The Good, Bad, and the Ugly of a Writing Group – Part 1

by limebirdkate

Writers are told if they’re serious about their work and they want feedback to join a writing group.  Don’t rely on your mother, or your best friend, or your pooch to give you constructive criticism. Not only is it because they won’t be honest enough with the flaws, they won’t know what to look for. It is really important to get someone who is knowledgeable to read and critique your work.

It’s one of the best feelings in the world to hear a fellow writer tell you they like what you have written. But it’s important that you find out why she liked your piece so much. It isn’t enough that she likes what you wrote because she adores sparkly vampires. You want her to like what you wrote because you wrote it well. Because your plot was compelling. Because your characters leaped off the pages. Because your setting was realistic.

To make the most of your writing group experience, here are some tips.

1. Before you join a group of other writers, make sure you know your book. You have to be prepared to answer tough questions about elements like character motivation.

2. You have to believe in your book and your ability to tell the story. There is only one person telling the story—you. Do not surrender your originality or your creativity all because someone doesn’t agree with how you’ve gone about it. The only outcome that matters is if how you’ve gone about it works, which really means that while you’re not caving you have to be brutally honest with yourself at the same time.

3. You have to be prepared to give up your Little Darlings (those scenes or descriptions that you love and everyone else dislikes). This is one of those times where your creativity and your originality might not be so creative or original. Really be honest and tough with yourself. Deep down, you’ll know the truth.

4. You have to accept your mistakes and be willing to fix them. Be open-minded. Be willing to try all possibilities. This doesn’t mean you have to change anything. What it means is that you are giving yourself the chance to write the best story you can.

5. Do not let anyone ever tell you that you aren’t any good at writing. People like that don’t belong in writing groups, but you’ll run into one here and there. Look at the negative attitude as just one more hurdle to overcome in your quest.

6. Don’t let anyone get away with a baseline critique. Dig deep and find out if there is enough tension from page to page or if your characters are credible. Ask if the dialogue is compelling, if your descriptions are well-written and well-placed, if your flashbacks help support the plot, or if your facts are accurate.

7. There will always be something wonderful in your stuff, and there will always be something not so wonderful. A writing group gives you a chance to find out more about your strengths and weaknesses as a writer. This is your chance to learn, improve, and grow.

8. What one member of your group might absolutely love, another member might dislike. In the end, you decide whether you cut it or keep it or modify it. Whatever you choose to do, always do it in the spirit of writing to the best of your ability.

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23 Comments to “The Good, Bad, and the Ugly of a Writing Group – Part 1”

  1. I always worry if there are enough tension in the pages. I’ve yet to actually finish the first draft of anything, although I am working towards…three, so a rewrite will be interesting 🙂

    I’m not sure if I can be brave enough to join a writing group, but thanks for laying it out there!

    • Hi Chris,
      I didn’t think I was brave enough either. I am not a social butterfly, I hate small talk, and I am petrified to hear unfavorable reviews of anything I write.

      However, I told myself that if I ever want to be published (and I do) then I have to get used to sharing my work and getting feedback.

      Some people write without any intention of sharing their work or publishing, so a writing group wouldn’t be a necessary step.

      But if you ever want to publish, give yourself a chance to sit in a group. You don’t even have to share your stuff right away (at least, the groups I have encountered didn’t care if everybody brought something to share, but it was definitely expected that everyone give constructive feedback). Once you feel comfortable with the people, then bring in just a page of your stuff. If you stick it out, you will be amazed at how much easier (and fun) it gets!

  2. Thanks for sharing your valuable knowledge LimebirdKate! I’ve never actually been to a writing group before, but maybe I should.

    Once my NaNo novel is all done and dusted, I might have to be brave and go to one. Even with these great tips, I’m still a bit frightened though!

    • Hey Limebirdbeth,

      Like I said to Chris, even if you just find one to sit in on for a few weeks to get a feel for how they handle critiquing is perfectly fine! As long as you are giving constructive feedback to the writing of other people, then most writers won’t mind if you ease in first.

      Try it, you just might like it!

  3. I’ve never braved a writing group. I’m so shy and nervous… and I hate talking to people… oh man just thinking about it gets my heart beating faster!

    • You can do it! *fistpumps!* 🙂

    • Hi Laura!

      Sounds like you, and Chris, and Limebirdbeth are all in the same boat. I’ll encourage you as I encouraged the others, start small. Find a local group that won’t mind if you come with just listening skills and helpful critiques. You’ll get more and more comfortable and before you know it, your curiosity will get the best of you and you’ll just have to bring something of yours to share!

      Also, as far as talking to other people–in my experience the talking centers around writing and reading. From the looks of your comments on posts, you can do that without breaking a sweat!

      I think you are underestimating yourself, truly. I am shy and nervous also, but I tend to come alive whenever I get to talk about writing.

      I will say though, regarding the group I’m in now (we’ve been meeting for 3 years), our conversations have grown to include other areas of our lives. But that’s our comfort level coming through. We have built trust and friendship through our common interest of writing.

      Give it some thought, okay?

      • I definitely will think about it. I wish I didn’t live so far away! Haha!

        When I’m all done with my NaNo novel, I think I might have to be brave and go for it… then let you know how it goes!

  4. Great info. Thanks. I joined a local writing group and I had quite the opposite experience. NO criticism of any writing was allowed. You could only say positive things. While I understand the importance of positive reinforcement and encouragement, I was looking for ways to improve my writing. I stopped going.

    My area is very rural, so there are zero other options for writing groups. Oh well…

    • Hi Lorna!

