Benefits (and Pitfalls) of Writing Groups

We’ve all been told that writing is a solitary activity.  Writers must be left alone to able to concentrate, to hear and see and feel their words, so that their stories can  be told.  Writers are known to hole-up, disappear, hide away.  For many of us this becomes a preferred existence.  Cut off from distraction we are free to revel in our work and make some gains on the craft we have doggedly pursued for so many years.

But there is a very public aspect to the writing experience as well.  Writers do not typically write for absolutely no audience, even if that audience is imaginary and never actually sees the work.  Furthermore, we tend to talk about our writing, we tell people we write, and when we do those people become curious.  They sometimes want to see what we’ve written.  We climb out of a shell and think about the bigger world around us and where our writing fits.  We may begin to desire companionship with other writers.  We consider taking a writing class or joining a writers group.  But then we ask ourselves whether this is wise.  Should we risk exposing ourselves to other writers?

There are some very serious considerations a writer should make before joining any writing community.  Whether in the class room or a private home, writer’s groups tend to follow all of the normal rules of social interaction: the group looks for a leader, guidelines are established for how the meetings will be run, how materials will be shared, and duties assigned.  Very quickly a homogeneous community is established, with an energy and personality all its own.  A hierarchy is formed, and those more advanced along the writing path become the darlings of the community, egos inflate and are sometimes crushed, and a style emerges comprised of the attitudes, preferences, and opinions of the group.  This is especially dangerous in the class room where the instructor has great influence on the minds of her students.  As writing students become familiar with the instructor’s likes and dislikes in the wider literary milieu they will often attempt to cater their style to the professor’s tastes.  There are few environments more dangerous to creative spirit, in fact, than the academic setting.  Creative writing professors themselves are often frustrated writers, and that frustration can be unwittingly taken out on the student.

Further hazards of the writing group include the general aptitude of the writers themselves.  In the attempt to form a successful writers group novice writers of more or less the same level of skill can create for themselves a perpetuating quagmire of mediocrity.   The members, being unfamiliar with the tools and importance of good critique, may offer little that is concrete, praising too much in their naive generosity and failing ultimately to provide concrete guidance to themselves or anyone else.  Occasionally, in an effort to be helpful, one member may be overly harsh in their critique, and then the spirit of the gathering becomes tarnished.  Without the benefit of a more seasoned writer whom everyone trusts, the group may falter or, worse, go on perpetuating mediocrity and inhibiting the growth of any member who is earnestly seeking to develop otherwise.

Still, in recognizing that writing is, after all, a social activity, there are at least as many reasons to join writing groups as there are to avoid them.

Writers need feedback, plain and simple.  The most difficult thing next to writing itself is the ability to see clearly what one has written.  Having a trusted and intimate audience to share with is invaluable so long as the writer can get viable criticism of the sort that engenders real growth.  To this end the writer seeking a group must select wisely.  Those experienced with writing groups generally agree that there needs to be a “fit” between a new candidate and an established group, and this is no less true of a completely new group of writers joining together for the first time.  By “knowing thyself” a writer will be able to determine whether they are in the right position to benefit from joining any given group.

When considering creative writing classes, everything depends upon the instructor, but bear in mind that, so long as the student writer does not take the whole thing too seriously, there is always something to learn in these courses.  For one thing the student writer is very likely to read stories they have never before read.  The classroom is also a place to experiment with different genres, techniques, and a great place as well to learn how to properly critique.

The reality of writer collectives persists in every format.  There is good and bad, risk and reward.  By guarding against the danger of drinking too deeply from the personality of the group, a novice writer benefits from having an immediate audience with which to share their work and receive critique, as well as a place to take risks and overcome fears of “getting out there.”  Even a limited environment can be beneficial to the novice because it gets things going.  The accountability of deadlines, assignments, an expectant audience, and a regular schedule provides discipline – the most valuable tool of the beginner – so that the deeper growth of voice and style can occur.

