by a fabulous teacher once that you should take every criticism on board, but to remember that ultimately only you know what will or won’t improve it. I’ve seen people hate an ending that others love. You just can’t please everybody.

    Really though, I think it’s as you say; most writing groups do more talking about the writing than critiquing it, which in my opinion is just as valuable. Great post, Merry!

    • Thanks Katy!

      Yeah, it is essential to have feedback on your writing but I’ve come to the point where I feel like finding the people to give that criticism is like picking a good therapist. You have to find someone who knows what they’re doing and who gives good advice but who does it without hurting you.

      And it’s so great to find like-minded loonies, isn’t it! =D

  2. I went to a writing group as a teen with my poetry and left the meeting sliced into razor thin, bloody pieces of pulp. I cried all the way home and never went back again. They were pretentious and unkind. The poem they picked apart was later accepted (without revisions) by The Poet magazine for publication, it couldn’t have been all THAT bad. I’ve had an aversion to such groups since.
    I wish I could find one that supports others but I DO want that critique. We are so close to our own work that we don’t always see problems that others will. Support is a must, and opinions aside, I feel like some constructive criticism is a good thing.

    • Ugh! I can’t imagine how horrible it would be to put in all that work on something only to have everyone tear it up! Especially poetry. I didn’t have quite as bad an experience, but it still made me shy of critique groups. I hope you find just the right group someday. =D

  3. Writer’s Groups are necessary, but I disagree with you on getting critiques. Just like finding the right Writer’s Group, you need to find the right Critique Group (or form one). As Neeks said (hi Neeks!) there are plenty of bad examples out there. I’m part of a local one and we don’t have a single ego in the bunch and we’re all there honestly to help each others’ writing improve. We don’t rewrite sentences but rather point out the strengths and weaknesses, or plot holes, or places where it could use a little som’n som’n — but it’s all done with respect. Sometimes their comments are off base (I’m the only genre writer in the bunch) but usually they’re spot on and it has made my writing stronger and pushed me to be better. I’m also on critiquecircle.com and everyone there is helpful, though you might get some people who will rewrite sentences, but you just know that going in and need to be firm in your mind on your voice and story goals, and then you can see what’s good advice and what’s not. I tell ya, critiquecircle probably helped me leap-frog several years’ worth of learning on my own. See my post: http://angelaquarles.com/2011/10/01/dealing-with-critiques-the-30-40-30-rule/

    Even traditional published authors have at least one Beta reader they trust to read it and go over it with a fine-tooth comb to find the plot holes or inconsistencies we as authors can easily miss before they let their editor see it.

    Anyway, just my 2 cents 😉

    • Oops, I may not have been clear. I do think getting critiques is essential to the writing process. I have a small army of beta-readers who tell me like it is when I finish something. But my writers group is more of a support and encouragement group. Although we do critique each other now and then too. I can’t imagine completing the writing process without getting some sort of critique! =P

  4. I was lucky enough to find both support and critiquing in my writers’ group, but now I have to move away from them – very sad about that – but they have asked me to stay on as a long-distance member for the critique side of things.

    We critique keeping style and voice in mind. Suggestions are often things like ‘the syntax on this sentence tripped me up, perhaps reword to make clearer?’ or ‘I’m not really feeling what I think you’re trying to convey here’. There are rules about not trying to rewrite their work to fit your style/taste.

    We also meet at Shari’s and have pie and coffee once every two weeks and brainstorm through each others problems. It’s been great, especially since they’re all women and all fantasy/SF writers. I will miss them, but I’m stoked at being able to continue with the critique side of things.

    • That is really lucky and it sounds like you found the ideal situation! I’m jealous. And super sad for you that you’re moving. 😦 Unless you’re moving somewhere cool, that is.

  5. Love this post. My writing ‘group’ so far consist of people whom I’ve met on Twitter using #amwriting tag and Novel Publicity (you included). Sounds like you’ve got yourself a really good couple of writing buddies there. Love the last part about ‘Cheesecake Factory’ – man I’d give to have one of those (the cheesecake, AND the friends) 🙂

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