Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Finding (and keeping) a writing group

For the past decade or so, I've been on a constant hunt for the perfect writing group. For those of you who haven't tried a writing group (aka critique group), it's a group of writers who get together regularly to submit pages and give feedback. 

My first group was a spin-off from a fiction-writing class at UCLA Extension. When that group fell apart, I started looking for another one. My search eventually became a sort of Holy Grail.

Sometimes I attended more than one writing group at a time. Each one had its strengths and weaknesses: One group gave better feedback, while the other seemed more stable. At one point I blended the two groups into one; like a merger acquisition specialist, I was hoping that the combined enterprise would become the Perfect Writing Group.

And for the most part, it has. We've watched each other grow as writers, sharing triumphs and rejections. Along the way we've shared personal highs and lows, as well. There have been illnesses and work crises. One of our members, a lovely older man who was writing a Civil War yarn, recently passed away. (Rest in peace, Harvey.)

When it comes to keeping a good writing group, structure counts. In most of the groups that have lasted for me, the writers read their work out loud. The group then goes around the table, providing feedback and making notes on copies. Writers are not allowed to "talk back" or defend their work. We have to sit silently and take it.

Personalities count when it comes to keeping a group together. I've seen good groups fall apart when a spoiler comes in--these are usually people who can't tolerate constructive criticism, or who clash with other members.

I couldn't live without my current writing group. We meet every other week, and the group has been meeting now for 15 years, long before I joined it.

How about you? Do you attend a writing group, and has it helped your writing? What format do you use?


  1. Kathryn, I joined a critique group in 1992 after completing the draft of my first manuscript. The group had been around for a number of years prior to my joining, consisted of 5-6 members, and met every week for 3.5 hours. Like your group, each person would read aloud their latest chapter. We would then give our feedback on plot, character, and other story elements, and if the writer wanted, help with line editing.

    I stayed with the group for 10 years until one of its members, Lynn Sholes, and I decided to try collaborating on an idea she had. At the time, Lynn already had 6 mass market paperbacks published through Berkley. BTW, that's why her name comes first on the cover of all our thrillers.

    Currently, we are close to finishing our 6th novel together, and our latest, THE PHOENIX APOSTLES, will be released next month.

    The encouragement, support and brutal, bloody, honest feedback I received from my fellow group members not only kept me going for over a decade before my first book was published, but it gave me the opportunity to form a writing partnership that continues to produce new books today.

    I believe that my former critique group played a vital role in helping me become a published author.

  2. Joe, that's a great success story, and a prime example of how a good group can help a writer come along. Having a co-writer must be like a mini-group. You always have someone to bounce ideas off of.

  3. I've been taking online workshops for over two years now and I joined my local writer's association last year. As a member, I queried the board and they sent my application to all members involved in critique groups and they attached a sample short story I'd written.

    I received an email from one member inviting me to join their group and I kindly accepted. I was so intimidated at our very first meeting upon learning that the members of the group were published authors, a doctor, a professional editor, a colonel in the US Army reserves and a judge. Imagine that! I'm just a computer programmer! :D

    Anyway, I have my 2nd meeting next Tuesday! I look forward to many years of learning the craft and I'm sure they will help me along the way. We are definitely a diverse group of people, but that's okay. One guy in our group told me he's been working on the same manuscript since 2004!

    I'm so excited to have found a group to work with. I hope it lasts.

  4. I was incredibly lucky to find an amazing critique group right away. Each of the members are excellent writers and critique partners. Not to mention being awesome friends.

  5. I couldn't do a writers group that does readings. I don't process audibly. I have to be looking at something in print.

  6. Diane, you used a great approach for finding a writers group. The fact that your writer's association sent your application and writing sample to local critique groups shows how our writer's associations can help us locate helpful resources. Sierra, I'm with you--I count my writing group members as good friends. BK, I understand about the audible processing problem. We keep the submissions until the next meeting, to have time to digest it and make more comprehensive notes. The round-table discussion is more of an instant-reaction thing. We tried having people email their pieces before each meeting, but few people got their pages done in time to email them.

  7. I had a hard time finding a critique group within commuting distance, so I started a chapter swap via e-mail with a woman I met at a writer's conference. Each week, we send each other a chapter and use track changes to put in comments, corrections, different word choices, and whatever else comes to mind. She and I have gone through seven novels and several short stories together in the last several years. She pushes me to write regularly, as she expects me to send her something new each week.

    It's worked so well, I've found a couple of other people to swap chapters with. I miss the face-to-face I'd get from a traditional critique group, but my method is working fine.

  8. I've belonged to two groups; both helped me tremendously. One listened to the author read his piece, then made written and oral comments. The other was similar, except we sent the reading out in advance via email before listening to the reading. One group was more advanced, but both provided important insights at different levels. Best of all, both were made up of friendly and supportive writers, many of whom I remain friends with, even though one group had folded and the other is too far to get to very often.

  9. As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another. Proverbs 27:17

    Groups is good.

  10. Sonja, I love the idea of a chapter swap. Sounds like it's working for you! Dana, I like what you said about levels. In my case, I've found that I simply need readers to point out what doesn't work. I have to figure out how to fix it myself, although suggestions are always helpful. Basil, thanks for the proverb!

  11. Writing groups are tricky things to keep alive and healthy. I was in a great one in California that still helps me out but almost everyone else is writing non fiction which is a downside. I would love to find one here n Australia but I thin it has to be just the right combination of honesty and trust - which can be hard to find!

  12. I've been with three groups. I still work with my current group, but we only meet now when someone is in critical need of input (we've all become so busy!).

    The write group is priceless. The wrong group can frustrate the most ardent writer. Never hesitate to walk if the group doesn't inspire you!

  13. . . . oops! I meant the "right" group. Not the "write" group. Though, I like the play on words. :)