Writing Groups: Yea or Nay?

[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).

Science

Science

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.

Right, then.

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.

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94 responses to “Writing Groups: Yea or Nay?

  • nrhatch

    Writing groups are not for everyone:

    1. What I like best about writing is that it’s a solitary occupation. Writing “by committee” wouldn’t work for me if I want to enjoy the JOURNEY as well as the destination.

    2. Some critiques “bash” the motivation out of would-be writers. Other critiques probably aren’t critical enough. Due to loyalty, fear of future reprisals, etc., members in many group say what the would-be writer WANTS to hear, not what s/he NEEDS to hear.

    3. Meetings are time consuming and often a waste of time ~ social niceties, friendship, pats on the back (warranted and unwarranted), eat up LOTS of time.

    4. If you’re in the wrong group . . . you hear the wrong advice.

    That said, if I stumbled upon someone and LOVED how they wrote and they agreed to read my WIP and give me an HONEST critique and it was HELPFUL and we started to share more of our writing with each other and . . .

    That might work. 😉

    • ericjbaker

      Awesome answer, Hatch. No wonder we get along!

      Despite the tone of my post above, I imagine writing groups are good motivators for a lot of people. I just figure that’s time I could be writing. i also don’t necessarily want to hear criticism from people who don’t know where the story is going yet.

  • ramanda429

    This was good info, I thought about joining one but my first thought was well not everyone is going to like what I write, and I don’t know if I could handle a major bashing. Constructive criticism I get though and it is helpful.

    • ericjbaker

      Hi there!

      I’m comfortable doing rewrites even after several drafts, so I’d rather reveal a complete, polished work for review than show one puzzle piece. I see a lot of blogs in which people post their first 5 pages or so, and a lot of the comment criticism is along the lines of “I’m confused because I don’t know anything about the character.” Yeah, that’s because you only read 5 pages. If I show you 2% of a photograph, do you know what is being depicted?

      Thanks for the comment!

      • ramanda429

        That is very true. I rarely show my work unless necessary, my project I am working on now I have someone reading,but only to help makes sure each chapter meshes together. It is a first for me. You put a lot of good advice out there. 🙂

  • nbarring

    writing groups are good for getting fresh eyes on your work-in-progress… they open your eyes to typos, misspellings, and unclear expositions. at some point, you turn to the pros to get the story to pro standards.

    wait… are you talking, literally, about joining local writing group(s)? and not just a community of reviewers who you trust will give useful feedback?

    • nmartinez1938

      lol! He’s talking about writing groups and not the latter. This is not about writing but it’s about what I wanted or thought I wanted to do. Groups, like Am-way and other less sophisticated even individuals, never tuned into what I wanted to do. So, if this were related to writing, why don’t they tune into me and what I want to accomplish. If I don’t turn out to be the greatest, writer or otherwise, at least I am now a WP author. Not bad for someone spending there life as a career pursuit to be a famous cabinetmaker….. Besides you don’t need bodies to do spellchecks and that other stuff you mentioned. Wish they would put spell check on this thinz.

    • ericjbaker

      Thanks for the comment!

      I was talking about an actual group that meets at a library or at someone’s house. I mentioned in a previous comment that I prefer to show a completed work, because people often criticize partial works as if it’s the entire work. I have a few trusted beta readers who will give me one-on-one feedback based on an complete story. When it comes to fixing typos and so on, I view that as a separate technical process that can be performed by a proofreader who has no particular interest in my story from a quality standpoint.

      The basic answer is probably that writing groups are good for some people but not for others, but I don’t know if I agree when experts say, as a blanket statement, that they are good. I’ve never been in one, yet my writing has improved dramatically in the past few years. I’ve always been a bit of an artistic loner though.

  • VarVau

    I’ve heard, constantly, writing groups are good. Once again I reference Chuck Wendig, who suggested not putting oneself around other writers on a regular/daily basis. In the end, unless you’re part of a duo-team, writing is highly a solitary job.

    At one time I was part of a semi group, but I ran into an issue which is all I expect from most groups these days–I do not write like most people do, often employing older words, antiquated grammar mechanics here and there, and–as one of my other readers put it recently-a lyrical basis in structure. The rest of the writers in this group did not write this way, thus saw what I was doing as strange.

    I asked them if they ever studied the difference between prose writers who do nothing but prose vs prose writers who also have done poetry or studied poetic mechanics. There’s a huge difference to the approach on writing between these two types of writers, and most (especially the low-low level writers who struggle to make a name or those who are not published) are not aware of things like this. it also leads into the so called ‘purple-prose’. Often, I see people using the term and the writer they use it towards often is nowhere near purple-prose in its truest form.