      Wow, no criticism at all. That’s tough to work with. I can understand why you would stop going.

      I have a friend who also lives in a rural area, and knows no local writers. She and I exchange work via email. 50 pages for 50 pages or what have you. We have the same tastes in books, and we are both writing in the same genre. So, exchanging writing has been perfect for us.

      I am the only mainstream fiction writer in my writing group. I miss having the mutual understanding regarding plot development etc. So, I often seek out my friend when I’m in the need of a different point of view.

      My suggestion to you would be to try finding someone online. Ideally, find someone you know well enough who you feel comfortable with asking for detailed critiques. If that’s not possible, fear not! There are plenty of beta readers out there who are always looking for writing partners. They would be strangers, and that kind of relationship actually works well for some writers because friendships aren’t getting in the way.

      If you decide to go that route, let me know. I might be able to point you in a couple of directions.

  5. I am part of a writing group in my local area.

    For anyone who thinks it is scary. You are right. It is. The hard part is not getting my work critiqued, but critiquing others. Telling them my own point of view and where I see flaws. Seriously, my heart beats faster and I get sweaty trying to be helpful, but not overly negative. Still I do try to go to every meeting whether my work is critiqued or not, it really does give you a perspective that is hard to get elsewhere.

    I agree with Lorna’s voice, if you cannot say anything negative it is a wasted experience for both the reader and the writer. However, Lorna, you might want to start your own group. You are probably not the only one who wants more than just positive reenforcement.
    I found out about my group just via Meetup and tried it out mainly because the coffee house where it is held is on the bus route from my house. The organizer of our group set down rules of respect the person, find positive and negative things, etc.

    • Hi Z,

      Yes, it does take practice to get accustomed to not only being in a writing group, but also how to be the most effective and helpful you can be to others.

      Starting a group of your own is always an option. Advertise in local papers, coffee shops, libraries, community centers and you can organize it however you like.

      Thanks for commenting!

  6. Thanks for the great post limebirdkate, it reminded me of some important things. I live in a rural area, I’m shy, all of that and I don’t know how to find a writing group in the first place. How would find one in real life or online? I assume I would google writing groups and I could find a forum or something. What about a real life one? Thank you. 🙂

    • Hi Ottabelle,

      I found my writing group through an online newspaper advertisement. It turned out that this group was meeting in a bar in the downtown area of the city where I live–just a five-minute jaunt from my house. They were looking for new members, so I emailed the contact number listed in the ad.

      I should just remind you to be very careful before you go meeting strange people in bars! 🙂 I brought a friend along with me, just to be safe, but it turned out to be fine and I’ve been meeting with these lovely people for 3 years now!

      With that in mind, I would start poking around your local papers. How far are you willing to travel? If your town is bare-bones with nary a street sign, would you consider traveling to the nearest city/larger town?

      If so, then check out colleges, coffee shops, bookstores, or public libraries. These are all fantastic sources for writing groups. Usually places like these will have a bulletin board where people will either advertise that they’re looking for a group or are advertising that they have organized one.

      There is always the possibility that you start your own! I know you’re shy and meeting new people can be so frightening, can’t it? But really, you might be surprised at yourself if you try something like that. Advertise it in public places, spread the word wherever you can. Writers are the breed that come out of the woodwork when you aren’t looking, so you might just be able to put together a neat little group!

      As I offered to Lorna, if you want to try online groups I might be able to help you further. Let me know if you want some more information!

      • It’s always smart to go in a group :D.

        My town in rural, but it’s actually an artist’s town, so I may be able to find one using those tips. Thank you very much for them. And I would probably be willing to go a little ways, just depends on how things are going. We live in a mountainous area; in winter the roads can be very rough. And you’re right, I could start my own and see what happens! A coffee shop did just open in town…

        And I am interested in any information you can give me, about anything, ever. 😉 Yes, I would like more information about the online groups, please.

  7. Hi Ottabelle,

    An artists’ town is one of the best places to find exactly what you are looking for. I live near an artists’ town and it’s for that reason we have so many options in terms of theater, parks, art classes, writing groups, writing workshops, etc.

    Driving in winter can be difficult. If you do find a group and winter driving becomes a problem, you might be able to exchange work via email in lieu of physically meeting. If you’re only doing it a few times here and there then you won’t miss out too much on the “dialogue” which is the biggest benefit in groups that get together.

    Since this post I have received multiple requests for online groups. Let me pull some information together, and I will post it in a few days as a second installment to this post. Okay?

    Good luck in your writing group quest!

  8. This post does make me wonder if any of the Limebird Writers would be able to offer any kind of writing critique/development services? I know that I would be more than happy to help anyone with any of their writing.

    We do have the forums if anyone wants to add any work, be it novels, short stories fan fiction etc – http://limebird.proboards.com/ , but do get in touch if you have any questions.

    Maybe we could start our own online writing group somehow, would this be possible LimebirdKate?

    • I think it would be very possible. The forums are a perfect place to promote writing help. And building an online writing group would be really fun to do. I would be interested in helping get that started if you think there is enough interest.

  9. Yeah, I’d be up for helping out as and when. The forums are definitely very useful for this if more people are willing to share their work for group discussion.

    • Perfect! And I think when people know that it’s not a “scary” place to share their work, you will see a lot of traffic…

  10. Excellent advice. You really nailed it. I wish more people would take these lessons to heart.

    • Hi Kenneth!

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post. It took me several failed attempts and many years to come up with a useful strategy in writing groups. It’s not 100% foolproof, but I’m better off now than I was ten years ago.

      Thanks for commenting!

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