The power of the writing group

This is something I wrote in January 2010, the week before I joined a writing group...

For some time I’ve been considering joining a writing group, as many writer friends have told me that they are an invaluable resource to the writer, regardless of whether you’re just starting to put pen to paper or if you’re JK Rowling.

From my own research, here are some ways in which writing groups are useful:

  • Social environment. Writing is a lonely occupation, and being able to socialise with, get to know and connect with other like-minded people is a remarkably cathartic experience. What better thing for a writer to do than attending a useful meeting, then visit the pub afterwards and talk writing over a pint?
  • Getting your work critiqued. Many writers initially rely upon family or friends for opinions of our writing, and rare is the family member or friend who tells you exactly what you need to hear in a way that avoids getting your back up. You will also be dealing with writers who know what to look for, understand how a story is structured, and know what to expect at certain points. This is also a vital step in learning how to grow a thick skin, an unavoidable pre-requisite to anyone seeking publication.
  • Learning how to critique. Beyond simple typographical and grammatical issues, most people haven’t a clue how to analyse a piece of work. Being in a writing group will teach you this vital skill. which you can also apply to your own work.
  • Tricks of the trade. Most people know that writing is more than just getting a neat idea down on paper. From poem, lyric and short story to novel, multi-volume epic and film, there are technical aspects of storytelling that nearly all works follow. Understanding the three-act structure and the Hero’s Journey will give understandable structure to almost every story ever written, and knowing what kind of event to place at which point will make all the difference. The concepts of main story or plot, backstory, background plot, story arcs, cameos, time-shifting and other techniques will give your stories greater appeal and better cohesion
  • Learning about markets. The modern writer needs to know a lot more than ‘simply’ how to write good stories. If you are seeking publication, then you need to understand markets, publishers, agents, and how to write for and tailor your works to them. This goes for poetry, short stories, fiction, non-fiction, novels and screenplays.
  • Learning about genres and audiences. The genre in which you write will determine its readership and directly relate to potential sales. For example, science fiction is well known for its obsessively loyal followers (who will often buy every piece of work an author publishes), but one price is their demanding nature and intolerance of logic and continuity problems. They often know your universe better than you, its creator. This can also mean your target audience is a much smaller slice that popular general fiction that might normally appear on your favourite book show (two popular UK shows being The Book Show and The TV Book Club).
  • Getting to know published authors. Most general writing groups consist of members whose experiences range from those just realising they might like to write, to old hands who have 20 or more books published, all sorts of awards under their belts, and in many and varied markets and genres. This gives a writer a chance to look across genres and markets. You may see yourself as a character-driven fantasy writer, and then may be surprised to discover that the skills used in that genre translate easily to children’s fiction, historical fiction or even romance.
  • Networking. It’s a simple fact that being a within a group means that you have people of diverse backgrounds, with equally diverse social and professional circles. The simple act of making a friend in such a group can open doors that would otherwise have remained closed (or been much harder to open).
  • Competitions and awards. Many groups run their own competitions throughout the year, and some give awards to members based on things such as their improvement or number of published works. Others will also participate as a group in third-party competitions, writing and entering as a group exercise. Not only can this give you immense satisfaction and encouragement, but it gives you the ability to include “Winner of…” in your author biographies and submission information.
  • Accountability. Most groups have regular ‘manuscript meetings’ where all members are asked to submit a short story (sometimes with a theme) to the group. Each member reads one another’s work and that is used to gauge your progress as a writer, help you find suitable material for submission to publication, teach you how to accept and give constructive criticism, and teach you how to analyse writing. Depending upon the group, it is unlikely that submitting your stories for critiquing is compulsory, but not making use of such a valuable facility is unlikely to do your writing much good (editors or agents are unlikely to look kindly upon a submission with basic errors).
  • Simply being a member. Just being a member of a writing group, and attending and participating at whatever level suits you, is likely to have an immediate and lasting positive effect on your writing and your sense of purpose as a writer. There is also the added benefit that membership to such as group counts as a writing qualification for your author biography when submitting work, and shows that you take writing seriously.
  • If you’re the old hand. If you’re the JK Rowling or Stephen King of your writing group, then the benefit you get may be different to everyone else. You’re unlikely (though it’s possible) to learn much about the craft of writing and the massive publishing behemoth that straddles it, but you will be an invaluable resource for advice, tutorials, guidance and other philanthropic activities. For some people that’s going to be an immediate disincentive, but for others that gives them the opportunity to put something back into the writing community and potentially mentor the Next Big Thing. Sure, they may wind up being your competition, but surely that will make you a better writer?

So if you are a writer of any level, or are interested in becoming one, I exhort you to find your local writing group (preferably find a couple within reach so you have a choice), make contact and go along. You have nothing to lose, and it may open up a world that you never thought existed.

Your favourite search engine is your friend when it comes to knowing where to start to find your local writing group. Ten seconds of searching found me some howtos and directories, and of course try searching for “writing group” followed by your location.

Writer and blogger