    PP is like…describing someone drinking a cup of coffee, needlessly being ornate, needlessly going into the exact color of the cup, the coffee, how the light bounces off both, how the drink moves in the cup, what shapes the steam wafting above it become, what smell it has, what smell the cup has, how hot it is in comparison to a hefer carcass being sun-baked in the Sahara, the exact positioning of the consumer’s fingers, how long their nails are, how the coffee mildly stings the lips and tongue–or badly stings the lips and tongue, resulting in a lawsuit towards McDonalds.—rather than just saying. COFFEE HOT AND GOOD (say this like Frankenstein).

    If you do become part of a group, I’d say make it people you know whose advice and mind are similar to yours, but not so similar they can’t pick out places for improvement.

    • ericjbaker

      I am not thinking of joining a writer’s group. This post was a veiled attempt at justifying my science-first, rational, Spock-like world view. I wish to liberate some from the notion that experts are in a position to say “If you do A, you will achieve B,” when those experts actually have no idea if what they say is true.

      It seems to me, as I said above, that being in a writing group has actually had a rather negative effect on a lot of people. Maybe research would show that 55% of people benefit and 45% suffer. Regardless of the percentage breakdown, it’s not for everyone.

      Your description of coffee drinking cracked me up, by the way.

      • VarVau

        Yeah, I thought as such. I tend to cover the ‘what if you did consider’ scenario a lot with these sorts of posts.

        For me, I’d say the best sort of writing group is one that isn’t exactly acknowledged at being a “group group”–like relating to other writers on wordpress.

        Glad you enjoyed the coffee sample!

  • ShannonRaelynn

    I have belonged to a writing group for a year and a half now. There is a core group of about 8 who stick it out, and there is a range of talent and skills. Our focus is to encourage and support each other, to keep writing in our priority, to keep each other focused on setting goals and reaching them, and to keep each other inspired.

    Critiquing, is slowly happening, but that in itself is a land mine. It is not done in the group, it is done away. Anyone can bring anything to group and ask another member to read it but we don’t critique work in the group, and we don’t share critiques. In fact we have a rule in the group that when someone shares their writing, we want to let them know what we liked, what we want to hear more of. This might seem like an exercise in blowing sunshine up where the sun don’t shine but many of the members are only dabbling at writing. They are in the early stages and have a hard enough time finding the time to write outside of their jobs and families. They are certainly not ready to have their work shredded in public!

    I went in to the group with great reservations, because although I love people and i am facinated by them, they also annoy the hell out of me. To be honest this group has in no way improved my writing or made me a better writer. They were in no way instrumental in helping me construct my current book, but I can see using several of them as readers for the next book.

    It has been a slowly formed a relationship which has allowed us to slowly train each other to be the type of reader we are looking for. Participants are getting very good at telling each other specifically what they want, whether is is a don’t-hold-back-give-it-to-me critique, or just help with one paragraph.

    Although I tend to give more than I receive I enjoy it because it is a supportive little group, all of whom are passionate about writing, and who enjoy getting together to talk about it. For me it never fails, I get some great ideas driving home afterwards.

    • ericjbaker

      You are a really cool person, I will say up front. Your group “rules,” if I can call them that, seem like they are the best combination for being supportive without, as you say, blowing smoke.

      On the other hand, your comments do play into my concerns when you say that the group has not improved your writing. I’m going to be a little snobby for a second, but I can do that because you and I are operating from the same place…There’s not much benefit for an experienced writer to be in a group with novices, unless she finds providing guidance to others gratifying (which is a very legitimate motivation, of course).

      This post was not about me joining a writer’s group. I want my work critiqued by professional-grade writers, because I am an experienced writer myself. I can’t go around telling people, ‘You aren’t good enough for my group.” That would be a horrible, exclusionary thing to do and would be nothing but hurtful for an eager beginner. So I keep my work private until my beta readers can give me feedback.

      By broaching this subject, I wanted to see if I was justified in being suspicious about the value of writing groups. As always, your answer was very insightful and informative!

  • nmartinez1938

    “The voice of freedom, regardless of how it is expressed, is never out-of-tune”! Maybe this never made it to print, but writing this at my own level, gives me great pleasure. My brother’s wife reminds me of these words, given in response to a TV news reporter who in the heat of a demonstration turning to mayhem, before this pepper spray era– of demonstrators singing on the NYC Hall steps. The news reporter seemed distressed because a policeman’s arm was broken on the steps leading up the front of the building. Oh Happy Day!

    Did you say something about writing? You have to excuse my flashbacks.

    • ericjbaker

      I’m never quite sure what you’ll come up with next!

