Writing groups—sometimes called critique groups—have a baaaad rep. As a member of a close-knit (and very tough-love) one, this bugs me.
Different writing groups operate in different ways. Different people want different things out of them. It’s unfair to dismiss them all based on one or two that you’ve been a part of (or worse, that someone you know has been a part of).
Workshopping was a huge part of my university life, both during my BA and MA. Not having critique groups to discuss things with for a while was disorientating, and it wasn’t until last year that I found another one I liked. Good writing groups don’t come to those who wait, though: they come to those who seek them out, or that create them.
If you want to be a part of a writing group—or start one up—here’s some things to consider:
What do you want to get out of it?
Some writing groups are purely there to go ‘Yep, that’s great’ and stroke your ego.
AVOID THESE KINDS OF GROUPS.
They are not useful, nor will they help you to grow.
Having your ego stroked is nice, but it’s not productive, and that’s not how you become a better writing.
There is always, always room for improvement. In everything. Even published work. Don’t let anyone ever tell you that your work is perfect. Even if they love something, there will still be things they’d changed.
Other groups will be more in-depth about what they like and dislike.
They’ll give you reasons why a piece is good and bad.
These are generally what most people expect from writing groups.
However, the writing group I’m a part of is different. We go one step further.
When one of us doesn’t like something, we don’t just say we don’t like it. We offer up ways to fix things, too. Take, for example, What Happens in New York.
(This next bit contains spoilers, so don’t say I didn’t warn you.)
The final showdown between Fayth and Trinity was one of the hardest scenes for me to write. I had to have the right amount of tension and drama while still showing a) that Fayth is better than her, and b) that Fayth had changed. I’ve lost count of how many versions of that scene I went through. Some were in Central Park and involved karate chops; others involved being tripped on the ice while ice skating. Most were either over-the-top or over-complicated.
The final version has a balance of drama, character development, and conflict. It shows how Fayth is better than Trinity, and how what she says affects Trinity but Trinity’s mask remains in place.
If it wasn’t for my writing group, who knows how things would’ve been resolved between the two of them?
What to look for
Most writing groups specialise in different areas. The one I’m a part of is for Young Adult/New Adult writers, but as What Happens in New York is borderline NA and I get on with the members in the group (and get useful critique from them), this is ok.
You don’t have to fit their genre constraints perfectly for the group to work for you, but you do have to make sure the people in your group understand your work.
As much as I love my group, I couldn’t workshop poetry with them: they’re not poets. I wouldn’t get as much out of it as I would if I workshopped it with poets.
Poetry is a very different discipline to fiction, and not every fiction writer is also a poet.
Make sure the people in your group know what they’re talking about, and aren’t just all talk. It helps if they specialise in different areas, too. For instance, plot, character development, or writing style. It helps even more if the people in your group are more intelligent than you. How else are you going to learn?
What do you think of writing groups? Are you a fan of them? I’d love to know how you feel in the comments!