Truths of the Group Mind

I recently went to a couple of writer’s groups.  I have not had my work actively critiqued by another writer since college, unless you count a couple rejection letters.

Writing groups are a very interesting place, and I had almost forgotten what they are like.  There are several truths about writing groups.  I am posting these in hopes of helping new writers to not be overwhelmed, and reminding established writers what it was like to be that newbie in the corner, wondering what to say.  These are the truths, as I see them:

1.  Nearly every group you go to will say they aren’t there to be nice and will be brutal to your work.  You, of course, being a writer, expect and demand this.  Publishers and editors aren’t always nice, either.  However, being brutal is easier and harder than you would expect.  It is easier, because criticism naturally comes easier than praise.  It is also harder, because you aren’t used to being critical of people in the first place.  Writer’s groups can be like bad marriages.  When you do something good, no one notices, and when you do something bad, it’s all they will talk about.

2.  There will never be enough time.  If you started a writing group session at 6 am and had the room till midnight, you would still start late and get kicked out by the janitor before you got a chance to tell Tammy exactly why you feel she has an unlikeable protagonist with a plot that lags towards the middle.  You’ll look at a clock and find out that even though you just got there, two hours have passed.  Maybe it is magic.

3.  There will always be several strong personalities in the group.  They will speak loudly and confidently.  They talk about semi-colons, themes that you didn’t know you ever wrote, and plot devices they just don’t understand.  They dominate the conversation, contradict what others say if they don’t agree, and always seem to know something.  Eventually, if you have enough writers together, this will breakdown into an all out argument.  Knives may be involved, possibly pistols at dawn.

4.  There will always be newer writers in the group who have never dealt with these sorts of personalities, and aren’t exactly sure how to handle them.   They will sit in their corner, nursing their coffee, beer, tea, or whatever.  They will cautiously speak when it is their turn, until someday they become one of the strong personalities named in truth 3.  They will sometimes let themselves get intimidated.  They shouldn’t.  Everyone else started out in the same place as they are in, and most of  the group aren’t any better, or more qualified, than they are.  Unless you are in one hell of a writer’s group, or live on a coast, most probably don’t make a living on their writing.  Take their criticism, try out some of the stuff they recommend, but don’t take it as gospel.  Unless you are a horror writer and your writing group consists of Stephen King, Clive Barker, John Saul, and Anne Rice.  You might listen to them.  They have been published.

5.  Your writing group can be the best thing for your writing.  Part of writing is reading critically.  Critiquing the work of others helps you learn to be a better writer.  You see what worked for them and what didn’t.  You see what others seem to like, and what they don’t.  Writing groups hold you accountable and give you a reason to write, if only so you have something for them to read.  Just don’t spend so much time in groups that you never actually get around to writing.  That is an unofficial truth.  Some members of writing groups are really more interested in the writer lifestyle.  You’ll recognize them.  They’ll talk a lot and you’ll never see them finish anything.

There you have it, my top five truths about writing groups.  In practice, writing groups can be awesome.  However, it is easy for a bully to poison the group.  For those of you who have been around, try to remember to point out what you like about someone’s work, and not just what you hate.  For newer writers, remember that you have spent your entire life reading.  You may not know the technical vocabulary, but you know when something works.  Don’t be afraid to express your opinions.

There are many types of writing groups that meet in many different formats.  These days, you could be a part of a writing group that is entirely online, but I like the face-to-face method.  It’s nice to know other writers exist in your area.  It also makes it easier to take the rapiers out to the parking lot, if needed.

Have fun and keep writing.

What are some other truths about writing groups?

2 thoughts on “Truths of the Group Mind

  1. I used to moderate a group with some time issues, specifically a couple of prima donnas who liked the sound of their own voices. I went to a format I got out of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Science Fiction by Karl Schroeder and Cory Doctorow. Basically, everyone gets a turn to talk before group discussion where they can only discuss their top three pluses and top three minuses. This helps both the group and the author to focus on what’s important. Usually by the time everyone has gotten their say, there’s not a lot left, and the format also minimizes tangents, circular arguments, and interruptions.

    Ditto on not taking suggestions of other writers as gospel. Once, another author was arguing with my about whether I should make a change. I finally said, “Yes, but I’m the author of this piece.”

    • I always thought the prima donna thing was odd. People tend to stereotype writers as being introverted, but there are always a few in every group that you couldn’t shut up if you wanted to.

      I like the idea of how to keep arguments from happening. I’ll have to suggest it.

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