      • nmartinez1938

        I truly enjoy reading your posting. The closest I’ve considered towards writing, I often thought I would have wanted to be an investigative journalist. So much to write about in social concerns. Guess I lean to the humor side a lot.

        • ericjbaker

          You seem very knowledgeable about social issues and events and the related history. Why not tell some of those stories in a self-published book?

        • nmartinez1938

          You have joined the throng of others who have told me the same thing over the years. If social scientist are correct, Africans and other indigenous people were great oral historians, the keepers and reciters of there heritage. Maybe I have to much of my ancestors, African especially, genes– of the oral vintage. I first came online to do a open autobiographical sketch of my life, several times over. What has captivated me, is my hatred for mosquitoes, now being retired in the Philippines. Dengue fever has become my silver life stimulator. I neglect nm1938mylife.wordpress.com/. My life is the story of one barely escaping the clutches of poverty while growing up in one of the richest cities in the world, NYC via Spanish Harlem like the song.

        • ericjbaker

          I think that is a story many people would like to hear.

  • Uzoma

    I think writing groups are good if its members share the same goal and honestly want each other to develop or better put, get their books/articles out there as quality stuffs for readers to enjoy. What could hurt is a situation where a writer’s work is not “constructively” looked upon because the other members of are egoistic.

    I was once told that my family is not the best place to get a sincere comment. That’s true. So again, it’s all back to the writing group. But like you rightly said that should a team of “professional-grade writers.”

  • 1WriteWay

    Excellent post! I’ve often wondered about joining a local writer’s group. I’ve been a member of college literary guilds and, of course, writing workshops at university, but there’s always a faculty adviser with these groups. Not the same as a local writing group.

    There is a local writing group in my town which I’ve often thought of joining, but these reasons always stop me:
    1. I am the kind of introvert who avoids groups, especially groups of strangers. My anxiety levels rises, my heartbeat increases, and my eyes keep cutting to the exit when I’m with a bunch of people I don’t know or hardly know.

    2. Then again I might actually have crossed paths with some of the members … but they might be people I don’t want to cross paths with again.

    3. I read their newsletters periodically and the same names pop up over and over and over and over.

    4. None of the members has published or produced any writing that I want to read; I frankly don’t want to spend my precious limited time reading stuff that I couldn’t care less about, even if someone is doing the same for me.

    5. I live in a city but it has the mentality of a small southern town, very parochial, outwardly inclusive but inwardly exclusive.

    6. Their meetings conflict with my yoga classes.

    And yet, I yearn to belong to some group so my writing can be read by “objective” readers (i.e., people other than my closest friends). So I tend to join online groups such as Zoetrope.com. With Zoetrope, you do have to review other people’s writing before your own can be critiqued, but you can pick and choose what you review. It’s all online, on your own time, and at your own pace. I’ve gotten good constructive feedback for my stories at Zoetrope from a larger number of people than if I joined a local writer’s group, and these are people from all around the country (even other countries). Plus, since I can pick and choose what I review, I’ve learned a lot from reading writers who write the kind of stuff I like to read and write.

    I know this isn’t the kind of writer’s group you are talking about, but one of the great things about the internet is that we are not limited to just local writing associations. For people like me (too busy and too shy), an online group can be a great alternative.

    • ericjbaker

      For sure on your last point. Maybe not just an alternative for many of us, but the better choice. I should look into the Zoetrope thing.

      I haven’t considered joining a writing group mostly because I am already stretched way to thin and can’t devote an evening to a new endeavor. I’ll continue to trust the advice of the people I trust.

      • 1WriteWay

        Do check out Zoetrope.com. It’s free and you can select groups according to whether you’re writing screenplays or novels or short fiction or flash fiction or poetry. The dynamics are based on reciprocity, which makes sense: you do have to read and review other writers, but you can pick and choose who you review. One of the best things about the site is they list where members are getting published. Outside of Duotrope.com, it’s one of the best references for print and online journals.

  • 1WriteWay

    Reblogged this on 1WriteWay and commented:
    Another thought-provoking blog post from Eric John Baker … the one on writing groups.

  • writerdood

    Good topic.

    As an isolated individual of relatively obscure fictional tastes, a writing group would offer the opportunity to meet and socialize with individuals that possess at least one common interest. Given that I currently socialize with no one outside my family and workplace, I think I would find this an enjoyable distraction.

    But I have enough distraction.

    If I want to socialize, I will seek a writing group. When I am ready to stop writing and start talking, I will seek a writing group. If I’m bored and drained of ideas and want to jabber about what other people are working on, then I’ll seek a writing group. Otherwise, I will continue to work with a few dedicated readers via email. Personally, I don’t think humans work well together in groups larger than two, and sometimes not even then.

