By “Writing Groups,” I mean a group of writers that read and give feedback to each others works.
Are these sorts of groups useful?
They can be, but compared to other things you could be doing, I think their utility is minimal or possibly a negative, depending on what sort of people are in the group. I’ll give an example to spring-board this discussion:
Before I go further, this is a reminder that I never endorse piling on anyone I link in this blog. Heather wants to be a writer and improve her craft. I want anyone with that desire to be able to fulfill it. Her thread, unfortunately, is full of terrible advice. Here’s what I have to say:
- 15,000 words per month runs to about 500 words per day, which very doable for most new writers. If you can’t nail 500 words a day, you need to take a closer look at your priorities so you can reach that goal. 500 words per day will let you finish a novel in a year without issue. It’s a great daily goal.
- If your duty to a writing group is to read and give feedback to the other members, how will you have time to do that if you don’t have time to write?
- Consider that the time you would spend receiving and giving feedback from a writing group could be spent writing. The time you spent reading the work of the other writers could be spent reading and analyzing the leading fiction in your preferred genre.
- “Pretend writer” is another form of “amateurism” – the idea that you have some imaginary line dividing “real” writers from “pretenders” is both silly and counter-productive. This is why I say “new” writers, not “amateur” writers. Amateur implies that the work isn’t worthy of consideration, and as a writer you should always approach each work with the intent to make it good enough for others to enjoy, even if you just started working.
- How many “real” writers do you think waste their time in writing groups? If you actually need professional feedback, what you need is an editor, not a group of other (new) writers.
I do not involve, and have not involved in a long time, myself with groups dedicated to round-robin critiques or similar activities for some of the above reasons. I know that my time would be better spent writing or reading. My professional circles love to talk shop, and I love to read their work, but I don’t do it as part of some pact for improvement.
Additionally, most local groups are going to contain readers and writers from a diversity of genres, or even worse, literature majors, which is actually not at all what you want. If you have it in your heart to write an isekai fantasy about flying robots, your idea is going to get crapped on by the local creative writing and literature majors, who want to write “serious” literature, even though isekai fantasy will probably outsell whatever they are doing 10 to 1.
In short, the feedback is of limited usefulness, and if you are a new writer getting your work crapped on by people who don’t get it is more likely to crush your spirit than give you anything to actually improve on.
I’ve heard a few tales about these types of groups, which gave such onerous feedback as “making the protagonist’s gender uncertain” so that anyone could project themselves onto the character. I shouldn’t need to tell you why that’s a bad idea.
So, I think writing groups are best for those who have unlimited time to read and write. For everyone else (those of us with limited time), it is better to write what you love and hire an experienced editor to help you hone your craft. You’ll also get better just by spending that time writing more stories!
I have loads of other advice for designing a great creative process in my upcoming book, the Keys to Prolific Creativity, coming in March!
Thanks for the sage advice, David! I’ve known far too many new writers who waste loads of effort looking for/jumping through the hoops of writing groups that would be better spent honing their craft.
Naturally, I give my full endorsement to engaging the services of a professional editor.
Naturally! Great editors will also have a good working knowledge of the genre, so the feedback will be directed toward the market, not the preferences of the particular people in the group.
Interesting post. However, not all writer’s groups are the same. Some writers can absolutely benefit from being in a writing group. A lot of it is personality based. Some people are great with internal deadlines (not many, but some). Others need external deadlines and interaction to thrive. Once you know what works for you, use that to go write!
You’re right! Deadlines can help a lot. I have a whole section in the new book on the benefits of deadlines.
“What kind of story can I write” is a very different question from “What kind of story can I write this week?” Limitations can really improve focus.
Excellent article David. Loved the bit about the lit majors. I do think some writers need the external pressure that the group environment provides, basically assigned homework, to help push them in achieving their own word count goals. Looking forward to your productivity book.
Yup! A little external pressure can really help with lots of people. Very true!
I think writing groups, like artist circles, are at their best when they work as intended; a group of peers holding each other to accountability on projects, like an AA for creatives. Some people need a ‘manager over their shoulder’ to get the work done, an external motivator/audience to help them focus on creating.
When on e goes wrong, however, it becomes just another ridiculous cafeteria table clique focusing on gossip instead of homework.