Getting What You Want From Writing Groups

Commonly-held wisdom says that writing groups are important to a beginner writer’s success, as well as that of many intermediate or seasoned writers. A friend of Pens Around the World wrote about her positive experiences with writing groups, also known as critique groups. She isn’t the only published writer I know who has gotten invaluable input and support from them over the years. However, that’s not been the case for me, particularly when I was starting to write. So I’d like to share a story of what didn’t go so well and offer some tips as to what to avoid.

When I first enrolled in writing workshops starting in 2017, I realized quickly that in order to develop my writing further than the craft points I was learning in class, I needed a writing community. As any writer learns pretty darn quickly, writing is a solitary act. But we need other humans to bounce ideas off if we’re struggling with a creative problem, to point out a plot inconsistency, or if we’re torn between two approaches, say, whether a story should be told in first person or third person.

My initial approach was to join an existing writing group. I answered posts seeking members left by writing groups on my writing school’s social media page. I received quick answers like, “the spot is already filled,” or “we received many inquiries”. Then I posted on the same page that I was looking to form a group. I followed up with people who expressed interest, but nothing gelled. At one point, I managed to assemble a group from class, but members quickly dropped out. Another time, I joined a group of classmates, but attendance was inconsistent and I struggled to get members to read all my chapters to understand my book’s arc. While I met some interesting people and made some good friends, our mutual writing interests did not sustain. Finally, I joined a longstanding group listed on www.meetup.com, run by a leader who had formed the group. Over the course of a year, I submitted a chapter in advance of each bi-weekly meeting. We reviewed each others’ chapters, met in a cafe Sunday mornings, and gave each other verbal feedback. Often, members handed each other marked up printouts as well. The composition of the group changed somewhat from meeting to meeting, but the group leader and two or three other members attended consistently. Each bi-weekly cycle, I took the verbal and written feedback, edited my chapter accordingly, and submitted my next chapter.

About halfway through my manuscript, I realized something was terribly wrong. I’d begun to hate my book, whereas, before this writing group, I’d been rather fond of it. What happened? For one thing, I had been determined to grow a thick skin and learn how to take criticism. (Not easy for anyone, never mind writers.) I’d faithfully incorporated everyone’s input each fortnight, often struggling when I received contradictory feedback to work it all in, even when I didn’t agree with it. It didn’t feel like my book anymore and I was rather depressed about it. I came to recognize that maybe this group of writers weren’t appropriate readers for me. My work-in-progress was of the literary genre that I came to know as autofiction, with a heavy dose of magical realism. Other writers’ genres included murder-mystery, science fiction/fantasy, and comedy. I often had the feeling that my writing group didn’t get what I was trying to achieve. Or maybe it was my failure to convey it. However, I had the feeling that these people, while some of them were talented writers, would never by choice pick my book off the shelf, physical or virtual. One piece of feedback I received repeatedly from a writer who’d published multiple books, was that my transitions into magical realism scenes were “jarring”. A couple of years later, I was telling this story to an accomplished writer/teacher, who said in reaction to the “jarring” comment, “that’s excellent, just what you want!” She meant that jarring was, in fact, cool and also appropriate for my genre.

My words of advice from this experience:

  • Find your people. These are people who are interested in reading your genre, even if they don’t write in it.
  • If a group doesn’t feel like a fit or you’re just uncomfortable, move on quickly.
  • While it’s fine to experiment, it’s your work, not anybody else’s. The final creative choices are always yours. Stay true to your goals and the type of product you wish to see.

8 Comments

  1. You’ve brought up some really great points about receiving and accepting critiques, Kimberly. If they don’t fit what you’re trying to do, you have to let them go. If the members of the group aren’t getting your writing, move on. To thyself be true.

  2. Good points, Kimberly. That experience of sharing and taking onboard criticism to the point of having your text become foreign to you. I recognise it!

    • I went from a place of defensive and overly sensitive to criticism to overly responsive and accommodating every comment. No more on that, but also, finding the right people is important.

  3. Gill Tennant

    Good thoughts to share, Kimberly. I’ve occasionally had wonderful suggestions from the most unlikely people in a local writing group. One suggested I write the whole short story in the first person rather than through a narrative voice. It was very arresting told this way and I have always been grateful for the suggestion.
    Generally though I find this group excellent on feedback offered but never pressed on one. Our Text Sharing exercises are most valuable, and I’d like to see them better supported, and contributed to.
    But you are also right that one has to retain one’s own voice, and that means learning to reject some criticisms too.

    • I love it when wonderful ideas come from the most unlikely people! Sounds like an interesting exercise, Gill. I would love to step up my involvement in the Text Sharing sessions – it’s on my list of goals – as involvement has been too sparse. Today I missed the session as I was finishing up a wonderful and motivating 3-day workshop by Cheryl Strayed.

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