    • ericjbaker

      You last line made me laugh. Group projects were the bane of my existence in college. I like feedback from a writer I know and who has good storytelling sense. I didn’t talk about it in my post above (mainly because I didn’t think of it until just now), but a story can be ruined by well-meaning but bad advice.

      Thanks for the comment and good luck with your writing projects.

  • createdbyrcw

    Thanks for this great discussion.

    My focus is on screenwriting, and I think a writer’s group can be invaluable to helping you find your voice, but like anything, you have to do leg work.

    You have to essentially interview other writers, find out if their goals and motivations are similar to yours, see if they are the type of people to give empty criticism vs. useful critiques, and not be afraid to leave the group if you don’t feel you’re getting what you need.

    You also have to make sure you’re joining a group of people at a skill level appropriate for you. Being a semi-pro level player in a beer league will do nothing for you. That same, if you reverse this. Ideally, you want people who will challenge you on a weekly basis without crushing you.

    If you’re not someone who would benefit from a writer’s group or you worry that criticism of your work will rip open your soul, then don’t join one.

    There are no absolutes in creativity, and no methods to guarantee success.

    • ericjbaker

      Thank you for the insightful comment. You seem knowledgeable from experience.

      I endorse your last line 100%. The best thing an artist can do is be true to himself. I’m just going to write what comes out instead of trying too hard to please a certain audience. That approach might not do anything for me commercially, but I’m not interested in being a third-rate copy of some other writer who has already found success.

  • createdbyrcw

    Reblogged this on createdbyrcw and commented:
    Some interesting discussions about the value of writers’ groups and whether group think is of benefit to success.

  • Arkenaten

    Personally, I would rather staple my testicles together than join any sort of writing group.
    I neither need my ego stoked nor my work over intellectualized.

    I can get any grammerr, gramare, grammer(?) lessons I need online or in the case of Almost Dead in Suburbia, by being metaphorically dinged around the ear by my editor during running email battles about prepositions at the end of sentences or whether one must always use a capital letter for titles such as sergeant, captain,etc.

    One man’s meat, however, and all that…right?
    😉

    • ericjbaker

      Now I’m trying to picture what a testicle stapler would look like.

      I look forward to the day of having a professional editor tell me how to make my manuscript better. I was 1/4 of the way through editing a writing associate’s YA novel when he found an editor who has industry experience editing YA bestsellers. So my associate said, “You’re doing a great job, but this guy is going to do a better job, just because that’s what he does. No hard feelings.”

      And I said, “Word.”

      I’m a good editor, but he found somebody better. Ultimately, the “somebody better” is the person who will drive my rewrites.

      • Arkenaten

        It’s a difficult call when an editor says..Honestly, Ark, you should change this so it reads like this…” and chews half a chapter to bits.
        Sometimes I went with it other times I put my foot down.
        Eventually I said, what the hell, this is going to be my first published novel, let it ride. And I was happier in the end, and learnt a lot.
        My editor was understanding and patient. had to force myself to stop mollycoddling the book and acknowledge that I wanted to write more than one perishing book. Besides, I’m no Hemingway!

        I reckon what Raymond says is probably very true. Marketing is the key.
        If you can market you can be my agent if you like?

        • ericjbaker

          I’d take it a step further and say money is the key. You gotta get the most marketing bang for your budget. my budget happens to be pretty small, as I’m also in the process of getting an album out there.

  • kristenotte

    I just joined a writing group through the local library which is facilitated by a local published author. I’ve only been to one session so far and I maybe learned one or two things. Mostly, it reinforced writing concepts I’ve already learned. However, next month, one of my short stories will be critiqued. I’m curious to see if it’s beneficial for me. Will let you know how it goes!

  • Jill Weatherholt

    Great post, Eric! I was entertaining the idea of writing a post on the same subject. I was interested in reader’s opinions and experience with critique groups. I’ve often felt guilty not participating, that maybe my writing will never improvement if I don’t. I’ve heard many positive comments about critique groups, but still I hold back.I think the main reason is the fear of it being just a socializing session and nothing is really accomplished. Feeling the guilt of time wasted isn’t for me at this point. Don’t take this the wrong way, but as good as you are communicating with your readers, I can’t see you joining a writer’s group. For some reason the Twisted Sister video is coming to mind when I think of you in such a group. 🙂

