Sunday, June 6, 2010

Writing groups: What's your opinion?

This week I invited my writing partner, Jan Day, to talk about her experiences with writing groups. She's been in a number of them, so I thought she was a good resource to begin a discussion about what writers can and can't get out of them.

Jan's writing credentials are impressive. She is the author of five children's picture books with Pelican Publishing Company and is a feature writer for Okeechobee, The Magazine. She has published poetry and was co-winnerof the Hawaii Film Festival of her original teleplay All's Fair. I met Jan when I moved to Okeechobee, Florida for the winter and was looking for a writing group, so we founded one together. Jan is currently at work on a mystery set on the Kissimmee River.

I've asked her to begin this discussion abut writing groups and hope all of you will chime in with your views.

Welcome to my blog, Jan.

I’ve moved around a fair amount and have had great experiences with writers’groups in Kauai, Albuquerque, Phoenix, Stuart, and Okeechobee, FL. They all were different but they all helped me improve my writing, stay motivated, and offered camaraderie of a shared passion.

The most unique group was in Kauai, where the majority of members were artists as well as writers. Our facilitator did not allow direct criticism. This would have been considered rude in that culture. But we still found ways to be instructive to each other. In Phoenix we had a group of ten writing everything from poetry to romance to literary fiction to memoir. Writing and critiquing in various genres can make you a stronger writer.

In my experience the group should be committed to their craft and of a similar level of skill or it will lose its focus. Setting your goals and standards in the beginning helps clarify your goals. A group becomes destructive when they tear down a work or try to rewrite the piece for the author. I think that sort of group rewrite happens most often when you bring writing that is in its beginning stages.

I’m a big fan of writers’ groups, not only for the help with writing but for the deadlines they provide, and the opportunity to network. If you don’t have a writers’ group near you, don’t be afraid to start one yourself. When Lesley came to Okeechobee, she found me through the library and then we put an announcement in the paper for an Open Reading. From there we eventually formed a group of six accomplished writers and have published an anthology. If we can do it in the wilds of central Florida, you can do it anywhere.

That's very upbeat, Jan. But I think she's right about being able to put together a writing group anywhere. I think the best source for beginning the process with your local library. That's where we began. The library has been generous enough to continue their support of our group by providing us meeting space and sponsoring writer's programs at the library.


  1. Let me be the first to post a comment on writing groups. The earliest writing groups I was in were not the most positive experiences, and much of the negativity I experienced in the groups was related to the attitudes of the other group members toward genre fiction, mysteries in my case. The other members of the group wrote mainstream fiction.

    It was the attitude that was the problem, not that group members wrote in different areas. The group in Okeechobee is made up of those who write poetry, short stories, novel length fiction and nonfiction. We respect one another's writing choices and find we can provide useful input and helpful criticism to group members.

    Despite the difficulties I had in those early writing groups, their criticism of my work was sometimes right on. Although I often felt a bit alientated in the group, I grew as a writer. I think there's a kinder and more professional way to approach groups than to disparage what another writes. It is most important to generate some guidelines about how input is presented and what the goal of the group is so that everyone agrees on the procedure. Despite this, all writers are sensitive about their work. After all, what I'm putting on the page is wrung out of the center of my being. Feelings get hurt and this should be recognized and worked through by the group members, not left on the table to build into resentment that can send a person out of the group. Sure it's all about writing, but it's also about people and how to deal with them so they grow as writers. In the end the individual has to feel some sense of herself as a writer so that she doesn't merely cave in to what others say about the work. Otherwise, these groups become writing by committee and the individual never establishes a writing identity. How to do this? Part of it comes from educating yourself about writing--reading books on the craft, joining groups such as Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, the Guppies, and meeting and talking with other writers at confernces, for example.
    I'll shut up now.

  2. I have been in writing groups where one person is the leader and allows no veering from the agenda. I've been in a writing class where the teacher would never green-light anyone's work--I got out of there and am the only one who published. I've been thrown out of writing groups because I asked what there goals were. At this stage, I have to ask myself why I would allow an unpublished writer critique my work. That's what I have a publisher for. She's the only one I need to please (and myself, of course).

