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Writers’ groups: the good, the bad, and the ugly

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Writing groups offer a social counterpoint to the solitary business of writing. Joining a group is neither necessary nor sufficient for becoming a writer, but the benefits of belonging include mutual support, sharing advice and information, and opportunities for getting published.

You can also access critique and reviews in some writing groups.

I am a member of one real life and three online groups. Through these groups, I get out of the house regularly, cheer on my peers, and commiserate over problems in writing and life. Crucially, I write more than I would on my own. I write for meetings, for competitions, and for anthologies.

Because of these groups, I’m a published author in four anthologies with more to come. I’ve learned about self-publishing, editing, making ebooks, book launches and more.

Most of all, I have networks; people who are geographically dispersed but come together to read each other’s work and spread the word about all our work. It’s good karma in action.

Membership of an organisation is good, as long as you can make yourself heard.
Mahathir Mohamad

Stronger together

Crucially, being part of a writing group makes it more likely that you will show up. We often find it easier to keep commitments we make to others. This is the basis of many group activities that can be done alone such as exercise or weight loss. Whether it is guilt or wanting to be seen as a good person that motivates us, external promises are more likely to be honoured.

At their best, groups provide a way to discuss your craft with people who can become friends. Other writers get the struggle of finding words, changing words, and chasing elusive words. Another writer might have the nugget of advice you need to get your stalled WIP working again.

Since many writers are introverts, a group provides a social outlet without the horror of small talk. You already have a shared interest to discuss. And if real life interaction is too much to bear or not possible, online groups are a great alternative.

Think big or small?

The web is full of online writing communities. They can be centred on the works of a single author or genre, or be more diverse. Often they have subgroups devoted to specific topics, and they collect together useful resources for reference.

Facebook (FB) is a great resource for writing groups. You’ll find thousands of groups with every kind of focus you can think of. Some groups are geographic, which is great if you’re looking for something local that offers opportunities for face to face interaction. Many groups are based on genre; romance or crime or thriller writers join to talk about their niche. Still, others are based on the qualities of their members, such as freelance, terrified, or female writers.

Some of the largest FB writing groups are open to all. The upsides include a diversity of membership and subject matter, a huge store of collective knowledge, and lots of activity. You might like the relative anonymity. The downsides are related to size as well. It’s easy to become overwhelmed with notifications, alienated by a feeling of insignificance, and not feeling welcomed.

Smaller groups can be more welcoming. You will be more visible, which as always can be a good or a bad thing. You can get involved to a greater degree if that’s what you want. Accountability is greater in a small group, where you’re making commitments to individuals rather than a faceless crowd. On the other hand, any failure to honour commitments is obvious, although explaining why is often easier when you have a stronger connection.

Of course, smaller groups can easily be overtaken by strong personalities. Most of us have experienced this in other groups we’ve been part of; families, friend groups, work teams. This is where the dark side of groups rears its ugly head.

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The Four Horsemen of the Writing Group Apocalypse

We’re only human, and writing groups reflect that as much as any other. You might gain a writing friend for life, or you might find yourself trapped in a room with someone you’d normally cross the road to avoid. Here are four examples.

Critical Colin

Colin is always right. His eagle eye spots every typo, hanging participle and use of passive voice. He’s a whizz at seeing weak characters and plot holes. Because he’s always right, he rebuffs any and all criticisms of his own work. He is generous with his critique, all of it negative, and tells you what you should do to fix things.

Sometimes Colin simply declares that the piece didn’t work, folds his arms and sits back, judging silently. Colin is writing Literature. He despises genre fiction.

Arrogant Alice

Alice gives you the gift of her presence at every meeting. You’re truly fortunate to have her, as she is really a bit too advanced and/or successful for the group. Alice may be traditionally published, or she may have self-published before the other members of the group. She may have won a prize or know a famous author slightly.

Either way, she is faintly condescending and never misses a chance to remind you of her greater accomplishments. She is an Author, not a mere scribbler.

Lazy Linda

Linda wants to write, really she does, but life conspires against her. She fails to give her apologies and attends less than half of the scheduled meetings. She either brings nothing or an incomplete 500-word first draft that doesn’t make sense. Linda has fewer domestic responsibilities than you, but she still can’t find the time to write.

At coffee break, she regales you with the long story of how she didn’t write anything this month because she was Busy. When it is her turn to set the group challenge, she has nothing prepared. She does not complete her own challenge.

Blind Brian

Brian wears blinkers which shield him from anything he doesn’t want to see. He is loud and talks over others. He attacks writers, especially quieter ones, for errors he commits himself. He strays from the point to keep discussion where he wants it; on his opinions or his work.

His work may have merit but he resists any constructive criticism that could improve it. He passionately argues some detail because unlike others, he Cares about his work. He doesn’t recognise social cues such as checking a watch, sighing, or impending tears. He will pursue you at coffee time to discuss the finer points of something or other that you don’t care about.

Who hasn’t been in a group that’s being derailed by one or other of these characters?

You could always walk away, but if you’d prefer to stay in the group you need to know how to handle the horsemen without going crazy.

Tactics for survival

If you’re fortunate, the chair will keep the meeting flowing and focused on the point in hand.

If not, there are things you can do.

Critical Colin may make good points with his eye for detail. Look beyond your emotional response to see if you can take the positive from his negative feedback. Be respectful when you give your critique, and remember he might just take it on board – outside the meeting.

Arrogant Alice may have useful information. If she’s ahead of you on the curve, picking her brains will flatter her ego and help you.

Lazy Linda may need your help. Casual discussion of how you find time to write, or general time management tips could be the nudge she needs to move from aspiring to actual writer. Keep it friendly, no matter how irritated you feel by her flakiness.

Blind Brian is a challenge. It could be personality, lack of empathy, or lack of social skills that informs his behaviour. The chair is the best person to nudge him back on track. Sometimes a quiet word in private will be needed, but this is risky with someone who may lack self-awareness. On the other hand, he can’t know how he appears to others unless told.

The problem is that the group relationship may not be strong enough to withstand this personal feedback, therefore no-one wants to take it on. He may be avoided by everyone, which is sad but it isn’t your job to solve his social issues.

 

Finding your tribe

Survival has always been about finding your tribe. It’s possible to go it alone successfully, but why make things harder than they need to be?

First, lurk around online writing groups. Lurking means hiding in the shadows observing without interacting. It’s a good way to see if online groups are right for you. Google, as always, is your friend. Here’s a list of recommended writing groups to get you started. Have a look around, see what feels right for you and your goals.

Facebook (FB)  is different because you have to join, and then most groups are private so non-members can’t view their activity. However, you can look at the descriptions and request to join. You’re under no obligation to stay in any group. If it’s not for you, move on.

I joined FB two years ago purely to be a part of a large writing group. That led to the formation of a splinter group. We felt lost as the original group grew, and now we have around twenty members, all by invitation only. The strength of FB is the ability to create groups, and if you don’t find what you want you can make your own.

Size doesn’t determine effectiveness. My small group just published the first of four planned anthologies, and it feels great to be involved and significant. I am still a member of the large group. Different groups fill different needs. Try this list of Facebook writing groups to get you started.

It’s not in numbers but in unity that our greatest strength lies.
Thomas Paine


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