  • Raymond

    No, no, no, no – Was that clear? LOL. If you are a serious writer who wants to publish your work I think that such groups are counter-productive. If you are just starting out, then “yes” they can be helpful. Here are my 3 reasons for not joining such groups: 1. You’re supposed to be writing “your” book. How can you do that if you’re devouting hours to reading and critqueing (sp) someone elses. 2. Writers by nature see an idea and have their own for “how” it should happen. A lot of the input will be based on how “the writer” would write it – not how the reader will experience it. Do you really want another writer writing your book? 3. You need “expert” advice. Unless you can read the published work and bios of those in the group…or if maybe Stephen King is a group member…how can you be certain the advice is valid? Look, good and great writers never feel their work is good or great. These groups may provide some “ego” boost, but what you really need to do is write the darn thing, get an expert editor, and publish. And you don’t need a traditional publishing house – that’s just more of your self esteem issues whispering it as a solution to validation. Publishing houses don’t sell books – marketing sells books…and that you can do on your own (I mean when was the last time you saw a commercial about a “new” book?). Books rise and fall in the court of public opinion. And that court is filled with “readers” not “writers.” Find a mentor who reads but doesn’t write…you’ll be far more productive.

    • Arkenaten

      Thank you…I thought It was only going to be me. Best comment n the whole post.
      Now you know, Eric…

      • Raymond

        Yes not as colorful as say “stapling my..” LOL!

        • Arkenaten

          Well, as the man said, “Tis a far far …er farther grater thing That I do or what I do. hell, you KNOW, right?
          By the way, as you are a writer, why do writers of chuffing poetry get like 80 comments for an average of 6 lines? Baffles me, especially when half the bloody story is missing!

        • ericjbaker

          This little section here is more interesting than my post.

          Clarifying, in case I failed to do so in the original piece: This post was about people taking expert advice without questioning or testing its validity. The “yea or nay?” of the title asked people if they thought writing groups were worthwhile, not if they thought I should join one. I’m not sure if the “you” in your response was targeted at the author or toward anyone who might be reading.

          That said, I dig your bluntness. Writing group sessions that devolve into ego-stroking probably serve a purpose to the participants, but that purpose has nothing to do with writing.

        • Raymond

          I was definitely speaking “you” in the general writers vein. My opinion is that often people in these groups are either too kind and provide low substance or are trolls just slaughtering writers..neither helpful to the process. And I should have mentioned it was a great article Eric. Really enjoyed the topic.

        • ericjbaker

          And I should have mentioned that your comment was both entertaining and informative. Writing is an art and publishing is a business, and you are wise to make that distinction.

    • Arkenaten

      ” Find a mentor who reads but doesn’t write…you’ll be far more productive.’

      Hmmm, now, there’s a thought.

      • Raymond

        Apparently I can’t reply to a reply on a reply…but I assume you speak of the Writer’s Cafe, home of poets of all age and talent. My answer is “it’s quick” I can read a poem in like a minute and leave a pleasant non-specific word of encourgement. The only issue being that, well, few people actually buy poetry.

        • Arkenaten

          Yes, I was being a tad facetious.
          I couldn’t write poetry for the life of me, and I know it has structure and cadence and stanza and other big words.
          I could never get past, ”There was an old woman from Leeds….”

  • Erica Cresswell

    This is an interesting article and timely for me since I was just talking to someone about this subject. She was saying I should really give a writing group/workshop a try. I’ve only ever posted in online forums in the past and really felt like it was the blind leading the blind. I was also told that my writing was too “real” to be fiction. Total tangent but what is up with people thinking everything written that isn’t sci-fi etc is autobiographical?

    • ericjbaker

      To your tangent: That is too funny. For some reason, my protagonists tend to be obsessive loners in dingy apartments in the city who hide dark secrets, can’t connect with people, and maybe have a painkiller or alcohol addiction, etc etc. Meanwhile, I have a wife and kid, drive a Honda, work in an office building, and have plenty of friends. I rarely drink and have never even smoked a cigarette. Oh, I get along fine with my family members.

      My secretly autobiographical story would be about a boring-as-shit guy named Derek who has really bad luck with inkjet printers and thinks iPads are silly.

  • lectorconstans

    By “writing group” I assume you don’t mean “the next 8 people picked off the street”.

    I’ve read of many a science-fiction writer who profited from groups. The key seems to be that the group is made up of writers. (Then there’s always the strange thing abut human nature that makes it easier for us to criticize than compliment.)

    Aside: Not too long ago, “criticize: meant to find both the good parts and the bad parts. Nowadays it seems to mean “That sucks). Maybe “critique” is a better term.

    I think it’s possible for a writer to learn from other writers. Many do it by reading good writing (everybody should do that). Some could benefit by having someone with talent talk about their writing. (Think musicians: everybody who’s made it to Carnegie Hall (or a lucrative recording contract) has had a teacher he’s indebted to. For Glenn Gould, it was Alberto Guerrero.)

