A Tale of Two Writing Groups

It wasn’t until I joined a writing group that I started to feel like a real writer. I’ve been writing for years, harboring hopes and secret dreams, but it wasn’t until I started outing myself to other people that the label started to stick.

Last summer, I joined a writing group that meets every Monday night for two hours. During the meetings we participate in two timed writing prompts and then read our work aloud. The format is loosely based on Natalie Goldberg’s notion of writing practice. This type of improvisational writing is admittedly not my forte. I’m not an off the cuff writer. I work in layers; I write after doing a lot of thinking ahead of time. So this group soon became a way for me to practice writing spontaneously.

The first few weeks I was so nervous I had trouble writing through the nausea I’d feel at the prospect of sharing my work unedited. I desperately wanted not to suck and prove that I belonged alongside the other writers. But as the weeks went by, I realized something. I was only competing with myself. It was up to me to engage with the prompts, to make something out of nothing, to beat the clock. The other members of the group merely served as my witness, cheering me on through solidarity. Sometimes a prompt would really connect with me but not someone else, or vice versa. As weeks turned into months, I’ve noticed my writing has gotten tighter and thanks to the feedback, I’ve developed a better sense of what I do well. And all in a positive, collegial environment.

But then the euphoria I felt being with my writing peers began to wane a few months ago. Participating in the group was a huge boost to my self-confidence, but it wasn’t enough anymore. I was growing tired with merely practicing writing and wanted to transition to writing for publication in a group environment. It didn’t help that my current group only focused on transitory works, never to revisit them. We also only gave each other positive feedback to keep the inner critic at bay. And that was the problem. I wanted criticism – the good and the bad – so I could get better. Only knowing what I was doing well wasn’t an accurate picture of my abilities overall.

I happened to find a listing in the local paper for a writing group that was looking for new members pursing publication. The ad stressed they were looking for serious, professional writers. I wasn’t sure that was me. Sure, I was writing full-time with the goal of publication, but I would not call myself professional, since I was still unpublished. But I thought it couldn’t hurt to call for more info. After talking to the organizer, she assured me that I’d fit right in and added me to the mailing list.

I was really excited to be apart of something where publication was a goal, but all my insecurities came back with a vengeance. What if everyone else was awesome and more experienced than me? I didn’t want to be the one holding everyone back. Then there was the issue of the writing sample. This was my first impression with these folks – they would see my writing before they’d see me, and I didn’t want to eff it up.

After a lengthy internal debate, I decided to submit the first five pages of my historical romance novel because I was getting ready to enter a contest and wanted my submission to benefit from the other members’ critiques. (This later turned out to be fortuitous because of Editor X’s full request, but I did not know that at the time.) I had other pieces of course, but I wanted to tinker with them a bit before I sent them out. The romance novel on the other hand was fresh in my mind. But what if the other members hated romance and wouldn’t be able to get past the genre to assess my writing?

But then the other samples from the other participants came in. One incomplete and two finished literary short stories, one comic book script, and a rough introductory chapter to a nonfiction book. A good mix, and nothing in the samples suggested these people would be out of my league. As I started preparing my critiques in anticipation for our meeting, I realized I had a lot to contribute as I went through the different pieces. All the classes I took, all the books I read, the techniques I taught myself were all coming together in a real way. I had internalized so much in working on my own stories, it was easy to overlook the techniques I used almost instinctually. But when looking at other people’s work with fresh eyes, all the tips and tricks I learned were easier to apply and showed me just how far I’d come.

We had our first meeting the last week in April. Just like before, I was terrified. I arrived at the café we’d be meeting at a bit early and sat in the parking lot trying to calm down. When I finally got out of the car and met the others, it was clear we were all in the same position. Some had started subbing already but the rest were people like me – close to sending things out but in need of guidance and support. We went around the table, discussing each piece. When we got to mine, I was thrilled to find that people weren’t turned off by the genre and had some constructive things to say about the piece (which bolstered my courage to send the manuscript off to Editor X the following day).

I’m still meeting with my old writing group, and am looking forward to the second meeting of my new group in two weeks’ time. Each one serves as an outlet for different facets of writing. Here are a few of my guidelines in participating in writing groups:

  • Joining a writing group can help cement your identity as a writer.
  • A writing group can be a safe environment to develop your craft and interact with other writers.
  • Be aware of how the writing group’s scope will and will not help you in developing your craft.
  • Critiquing other people’s work can help put your own writing in perspective.
  • Never underestimate how the support of others can help you on your writing journey.

