I used to have a link at the top of this page for my writing group — but now it’s gone. And so is my writing group. But I’m not in mourning anymore. In fact, I’m looking forward to not being in a writing group. But why?
My writing group had a lot of positives. We all genuinely liked each other and enjoyed reading each other’s work. And since everyone brought different expertise and backgrounds to the table, I learned a lot from everyone. I now understand important concepts about plotting, marketing, and character development solely because of my writing group experience.
So with all these wonderful attributes, why did my writing group fall apart? Various reasons — but here are the most important ones:
- Too much critiquing, not enough support. More on this below.
- Life got in the way. Full-time jobs, kids, ailing parents — nothing new, right? Just everyday stuff. But it happens.
- Submission pressure. When you’re struggling to make time to write, sometimes a deadline can be helpful. But for some of us, it just made things worse.
- First drafts in small chunks. Critiquing work in progress is always dicey because you don’t want to unduly influence the writer’s creative process. And even when a project is finished, assessing a novel over the course of months in 10,000 word pieces (or less!) makes it hard to address the big issues.
- Needs change. One of us wanted to explore writing nonfiction (the group was focused on fiction).
So. Too much critiquing, not enough support. What’s that about? It’s not really about fear of constructive criticism, though sometimes that can be an issue. I believe that most writing groups put way too much emphasis on criticizing work and not enough on supporting fellow writers in what is a lonely and difficult task: writing a novel.
The other, related issue is that since many writing groups only comprise beginning writers, no one is really that qualified to advise anybody else. I was lucky in this regard; my group was long on writing experience. But by their very nature, many writing groups are formed by people just starting out. In her recent post on Jane Friedman’s blog, book coach Jennie Nash puts it this way: “Most writers are honing their story analysis and narrative design skills in terms of their own writing, not in terms of being able to articulate it to other writers.”
So if critiquing your work isn’t the reason for having a writing group, what is? I’ve come to believe — for me, anyway — that it’s about support. Trying to write (and sell!) a novel is hard enough without the added pressure of a traditional critique group. My ideal group would focus on sharing struggles, presenting helpful information, and providing simple writerly camaraderie. Nash suggests pooling your resources to bring in an outside expert to do critiques, if you want them. You could also do writing exercises, travel to conferences together, or read and discuss books about writing.
Another way to go is something more akin to Julia Cameron’s “creative cluster,” a group focused on creative recovery, inspired by 12-step programs. These groups focus on unblocking your creative energy, recovering from artistic shame, and building positive momentum.
And, of course, you could always get together to actually write, whether it’s prompts or exercises or your WIP.
This isn’t to say that there’s no place for critiques. I think they’re crucial. But I believe most beginning writers will get more out of a critique after the first draft is finished (perhaps even a revision), when a critique partner — or even better, a professional editor — can look at the big picture.
Having said all this, I still wouldn’t trade my writing group experience for anything. I still value the friendship and support of former members. But whether you’re in a group or just considering one, remember to put your own needs front and center.