Anyone who has studied literature surely has stumbled upon them: a group of extremely talented writers who came together to exchange ideas, encourage one another, and, sometimes, to form a movement.
J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were members of both the Coalbiters and the Inklings. Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and others were known to gather at the Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood included painters and poets.
These super groups are the stuff of legend and, one might assume, an endangered species in this age of do-it-yourself writing, editing, and publishing. After all, why waste your time talking with other writers—face to face, no less—when one guy with a computer can do it all these days?
I recently read several blog posts ragging on writers groups, claiming they are, at best, an old-fashioned waste of time and, at worst, a detriment to one’s writing because they implicitly suggest another’s opinion should have an impact on one’s Art (note the capital A).
I beg to differ.
Setting aside the sad notion that writing can often be a lonely pursuit (more on that in “The ‘cons’ of writing collaborations”), there are many ways an author can benefit from writers groups. But before I expound on that, full disclosure: I am a member of the Allied Authors of Wisconsin, one of the oldest writing collectives in the state and, arguably, one of its best kept secrets. My view on this matter is biased because of this group of outstanding and supportive writers—and friends.
Yet I realize that not all writers groups are created equal. So consider these dynamics when selecting—or starting—a writers group.
Have you heard the saying “Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you?” There’s plenty of truth to that, though I would amend it to this: Surround yourself with people who are smarter, more experienced, and more successful than you.
If you are going to subject your story to a critique, make sure those readers have a fair measure of expertise. Learn from their missteps as well as their accomplishments. If you typically struggle with the structure of story, you’ll want someone who has a keen understanding on the craft of storytelling, perhaps an English professor. And if syntax is your weakness, there’s nothing like a copyeditor to help conquer those grammar gaffes and/or a bibliophile to ferret out pesky clichés.
Whenever possible, find people who have been published and can lend some insight into the business aspects of writing. And if you can get your hands on an editor or agent, hold on tight and don’t let go!
In short, find yourself a flock of mentors to take you under wing.
When I leave an Allied Authors meeting, all I want to do is go home, plant myself in front of the keyboard, and type away into the wee hours of the morning. Great writers groups should do that.
I’ve heard horror stories of writers groups that achieve the opposite. Two friends of mine were members of an organization that sounded more like a sect of sadists than a support group. Apparently, members took turns mercilessly tearing down one another’s hard work. My friends eventually quit because they grew tired of hearing how inept they were by people who thought their own work was better than it was.
While every writer needs to grow a layer (or two) of very thick skin, there’s no excuse for tactlessness. Critiquing should not equate to kicking someone when they’re most vulnerable; on the contrary, constructive criticism mixes praise with opportunities for improvement.
At the end of the day, a writers group grants a writer objective perspectives. The reader doesn’t know what you know, and getting feedback midway through a novel allows the author to glimpse what a particular reader is thinking and feeling at that precise moment of the story—invaluable insight to be sure!
You don’t have to agree with everything that is said. Neither do you need to explain every literary decision you make. Listen, learn, and then decide how to apply what was said (if at all). If the point of a writers group is to make you a better writer, then your peers’ comments should inspire you to jump back into your narrative and trim, tweak, and/or tread forward with confidence.
If your group instead discourages you, it’s time to move on.
When my son was a newborn, I had a great idea for a novel but felt I had no time to dedicate to writing it. Since I was a part of a writers group, I felt obligated to bring something to the table. Oh sure, I could have slacked off and missed a meeting here and there, but because I had the opportunity to get feedback from a fantastic group of writers, I just couldn’t stand to squander it.
And so every month, I wrote one new chapter. Some passages were arguably better prepared than others, but if nothing else, those monthly meetings provided me with deadlines, impetus, and momentum on a project that resulted in a novel that is now represented by an agent.
Without a reason to pursue those one-chapter-per-month milestones, the completion of that novel would have been much delayed or perhaps postponed indefinitely.
On the other hand, beware of writers groups that require too much responsibility. Your network of writers should function as a support system that makes your writing better, not as a “time suck” that detracts from your fiction in the form of excessive, outside-of-class exercises. If you’re spending hours reading massive manuscripts, preparing a dissertation for each chapter another member submits, and/or running out to the copy shop for copious printouts prior to meetings, then maybe your writers group needs you more than you need it.
Even if you joined a writers group for mostly selfish reasons—so that you can become a better writer—you do have a responsibility to return the favor. The best writers groups are those comprised of people who genuinely want one another to succeed. Sure, there might be some friendly competition and good-natured banter/bashing, but at the end of the day, you owe it to the group to be a giver as much as a taker.
That means attending meetings even though your work isn’t on the agenda, paying attention even if a particular genre or style doesn’t appeal to you, and always giving honest and genuine feedback (even if So-and-So didn’t give your most recent submission a raving review).
The quickest way to destroy the integrity of a writers group is to adopt a me-versus-them approach. If you want to be supported, you must support others. If you expect others to cheer you on, then you have to congratulate them on their successes. And because you (hopefully) played a part in making their writing stronger, their successes become your successes. Even as you were mentored, mentor those with less experience.
Any writers group is an investment; you can only hope to gain what you are willing to give.
I suspect that the folks who condemn writers groups have had unfortunate experiences with them. In addition to the aspects addressed above, there is another angle: the “X factor.”
Here’s one example. If you write romance novels, and no one in the group appreciates that genre at all, then you probably need to find a different group. But having said that, I urge writers to surround themselves with readers and writers of fiction outside of their preferred genre, too. The uninitiated tend to catch things others take for granted.
And what about the tone of the meetings? Is it all business? Or is everyone OK with an hour of socializing prior to critiquing? Make sure everyone is on the same page (so to speak) when it comes to the rules, expectations, and goals.
At the end of day, a group is comprised of people. Sometimes personalities mesh; sometimes they don’t. Positive attitudes can sweeten the deal, while strong egos inevitably sour the bunch. If you are willingly opting to spend time with these people, then you should genuinely enjoy their company.
I’m sure J.R.R. and C.S. connected because of common interests, but I have to believe it was more than just business (and their penchant for using initials). There’s no law that says a writer has to join a writers group to become successful, but I personally have benefited from writers groups both while in college and as a member of the Allied Authors of Wisconsin. I wouldn’t be the writer I am today without them.
And if some of the literary greats also saw merit in gathering together and exchanging ideas, who am I to disagree?
Do you disagree? Tell me what you think of writers groups below…