Writing groups are a great way to network with other writers, motivate yourself to stay on schedule with your writing, and get critiques for your work so you can improve your craft.
At least, that’s how they’re supposed to work.
In the real world, most writing groups do nothing but hold you back.
It’s not that the other writers are bad or mean or that writing groups are designed to stomp on your dreams. The problem is that any group of people will devolve into dysfunction without strong leadership, a clear vision, and guiding principles that everyone adheres to or believes in.
If you want to improve your writing with the help of critique groups or writing groups, you have to make sure you set yourself and the group up for success, and that means you have to solve the biggest problems writing groups face.
3 Major Problems With Writing Groups
There are 3 things that will doom your writing group to failure: poor organization, lack of rules, and lack of honest critiques and criticism.
1. Poor Organization
Writers tend to be highly creative, but most aren’t very organized. Highly creative, disorganized people make for really fun gatherings, parties, and brainstorming sessions, but it doesn’t make for a very good long-term group.
The best writing groups are highly organized, and that means they’re led by someone who is organized and disciplined.
Writing groups work best when:
- The group meets regularly (at least once a month, preferably once a week).
- The group leader sets up an email list, Facebook page, Meetup group, or some other automated system to make sure everyone gets regular updates about when and where the next meeting will be and what you should expect.
- There are “regulars” in the group who attend every meeting or almost every meeting. These veterans should have experience and knowledge they can share with the rest of the group.
- There’s good food involved. The best writing groups I’ve ever been a part of do potluck-style gathering where everyone makes some delicious food and we all eat dinner together after the writing critiques and discussions end.
2. No Rules or Unclear Rules
Writing groups must have rules and standards, or else every meeting will end up turning into a pity-party for the biggest complainer or victim.
It only takes one energy vampire to ruin a meeting, so you must have rules for what kind of behavior, conduct, and discussion is acceptable. The best way to make sure this actually happens in practice is to have a strong, assertive leader who will step up and interrupt people when they get off track.
Because we writers are so creative, we tend to get off track easily. One minute you’re critiquing someone’s vampire romance novel and the next minute you’re talking about the difference between O positive blood and O negative for forty-five minutes until Debbie gets so confused she forgets why she even came to this writers’ group in the first place.
Don’t let Debbie down. Make sure there’s a strong leader at your writing group to keep everyone on track, and make sure there are strict rules to follow and enforce. And if there aren’t, maybe you should step up and take the reins to make sure everyone gets the most value possible from each meeting.
3. Poor Writing Critiques and Criticism
Most writing groups have ridiculous rules or customs around how you should critique someone’s work. Here are some of the usual ones:
- You can’t criticize someone’s work. Only say positive things to “encourage” them.
- If you’re going to critique someone’s work, make sure you sandwich any negative comment inside two, three, or fifty positive comments.
- Don’t hurt anyone’s feelings (because feelings are more important than good writing, and you’re 100% responsible for other people’s feelings).
All of these ludicrous customs hold everyone in the group back and create a pathological environment where everyone must be coddled and protected like a newborn lamb.
Here’s the truth: you don’t need to hear how good your writing is. You need to hear exactly how your writing sucks so you can learn, fix your mistakes, and improve your writing.
If you want unearned positive feedback, talk to your parents or a friend. If you want to deal with your emotional issues and fear of criticism, you can talk to a therapist or psychologist.
But if you want to become a better writer, you need to hear from other writers about what you’re doing wrong so you can stop making those mistakes. And that means you need other writers to viciously, mercilessly rip your writing apart, so you can see the truth and grow.
Sitting around in a circle and handing out false praise like it’s Mardi Gras may sound nice, but it’s not how you grow as a writer. If you find yourself stuck in a writing group like that, tell the group you want real, no-holds-barred, honest criticism of your work so you can learn. And if they can’t provide it, find someone who can, because otherwise, you’re never going to grow as a writer (or as a human being, because we all need challenges, mistakes, and criticism to improve).
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