A Group of Ones Own
When I was first starting out as a professional writer, one of the bits of advice best-selling authors gave me whenever I was brave enough to ask was to find and develop a great writing group. Back then, I didn’t fully understand what these authors meant by a good or great writing group, so I simply joined up with the ones in town or started my own.
The first writing group I joined was one I connected with through my college creative writing program. It was your typical academic writing group setup. There were 5 of us all sat in a circle reading our stories and then giving feedback based on what was read. To be honest, the only thing I learned in that writing group was that I didn’t like other writers and I had a knack for capturing a place, setting an atmosphere, and weaving a story.
From there, I took a break from writing groups for a couple of years until the advice of joining a great writing group came to me again in a podcast. I listened to these professional and award-winning writers who had the careers that I wanted talk about their struggles to find a writing group.
Then it started to click for me.
The writing group I was in back in college was a bad writing group. It wasn’t serving the purposes that I needed. So, young, dumb, and full of aspiration, I formed my own writing group, aptly named, Little Darlings. It was a reference to the famous advice to kill your darlings. My intention behind this group was that we were all willing to do what was necessary to make our writing better.
For a year or so, this writing group met up a couple of times a month and with little guidance or knowledge tore each other apart.
We were rough, direct, hurtful, mean, and more than anything not helpful.
After that, I went on a writing group spree for a couple of years. My town has almost 10 different writing groups in operation that focus on various genres, publishing routes, and forms. In two years, I became an active member of 5 of these writing groups and a few online.
I needed to figure out what I wanted in a writing group and how to make, develop, and grow it.
But I didn’t just go to these writing groups and study them, I was an active participant. I shared my own writing and gave critiques on other writers’ work. I also took my study of writing groups further and began searching out the writing groups of famous contemporary writers in my genre. Along with that, I read up on various critiquing forms, workshop formats, and theories surrounding writing groups.
The below signs, factors, and advice all come from what I’ve experienced, learned, and studied over the past four years as a writing group expert.
5 Signs You Need to Leave Your Writing Group
Before we dive into both the bad and the good, I want to make something clear:
These signs are only for writers who want to be in writing groups that are going to help them better their craft and writing career. Hobby writers or people who just like writing for the fun of it don’t need to heed these signs.
But if you want to actually sell your writing to top publications that pay, become a skilled and knowledgeable writer who can stand with their heroes, and who believes in their talent and perseverance, leave the writing groups that display any or all of these signs.
Your career and craft will thank you.
1. No one writes in your genre or understands it
In a majority of the writing groups that I participated in and studied, there was little overlap in what people wrote. There’d be mystery writers, fantasy writers, nature writers, romance writers, and more all reading their stories and giving feedback.
The issue with this was that the romance writer couldn’t connect or understand the fantasy writer and on and on. Each writer would give feedback to the other writers based on having no idea how each of those genres works. Their critiques, while well-meaning, were often unhelpful, misguided, or downright wrong for what the writer was trying to.
They gave blanket advice instead of focusing on how to help that particular writer writing in that genre enhance their story. A lot of times the main argument for being in a group where multiple genres are represented is that you’ll hear new and uncommon advice and be able to connect with a wide range of readers.
In all the different groups I’ve been a part of and studied this has never been the case.
Diversity is so important in writing groups, but genre diversity isn’t what is meant. Writing groups that are focused and genre-oriented are able to help each other find agents, publishers, readers, and help you understand areas of your writing that you may not know or are unfamiliar with.
Consider how grand subgenres are as well. In my speculative fiction writing group, we have a large sampling of different stories, themes, and subgenres but we each understand and give advice based on speculative fiction writing.
Good Sign: A majority if not all of the writers in your group write or are knowledgeable about your genre or niche. They know the different elements of your genre and can help you pinpoint and grow your knowledge of your chosen field.
2. The only feedback that is given is based on the Iowa Workshop Model
For writers unfamiliar with the model, you have most likely been in it without realizing it. A group of writers gathers while one writer reads their work. After the writer finishes reading their excerpt or sample, they sit silently while the other writers around them give critiques based on what they think should be done with the story.