  3. I belong to a writing practice group based on Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones. No agenda, no critique, just timed writings for pleasure. It helps with fluency and allows me to enjoy the company of people with a similar interest (one of whom is the husband I met there). I also have a critique partner. Neither of us is published, but we respect and trust each other. We make suggestions but don't try to impose our views on each other. We share information about contests, classes, and blogs. After working together for eighteen months, we've become friends. Writing groups have brought me two excellent partners.

  4. I'm a big fan of writing groups, but like Lesley, I've also been in a few groups where it seemed all about egos, and not about helping each other grow as writers. I think you just have to establish what YOUR goals are, and try to meet up with some people with similar goals, who are both talented and generous (not too tall of an order, right? )
    PS: If I lived closer to Okeechobee, I'd definitely be in Jan's group, since she is both talented and generous!

  5. I've been in the same group for nearly thirty years. The people have changed at times, though the one who started it is still running it.

    I really learned about writing from this group way back in the beginning. They went over the first book I ever got published which was an historical family saga. Though one told me they weren't being published anymore--I ignored the comment and forged on.

    Thirty published books later, I still use the group as the first edit. I'm the most published though over the years some of the members were excellent writers but couldn't take rejection and gave up.

    I listen to their critiques and study those they write down, take everything home and decide the next day what I'm going to use and what I'm not. I never argue. It's counter productive and takes too much time. Often, what they point out clues me into another problem.


  6. I have never been in a writing group, but have taken writing courses in college, as well as online fiction and online screenwriting, and have found feedback can be quite useful. I have also found there is always at least one person who tries to rewrite your work in such a way that the meaning would change, and then acts like you're ungrateful because you didn't change your work to their words.

    I find it useful to have friends I trust who enjoy my genre to read my book or screenplay and provide a critique, as well as mark up the copy if they find errors, things that don't make sense to them, or questions that end up not being answered.

    On the other hand, after I received many of these critiques, I have noticed on a final or near-final edit glaring errors they didn't catch, for instance, a character who drove to a bar who now needs a ride home for no apparent reason. (Easy to correct, but only after you realize you made the mistake.)

    I also don't like people seeing my work until it is finished because my first draft is generally sloppy and loose, so I don't know that writing groups are necessarily for me.

    Holli Castillo
    Gumbo Justice

  7. I have a great writing group. There are four of us and in different genres from romance, to literary fiction to young adult and of course mystery (me). These people have helped me tremendously as well as kept my feet to the fire. I would not be published now if it wasn't for them. They really improved my craft on including action in dialogue to keeping my main character, Mitch Malone, in check and rough around the edges. We met weekly and it really makes you be productive so you have pages to share each week. (It doesn't hurt that we met at a coffee shop with the best no-bake cookies around.) I wouldn't be without them.
    W.S. Gager

  8. Writing groups are hit or miss for me. I've been in at lease group with Sunny and the skill levels were wildly varying. The best that could be said is that the feedback from READERS (people who read a lot) can be very valuable, but a proffessional can be invaluable.

    But it's hard to find a good group of dedicated writers actively trying to get published.

    I am also a member of an online group for fanatasy/SF/horror and while your work will get some critiques to be sure, the quality of the critique varies wildly so it hasn't proved incredibly helpful.

  9. The leader or facilitator of a writing group can make a huge difference, especially for a beginning writer who hasn't built up any confidence. My first group had an excellent facilitator, who was able to give and solicit constructive criticism without allowing negative criticism. That group produced several successful authors, though when I joined it no one currently in the group was published. I still use the facilitator of that group as the first editor of my books when I'm getting them ready to publish.

    My current writing group is sometimes too kind. I need people who can cut through the smooth writing, which is my main strength, to see where the plot or scene doesn't work. But I can get lazy, so the main advantage of a writing group to me at this time is to keep me motivated to put words on paper.

  10. I agree that writing groups can offer a great deal, depending upon the needs and goals of the members. Getting a range of opinions can be a mixed bag though as Sunny suggests. At a certain point this is a great benefit, and learning to determine which criticisms resonate, which don't but should, and which really shouldn't is a skill all writers have to cultivate--for when they do have that writer/publisher/editor/agent relationship.

    One other issue I see is critique group syndrome. By that I mean that if you put a pile of pages in front of people, they are going to find issues with those pages. [INSERT GREAT NOVEL TITLE HERE] could be slapped down as a ms, and it would garner thirteen opinions from twelve writing group members. So it's important to learn when enough is enough and a work is getting changed but not necessarily improved.