So long as the writer can develop some level of self-trust, to know what to take and what to leave out in the criticism (and praise) of others, spending time in a writer’s group can be greatly beneficial.

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16 comments on “Benefits (and Pitfalls) of Writing Groups

  1. Pete Denton says:

    The writing group I belong to formed after we all studied the same creative writing course. After it finished, a number of us wanted to keep in touch and our group formed. We are very informal and have already gone through critiquing each others work for the course. I’d hate to be part of a group where we didn’t all share the same goals. I feel invigorated when we’ve had a meeting, inspired to keep writing. That’s the most important thing the group gives me.

    • emperort says:

      Great observations, Pete. One of the smaller writer’s groups here also formed after taking a class together and they seem to be very happy with their make-up as well. It’s very helpful to have a solid, trustworthy team of readers.

      Thank you for sharing.

  2. MishaBurnett says:

    What I personally find invaluable about writer’s groups is simply being around other people who are trying to do the same thing that I’m trying to do.

    It’s less a critique of my work that I need as a critique of my life–how do we juggle writing and promoting and day jobs and relationships without going mad or burning out in the process?

    That’s what I get out of writer’s groups, encouragement. Yes, it’s damned hard to do, but so long as I know that others are making this same struggle, it’s a lot less lonely.

  3. lpaigewrites says:

    I’m a part of a writing workshop right now, and I find one of the most challenging aspects of this kind of group setting is the varying skill levels of each participant. There are some who are truly in the basic beginning stage of creative writing and some who have been doing it for years. This makes giving feedback rather difficult, because those who don’t know what to look for tend not to give the most constructive feedback and those who do know what they’re doing don’t want to critique too harshly. But, it is nice to hear what other people think of your work, so writing workshops really do put you in a pickle.

    Also, I recently watched this TED Talk on how creativity can be stifled in the school system and thought you might be interested

    Thanks for the post!

    • emperort says:

      Lee,

      I think writers of all levels can survive the challenges you wisely pose if they remain quietly protective, selfish even, of their own identity as writers. Rather than subscribe overmuch to praise and criticism in this venue, workshop participants benefit most by treating the workshop as an exercise for strengthening the real work done later in solitude.

      Thank you so much for sharing your experience and sparking us all to deeper contemplation. And thank you as well for sharing this TED Talk – such a brilliant series.

      Best wishes,

  4. […] Benefits (and Pitfalls) of Writing Groups (tjamesmoore.wordpress.com) […]

  5. […] Benefits (and Pitfalls) of Writing Groups (tjamesmoore.wordpress.com) […]

  6. This is a tricky topic. I don’t necessarily believe that well-written stories are created in a vacuum. At the same time, opinions — even educated opinions — can lead a writer astray. It’s a skill in of itself to be able to decide which feedback to consider and which to ignore.

    I will say, however, that a writer is often too close to the material and can easily overlook some (objectively) obvious problems. I personally find value in sharing my work with writers and non-writers and count myself fortunate for having been invited to join a reputable writers group with a long legacy.

    Thanks for the post, Mr. Moore. I think you’ve inspired my next blog post for the Allied Authors of Wisconsin website (http://allied-authors.org)!

  7. Writer groups are like partnerships. You can’t be afraid to leave a group if its not working for you. But when you find a good one–that’s golden!

    • emperort says:

      Good point! They absolutely are partnerships. I hadn’t fully thought about that but now that you mention it I am aware that there is a considerable responsibility on the individual who joins a group as much as there is on the group for the individual.

  8. kenlizzi says:

    And so my on-again off-again search for a writing group will maintain its current urgency level, color coded “Beige – Ambivalence.”

  9. […] Benefits (and Pitfalls) of Writing Groups […]

  10. I finally got around to writing a blog post in defense of writers groups: http://david-michael-williams.com/2013/04/05/why-writers-groups-still-matter/

    Thanks for the inspiration! 🙂

  11. […] Benefits (and Pitfalls) of Writing Groups (tjamesmoore.wordpress.com) […]

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