The Pros and Cons of Writers’ Groups
“At risk of sounding foully pompous, I think that writers’ groups are probably very useful at the beginning of a writing career.”
Break down Bernard Cornwell’s statement and you will see that while he’s complimenting the merits of writers’ groups, he’s also warning that there are caveats. In his opinion, these gatherings can help some writers but that won’t be the case for everyone, which is good advice.
If you’re unfamiliar with writers’ groups – or writing circles, as they’re sometimes called – they are gatherings of writers who meet on a regular basis to talk about craft. Often, participants will bring with them a sample of their writing; poetry, a short story or the chapter of a book. The logic behind these groups is that the meetings become a thinktank environment in which everyone becomes familiar with one another’s work and contributes feedback to help them improve.
Generally, it is the mixing of skills that drives members forward. Where one reveals a gap in their knowledge, another fills it with expertise. Over time, everyone learns something from another member. At least, that’s the idea. Reciprocal feedback; you help someone and they help you, meaning you both grow as writers and see your careers thrive.
Sounds like a utopia, right? It can be, given the right participants and environment. However, upon joining a local group, many authors discover that the reality isn’t quite so perfect. As with many choices, each advantage comes with a trade-off. In today’s blog post, we will explore some of the most prominent pros and cons of writers’ groups to help you decide if joining one will be worth your time.
Pro: Sharing Resources
Aristotle first referenced the proverb about two heads being better than one in 330 BC, and we continue to follow his wisdom today. Indeed, in good writers’ groups, synergies flourish. Members share basic craft knowledge but they also talk about the business side of publishing.
A member might not know someone who can help her get her poetry nominated for an award, but she can definitely introduce her script-writer buddy to a local indie film director. Likewise, he might not be able to help himself or the poet but he knows an editor at a publishing house who is looking for a romance novel exactly like the one another member just finished. Plus, he knows exactly how to sharpen her dialogue to give it a better chance in the slush pile. This is one situation where the whole really is better than the sum of its parts.
Con: Bad Advice
The flipside of sharing resources is that assets come with liabilities. Occasionally, writers’ groups form where the attendees have nothing to offer one another. After fixing their fundamental issues, accomplished attendees have left, having found themselves more likely to solve their advanced problems with Google than in a gathering of well-meaning amateurs. Either that, or they never attended in the first place.
What happens in these situations is that the existing members quickly prove to be newbies, or hobbyists attending primarily for conversation rather than to improve themselves and their peers. Sometimes, as a new-starter, you begin with the intention to learn only to find yourself doing a lot of teaching. In the worst cases, you can even move backwards after the other attendees damage your style and mindset with misinformation and negative attitudes.
Education isn’t the sole motive for joining a writers’ group. The community aspect is also a big draw, and this is something good groups can deliver alongside great feedback. In many cases, both contribute heavily to an author’s success because happy authors tend to be more productive. Think of it this way; while you might have a lot of non-writer friends, do they really understand the writer’s life? The stress of a deadline? The excitement of being awarded a BookBub Featured Deal?
Some people get the support they crave but not everyone. For many authors, their non-writer friends mean well but say unhelpful things like, “I know you’re doing well self-publishing, but when are you going to get a publisher like a real author?” Admittedly, similar attitudes can arise among writers, but they’re less commonplace when everyone talking understands the industry.
An excellent group will offer the nurturing attitude needed to boost your confidence. They will read your work without looking for opportunities to add snide comments they consider “banter” because they know how harmful that can be. Not to mention, they are generally populated by adults, which can be a welcome prospect to any parent who spends the majority of their week talking mostly to their kids. In short, strong writers’ groups are safe havens for authors; a positive space to be understood, encouraged and inspired.
Con: Personality Clashes
The community vibe, however, only culminates if everyone contributes effort to nurture it. Not every group achieves this desired air of teamwork, which is understandable given that they are made up of humans. Famously, human nature is flawed. Sometimes, writers turn out to be cuckoos among a nest of otherwise happy chicks. Other times, one person becomes disgruntled when a project they are too close to gets torn apart.
Some authors hurt feelings due to their overly harsh criticism; others get unnecessarily offended because of a thin skin. Some get competitive or jealous and others become dictators, trying to force everyone to write in a certain genre or meet at a place most convenient for them. As with any human organisation, there can end up being power struggles, arguments and personality clashes.
Authors who view their group as a community designed to motivate them rather than as a place that provides gospel criticism often find value amidst even the least helpful critics. They achieve this feat by focusing more on accountability than feedback, creating an air of necessity around the work they promise to complete for each session. There are no real consequences for missing deadlines – they can leave the group at any time – but by pretending that there are, they find the extra focus and time they need to write.
This phenomenon can be especially true for individuals with a people-pleasing personality. Tangled in everyday responsibilities, many of us brush off our word counts to prioritise family, friends and work commitments. Station a real person in our lives that “counts on us” to produce words they can read and suddenly we can fit in creative time. All it takes is the impression of necessity. If accountability is an issue for you then joining a group could be an effective way to increase your word count.
Commitment also has a dark side that often doesn’t align with the creative process. For example, as a member of a writer’s group, you might commit to produce fresh words every week. This takes time and energy. Having finished your latest book, you might rather spend that time and energy working on marketing or optimising your metadata ready for the launch.
All the while, you’re writing a throwaway short story purely to ensure you have something to show at the next meeting. Or you’re spending a lot of time on Facebook talking about the next place the group should meet. Feeling like you are committed to a community can boost your motivation, but it can also push you to focus on things that won’t help you achieve your personal goals.
If you are thinking of joining a writers’ group then you should now be reasonably well informed on the pros and cons. As mentioned, each factor has a flipside that can be perceived positively or negatively, depending on your perspective. Whether you find value in one will depend on your social situation, where you are in your career and what you plan to get out of the meetings, as well as a number of other aspects.
On the whole, if you join for the right reasons, you will learn a great deal and grow a thicker skin, which will serve you well when collecting feedback from editors and readers. Just know before you get started that no group is perfect, but many could be useful to you throughout your career. Just because you have a bad experience with one doesn’t mean you should take a sweeping view of all groups. If you outgrow one pond or don’t fit the ecosystem, you can still dip your toe in other pools and learn the secrets they have to offer.
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