    That may not be a good analogy.

    • ericjbaker

      I hope it’s a good analogy (I make music-to-writing analogies all the time, whether they work or not).

      I agree 100% that writers learn from other writers. However, I wonder if a writing group is “always” the right avenue, as expert writers often claim. It might be for some, but not others. One of the commenters above suggested they are better for beginners and intermediate writers than for experienced ones.

      Thanks for the comment and the insights!

      • lectorconstans

        This may be a whole new topic: what is “good writing”? I’ve heard tell that some writers have a good story, but tell it badly; others have a bad (or maudlin) story, but tell it well.

        I’ve been thinking since the last comment. There are certainly writers with natural talent. (I don’t think Mark Twain went to writing school.) Ray Bradbury wrote 30 or 40 stories before one was accepted. He said, “If you want to be a writer, write. Write one story a week. At the end of a year, you’ve got 52 stories, and one of them is bound to be good.” (The “write one a week” leaves me out of the Writer’s Guild.)

        And J. K. Rowling started writing on a train trip.

        And is “good writing” something absolute, that anyone would recognize? (Unlike fine-art painting, where one man’s masterpiece is another’s dreadful scribbling.)

        ( Kenneth Grahame’s “Wind in the Willows” is one of my examples of “good writing” (being a good story well told). It’s been some years since I read it, but I remember one chapter somewhere in the middle, that made such an impression that the color and sense of it (but not the words) have stayed with me ever since, (From an Amazon search, I think that;s the chapter titled “The Pipers at the Gates of Dawn” (the title alone is enough to draw you in).))

        Talent is certainly unfairly distributed (if it weren’t, there’d be no point). But whatever we have of it can be developed – like everything else, from muscles to creativity.

        Do you have any examples of what you consider “good writing” (short story, novel, &c)?

        • ericjbaker

          That’s a good point on the fine arts comparison. What’s tricky is that, In that realm, we can tell right away if we like it or if it moves us. A piece of writing that takes a time investment is harder to gauge quickly.

          Good writing to something that makes me say, “I wish I wrote that!” or more likely, “No matter how good I get, that is still better than anything I’ll ever come up with.” Dickens springs to mind. Oscar Wilde. Elmore Leonard. Kurt Vonnegut. Douglas Adams. Steinbeck. Richard Matheson. Agatha Christie. Carson McCullers. All amazing in different ways.

          The opening paragraph of Patrick McCabe’s “Butcher Boy” is so brilliant that I feel like a fraud when I read it.

          On the subject of talent: Some people simply have more than others. It would be a lie to pretend that anyone who practices hard enough to make the Olympic team or be the next Andres Segovia on guitar. Some goes for writing. I can write 50 novels and I’ll never be Charles Dickens.

          I think I found my next blog topic.

  • Megan Cashman

    I had a bad experience with the first group I joined. The organizer took pleasure in ripping apart what I submitted, though I admit it wasn’t really good. But he didn’t have to go on knifing me with a smug smile on his face. Plus, he wasn’t a published author – he wrote fan fiction as a hobby! So I doubt my work was as bad as he said it was.

    I ran my own writer’s group for a while, and the only bad thing was the poor attendance, which frustrated me. I did get decent criticism. However, I didn’t get in-depth criticism that I wanted and I suspect it was because I was the organizer.

    I joined another one and we’ll be having our first meeting soon. Let’s see how that goes!

  • Michelle Proulx

    I attended my first writing critique group yesterday. It was very interesting, and more or less what I was expecting. We all sat around in a circle and read each other’s work and offered helpful critique. And it was very helpful indeed. Maybe I’ve just lucked out and found a good group 😀

    • ericjbaker

      Little do they know you are going to turn them into aliens in your next book!

      Seriously, thank you for commenting about the experience. This topic turned out to be a little more controversial than I expected!

  • nmartinez1938

    Thought it time to drop down here. Maybe! Thanks.

  • Janna G. Noelle

    Wow, I’m super late to this party. Darn you East Coast people!

    So, I’m gonna go ahead and throw in my “yay” for writing groups, albeit with the caveat that one must find a good one. I’m also going to be contrary and say that yes, one can tell when they’re in a bad group. Aside from people not showing proper respect for others and their work, if the members are unable to separate their individual reading and writing preferences from their critique, that’s a bad group.

