I was so shocked (certainly more so than by any of the not very crucial stuff going on in the Archers today) to read this post by Louise Wise called ‘Why Writing Groups are Crap’ I have decided to launch a riposte. But if I have to disagree with Louise, she has made me think about why her experience has been so poor and why I am totally enamoured of the face-to-face workshop I go to once a fortnight.
Maybe the clue is in that ‘workshop’ word. The first ‘real’ writers’ group I went to evolved from an evening class in which our tutor encouraged us to carry on by workshopping. Sarah (who blogs here) also gave us a handout of rules about what was expected and allowed in a ‘proper’ writing workshop of the kind she had experienced as part of an M.A. course. Six of us took up the challenge and being all fairly new to writing we followed the rules, which proposed a framework for critique (character, settings, plot etc) as well as laying down important guidelines on how to give and receive criticism. Hey presto, the rules worked, and carried us through even when we were joined by some of the more ‘challenging’ characters described by Louise.
Sadly this group did not survive, but since then I’ve joined another group organised on different lines but where the approach is equally ‘professional.’ I can only think that both of these groups (and others I’ve heard of locally) are successful because of shared aims and a real desire from all participants to improve their writing rather than simply put on a performance.
I’ve perhaps been lucky in another respect which reminds me of a maxim from Jane Smith at How Publishing Really Works,
For a writing group to work, you have to be with writers who are better, or more experienced than you are yourself. Now I wouldn’t like to rank the members of my group in terms of achievements or expertise (and I was very lucky to be asked to join when I was, as I don’t recall having much in the way of a track record) and we operate as a ‘peer group’. But none of us are beginners and we all have strengths to contribute to the group and to our criticism. Most importantly, we all take out writing seriously and work wiith all the motivation we can muster towards getting our work out there as published writers.
So what’s not to like?
Writing groups have their limitations. Generally the format of a meeting allows for relatively short passages to be read out. Feedback will tend to be at the ‘micro’ level and other audiences/mechanisms will be needed for feedback on story arc or the book as a whole. Established groups will also have to balance the the need for ‘fresh blood’ with the need to maintain the existing group dynamic, which can be a difficult thing to achieve. I won’t deny that I sometimes wonder in my own group if we know each other’s writing a little too well, and assess it against existing expectations. But, interestingly, when from time to time I send work out for critiquing elsewhere, in online forums or to other writing friends, I find I generally get a similar reaction to what I have had from my own group. And a fortnightly meeting with feedback from a trusted source provides a huge motivational fix. It might not be perfect, but I wouldn’t give it up.
I can see I’ve been lucky and it might be difficut to find a group that suits you and where you know you will fit in. There are lots of groups around. I can only suggest you work out what you want from a writing group, and then start looking.