With the Iowa Workshop Model, the author has no say in their story or the critiques. In 8 out of 14 of the writing groups I did a deep study into, this model was used to the point where bad advice was championed over the author simply speaking. The critique is king in this model because whatever is said no matter how bad or misguided is a tip to the writer about what they’ve written.
This model is however extremely flawed and doesn’t allow for the writer to learn or delve deeper into their craft and story. Like with the first sign where critiquers gave blanket advice because they weren’t knowledgeable about the story they were reading, using the Iowa Workshop Model to give critiques in a writing group takes the focus away from what the writer is doing and places it on what the critiquers are interpreting or reading.
Good Sign: Your writing group is willing and open to new formats allowing for the open expression and growth of all the members. Open communication and dialogue are welcomed and diverse insight is offered from all parties.
3. Your writing purpose doesn’t align with the group’s
The worst writing groups I studied all had a common thread related to what the writers involved wanted to do with their writing. By worse, I mean none of the authors could get their minds around how to get published, the writers kept writing the same stories, etc.
In these groups, there’d be writers who were just there for the community, writers who wanted to turn professional, writers who really weren’t sure what they wanted, and everything in-between.
This caused a split or unevenness in the group that led to people just not listening to each other or only caring for advice from one or two people who happened to align with what they wanted to do. The writers there for community often didn’t pay attention while writers read their story and often chatted with the other writers who were just there to hang. The unsure writers did the same thing, leaving only 1 or 2 people who were serious about writing to help the author better their piece.
If your writing group doesn’t have a purpose or the writers within it aren’t following that purpose, your writing group is going to pull you down and sink your career.
Good Sign: The writers in your group are striving toward the same career or craft goals and encouraging each other along the way. This encouragement can be furthering their craft knowledge outside of the writing group to help offer better feedback and grow their own skills or it can be direct support of sharing opportunities
4. Writers only show up to share their writing not to get better at writing
One time a writer in a group I was in said that if it wasn’t for the writing group meeting every week they wouldn’t write anything. I took it meaning they were using the writing group as discipline, but the longer I attended the group the more I realized what was really going on.
They weren’t writing because of the group, they were writing for the group. Their readers and fans were the writing group, so people didn’t really give them feedback or critiques. Most writers just told them what they thought of their story and that helped them steer what the next installment was.
Once I picked up on it, I started noticing it in other groups and writers as well. The writing group was their crutch and they were holding each writer hostage beneath them. Not only did these writers only write for the group, but they also looked down on writers who tried harder and strove for more, and they couldn’t understand how to give critical feedback.
Good Sign: The writers within your group are actively striving to become better writers and reach their career goals in and outside of the group.
5. No one dreams big
The writers you surround yourself with are the ones who are going to see you to the next stage of your career. They can even be the people who rise along with you.
This will never happen if no one around you dreams big or strives for anything extraordinary.
The saddest groups I’ve been a part of have all had the same thing in common, not one among them believed that becoming a writer was a reality. They all wrote because they wanted to and didn’t have an aim or insight into the publishing world. Even if stories were good and worth submitting or trying just a little harder, these writers didn’t believe it was possible.
Publishing dreams happen to other people, not to them.
This mentality rots writing groups and the writers within them. At least have one or two people who actually believe and are working toward something big. Maybe someone wants to land a 5 or 6 figure deal with a major publishing house or sell their writing to The New Yorker. Have hope and will in your group to keep you working and striving throughout your career
Good Sign: The writers in your group believe in writing and making their dreams become a reality. This belief should extend to everyone in the group so that you’re writing and working in an uplifting environment.
Your Writing Community
Writing groups can help you advance your craft and career. Or they can break your craft and career and ruin your chances of ever getting published. Keeping an honest and keen eye on how the writers in your group are helping you and advancing themselves.
But it is up to you to make sure you are in the right group to facilitate this.