    We all have different tastes in reading and writing styles. Of course we do – we’re all different people. I may not like teen paranormal vampire romance, or techno-spy thrillers. However, a writer worth his/her keyboard should be able to point out what works and what doesn’t for such story types in and of themselves. (This is where the advice to read well and widely comes in useful.) Paranormal teen romance and spy thrillers both have unique story needs, and even if a critiquer doesn’t enjoy those genres or the storylines, s/he needs to dig out his/her empathy and think about what people who do enjoy these genres/stories would like.

    And also what the author would like, which is why it’s important to find out what s/he is looking for before offering critique. For some writers, the goal may be to be experimental or expressive rather than publishable, which again would comes with very different sets of advice.

    In general, though, I think a good writing group is essential, for close friends and family members (or even just one’s own self) are simply not objective enough to be one’s only source of feedback, especially feedback on matters of writing craft if said friends/family are not writers themselves. A doctor set to perform a difficult surgery wouldn’t consult with someone who likes to watch Grey’s Anatomy; s/he would consult with another doctor.

    Two (knowledgeable) heads are always better than one; collaboration always yields a stronger product. It’s still your work; you always have the option to not take the advice. But no one person has all the answers. I’m sure even Stephen King still consults with advisors (writing group, agent, whatever).

    Even if one is told something in critique s/he doesn’t like, as my father always says about unfavourable advice, “Ask yourself the question: what if they’re right?”

    The first time I submitted to critique, I was told my novel opening was too slow and my sentences were too long. I was devastated. My beautiful artistry, scorned! I walked around with a scowl for the better part of a week. Then I took another look, and you know what? I write my sentences a lot shorter now, and I can’t wait to tackle my opening when I start doing proper revisions.

    Full disclosure: Not only am I in a writing group, I’m the group’s leader. Technically, it’s just a writers’ social group, not a crit group, but I fully intend to press as many of the members into service as I can when it’s time for me to do revisions.

    Great discussion, as always.

    • ericjbaker

      Everybody knows the party doesn’t start until you show up.

      😉

      As always, your response was well-thought-out and insightful. Your group is probably a good one, since you are its leader.

      As far as finding someone with the empathy, knowledge, and intellect to critique writing in a professional manner, especially material that person wouldn’t otherwise read, I agree it is essential. At the same time, I’d be concerned how to find enough people like that for a writing group. From my standpoint, you are describing a professional editor. Luckily for me, I work with a bunch of them, so that’s who I usually turn to for feedback.

      I also agree that family members and friends who are not writers are editors are not viable beta readers. My mom is a pretty good proofreader, but I can’t ask her questions about pacing or characterization. I’m worried I’ve tapped my writer friends a little too often, though, so I either have to start paying them or expand my circle.

      I hope you got more than one opinion on your opening. Once person’s slow, long sentences could be someone else’s Charles Dickens. I’ve been told to write more attention-grabbing openings only to hear the next person say the same opening was too shocking.

      Thanks, as always, Janna. I’m ever impressed with your views on the craft of writing.

      • Janna G. Noelle

        Thanks, Eric. 🙂

        I guess you’re right in saying the type of person I’m describing is an editor. I never thought about it that way; no wonder good critique partners are so hard to find. I just feel bad for your other commenters who had negative experiences in writing groups, for the groups they attended were probably the only groups that were around. The experience can be so much better.

        Re. my opening, I agree with the three or four people in my group that it needs a bit more hook. I’m not talking a James Bond opening scene action sequence, but a bit more of the problem and what’s at stake presented up front. It will be a fun challenge to find the right balance.

  • lythya

    I happen to have an awesome writing group. I’ve tried a few combinations of people and find that my group fits perfectly. I’ve learned so much since entering it and am very happy to have it. I often feel energized after going and with a yearning to write. For me it works. But sometimes I also need some time away from critique to enter my own bubble. I think people need to get to know themselves and then toughen up a little bit. And of course we should all be constructive critics. Right now I’m reading a text for my writing group that really disappointed me and I’m very careful about how I should word my opinions to that person, since the initial idea is pretty interesting.

    • ericjbaker

      Thanks for the comment! I’m glad you found a writing group that energizes you. Life seems to get in the way of writing motivation sometimes, doesn’t it?

      The plus side of writing group critiquing is the face-to-face element. You can read your fellow group member’s face and make adjustments to how you are presenting the information vs. critiquing on paper, which sometimes seems blunt or harsh, even if it’s not meant that way.

      You can always take the sandwich approach: Praise on top and bottom and criticism in the middle.