And finally, here are a couple links to other posts from the past couple of weeks that deal with writing groups that may be of use to you:

How having a critique partner can improve your writing from The Graceful Doe – a discussion of the benefits of working with a critique partner (applicable to writing groups) and recommendations for handling the critique process.

Guidelines for Author Critique Groups from Sylvia Dickey Smith Books – More guidelines for engaging in the critique process.

20 Questions for Test Readers from yingle yangle – a handy list of questions to ask when requesting feedback and to keep in mind when critiquing other people’s work.

Writing Group post series from Writers & Artists:
Part 1 – Every Writer Needs Readers
Part 2 – Establish Your Goals
Part 3 – Learn from Others
Part 4 – Quality Not Quantity

Happy writing (alone or with company)!
var gaJsHost = ((“https:” == document.location.protocol) ? “https://ssl.” : “http://www.”); document.write(unescape(“%3Cscript src='” + gaJsHost + “google-analytics.com/ga.js’ type=’text/javascript’%3E%3C/script%3E”)); try { var pageTracker = _gat._getTracker(“UA-15029142-1”); pageTracker._trackPageview(); } catch(err) {}

10 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Writing Groups

  1. Theresa Milstein says:

    Meeting with other writers for feedback is essential, even if it's nerve-wracking. I prefer the one-on-one, but if I found the right group I might stay with it. The last one I joined was filled with writers whose genres were too different from mine. They didn't know my genre.

  2. Bluestocking says:

    Hi Theresa,

    I write in a couple of different genres, so I rely on the group to assess the writing's effectiveness in and of itself, rather than genre considerations, which I (usually) feel fairly confident in handling myself. But I can understand that some people who are already married to one genre want others engaged in the same area as their critiquers. I think you can learn from writers from all backgrounds and genres — it just depends on what you want out of a group. I'm just thrilled to be with people who are serious about writing right now. Maybe as I go forward, genre may become an increasingly important component in my writing partners.

  3. Paulo Campos says:

    Great post! I think your emphasis on finding helpful group members is very important.

    Joining a writing group last year turned out to be decisive in my progression in writing. A fellow author and great friend proposed we use a monthly song as inspiration.

    After a few months as our group expanded, the song selection became secondary (a possible inspiration source at best), but we were completing at least one short story a month, one of which became my first publication.

    This year I'm testing the second draft of my novel. It's a much different experience than sharing short fiction, but seems really helpful.

    Writing groups force you to work towards deadlines and show you what other writers do well (and struggle with); they make the process less lonely. Those things made such a difference to me.

  4. Sharon K. Mayhew says:

    I belong to two online groups and do occasional ms trades with blog friends. I think critiquing other writer's work has improved my writing skills.

    Thanks for stopping by and offering encouragement to my this week…

  5. Rebecca @ Diary of a Virgin Novelist says:

    Wow. It's like you wrote this post for me! I am so with you. The nerves, the worry of sharing unedited work, the realization that yeah, I am a writer!, and then realizing you have outgrown your group. I need to find that next group now – congrats on finding yours!

  6. Lena S. says:

    Thanks for writing this! I'm a member of a critique focused writing group and was thinking I need more of a writing based group to round out my writing experience. I'm glad it's not greedy of me to want to be a member of two groups!

    I always get nervous about the ladies in my group reading my stories – we all write very different generas, but that's why I like the group – and each time I convince myself that they won't get it and I'll feel silly for having written it. Only that never happens. Not only do they understand my story, they have wonderful comments.

    Do you happen to have any advice where or how I can find other writing groups? I may resort to starting my own, but have no idea where to start! Thanks!

  7. Bluestocking says:

    Hi Lena,

    Thanks for the comment and the follow! Finding other writing groups can be tricky. I lucked out and found the listing for both of my groups through the local alternative weekly paper.

    But not all groups are so open to new members or would advertise that way. Another place you may want to check out is your local library. Check the ongoing events and meetings and see if there's a group that meets your requirements. Ask the librarians, too, as sometimes they may know of a writing group that meets there or people they could refer you to. You could also join an online group. Maybe you already frequent forums on a particular writing/publishing website. You could see if anyone else is interested in joining in as well.

    If you are just interested in practicing writing, there are tons of writing prompt-based websites, some that welcome contributions of others. I know The Writer magazine has a search feature for writing groups based on location as well: http://www.writermag.com/groups.aspx

    Hope this helps!

  8. Lena S. says:

    Thanks for the response! I have talked to one of the librarians and she said she'd get back to me. I'll check into the writer's mag site as well. Wish me luck!

Comments are closed.