[Full disclosure: I do not belong to a writing group]
Writers are often told by the experts to join a writing group. Having other writers critique your work can help you identify your weaknesses and improve your ideas, so the reasoning goes. Therefore, writing groups are good. That makes sense to me.
I’m not convinced it’s true, though. In my recent post about self-doubt, some people commented that they lost their motivation to write or otherwise had their confidence shattered after being bashed by other writers in a writing group. I’ve encountered similar claims in the past.
Speaking broadly, the problem with expert advice in an arts-related field is the lack of supporting science for its validity. How do we know writing groups are necessary? Because an expert said so? Because it seems logical? It’s very possible that, if you took a random sample over an appropriate time frame, a higher ratio of writers not in writing groups get published than do writers who are in writing groups (For simplicity, let’s state that most writers serious enough to join a group also hope to get published).
One argument against what I’ve just suggested:
“I’ve heard lots of published writers claim their writing group was essential to getting published.”
This is confirmation bias. That is, if I believe something, I only notice the times my bias is confirmed and I am blind to the times it is not. No writer ever says, “I got published because I am not in a writing group.” Nevertheless, it could be that a writing group was unnecessary for this writer or that she would have been harmed by participating in one.
Another possible response to my suggestion:
“There are good writing groups and bad ones. You have to quit a writing group that isn’t helpful.”
Writing groups don’t come with Yelp ratings or a coding system. If you are in a bad writing group (I’m not sure what that means. They beat up old ladies and spray-paint gang tags on the side of the library?), the damage is done before you know to quit.
A third response:
“Some people are overly sensitive and can’t take criticism. Maybe their writing is simply bad.”
Certainly possible, but I submit that a typical writing group might be too small of a population sample to say whether a given piece of writing has merit. For example, I know far more people who hate the Twilight books than like them. Stephenie Meyer’s writing style appeals to a certain audience and turns off many others. You could easily, by chance, come up with a writing group of 7 or 8 people who would have told Ms. Meyer her manuscript was terrible. If she were in such a group and had listened to them, the world would have a lot more trees than it does now. As we all know, the Twilight books have sold hundreds of millions of copies.
What if you showed your novel to 100 people, and only one person wanted to buy it? You’d be hurt.
But what if that ratio held? What if 100 million American readers had access to your writing? You could sell a million copies!
Note: I make no claim that writing groups are harmful or unnecessary or that they are not a key component of success. I’m merely suggesting that the possibility warrants further consideration. This post does not pretend to be a scientific assessment that identifies variables.
Anyone for a hypothesis?
For more on the writing group experience, check out this post by WordPress blogger and author Megan Cashman.
Here’s one on writing by a guy who knows something about getting bashed. Mocking Barry Manilow was a practically a cottage industry back in the day. Good thing for him he devoted his energy to the 5% of people who love him and not all the haters.