  • bakoheat

    In 1909 Jack London and a group of his writing buddies formed the California Writers Club. The club continues on with 19 branches all over the state. In our branch we have six or seven different critique groups. One is strictly Science Fiction and others are multiple genre. My six member critique group meets twice a month at one of the members homes. We bring our new writing submission to the group and it will be critiqued at the next meeting. There is no negativity only positive help with understanding, grammar, punctuation, etc. A couple of us have been published and all have a desire to help each other get published. We even critique each other’s “query letters.” Talking with other writers is very special. Sometimes family members and friends are the worst kind of critique. That being said, I keep seeing the word “criticism” being used. That is NOT what properly formed critique groups ever do. If three members of the group are having problems with a particular sentence or time line in your story, you know you have a problem and you fix it. It’s all positive and helpful.

    • ericjbaker

      Critiquing the query letters is a great idea. It’s safe to say those things are a writer’s nightmare, and the advice offered by experts varies widely and often conflicts. You’ll go crazy if you try to write a query letter that is shorter than X but longer than Y and talks about A but doesn’t talk about B. Your best bet is to gather a small sample of reactions and go with your gut based on the feedback.

      I’m glad you found a supportive group. Good luck with all your projects, and thanks for adding your insights to the conversation!

  • alyssablanton

    I always enjoy reading your posts. As a “noob” (gamer term in case you don’t know) writer, with almost no real experience, I struggle with finding the motivation and courage to create and share my work. The various topics you cover are always of interest to me and help me realize, “Who cares? I love writing!”

    I had been considering finding a writing group, but I think you are very right with one of your points, in that people who only read a chapter cannot see the whole picture and are left confused. I have written about 7 intros/chapter 1’s for my story idea, and I always get stuck because I have people read it, and they can’t see the bigger picture like I can. And then of course I also feel like I will never actually finish it, so why bother?

    I do not even imagine I will ever be a published writer, but it would be amazing for me to just get my story out of my head and on to paper. If one person reads it and likes it, that would be enough for me. =)

    • ericjbaker

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      My suggestion is to just bang out the whole story in a first draft (if you aren’t 100% confident with your writing mechanics, I’d hold off on a novel-length piece for now) and don’t show anybody. It doesn’t have to be brilliant or even good, but get at least a complete first draft. If you keep changing the direction based on other people’s assessments, you’re just writing the story they would have written.

      I’m not saying, “Don’t join a writing group,” but maybe write a bit for yourself first so you get the swing of doing it. Do two or three more drafts. Then put it in a drawer and start a new story. Then maybe a third, and show that one.

      You can learn and improve with help from other writers, but you get good from writing. Knock out a bunch of stuff just to become comfortable with writing characters and dialog and beginnings/middles/ends. Again, who cares if it’s brilliant? That can come later.

      Good luck and keep going with it. Three years from now, only three years will have passed, but you’ll be twenty times better from practice.

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  • Val Mills

    I belong to two supportivr writing groups, each serving a different purpose in my writing life. Okay, I see your arguments above, but I still love my group sessions.

    • ericjbaker

      Maybe it’s just my fear of commitment! 🙂

      Thanks for the comment. If your writing groups have a positive effect on your creativity and productivity as a writer, you can’t ask for more.

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  • Jodi

    I wish I had time to read through everyone’s awesome comments – you’ve got quite a disscussion here. As for me, once you’ve found the right writing group you’ll never go back. The hard part is finding a group that is both kind and deadly honest when it comes to your work. Finding one with members who are familiar with your genre is also super helpful. I love my group and through their help I have grown in areas that I didn’t know needed help.

    • ericjbaker

      I’m glad you found one that inspires you and helps make you better. It probably also helps to have people at similar skill levels. I feel like there are plenty of talented people I’ve met through wordpress, and I’ve reached out to a couple of them as beta readers. Sort of a virtual writing group, in a sense.

      • Jodi

        WordPress bloggers rock. I’ve met some awesome writers here as well and once I get to the beta stage I know I have some great people to choose from!

  • jonnybig2013

    E’ certamente bello se si trovano persone che condividono un dato modo di intendere la realtà, la vita e l’ essere umano.
    Ma, giustamente, per ottenere questo risultato occorre farsi conoscere e farsi leggere da chi può apprezzare ciò che si è scritto.
    In particolare cerco persone, dalla mente aperta, interessate a scoprire nuove teorie scientifiche della storia, come il saggio dal titolo: FINE DEL MONDO, FINE DELLA STORIA O FINE DELL’ INFERNO SULLA TERRA?
    liberamente scaricabile dal blog:
    http://scienzadellastoria.wordpress.com/

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  • logan

    The very next time I read a blog, I hope that it doesnt fail me up to this one. After all, I know it had been my replacement for read, however i actually thought youd get something exciting to say. Just about all I pick up is a bunch of whining with regards to something that you could fix in the event you werent too busy trying to find attention.

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