The Advantages of Writers’ Groups
For the past few years I’ve been regularly attending a writers’ group. In fact, I’ve been almost every week since I first started going. I find it to be incredibly advantageous and it has improved my writing, and I would definitely recommend trying out a group to other writers.
There are several reasons why people go to writers’ groups, but these are mine.
The main reason writers attend groups is to get feedback on their work. We all know this, it’s a simple and selfish motivation: I want my writing to get better and a great way to improve it is to show it to others who can point out my mistakes and offer suggestions for development.
Receiving critique is incredibly valuable, but at the same time it can be a difficult and sometimes traumatic experience. Having put a vast amount of thought and effort into what I have written, and so much of myself into my words, having someone else highlight the errors and plot holes and inconsistencies and contradictions and general problems can feel like they are attacking me personally instead of critiquing my writing. My first instinct is to argue, to defend my work, to tell them and show them how wrong they are for not seeing what I was trying to achieve. I have to swallow that.
I force myself to listen, keeping my mouth shut as much as I can, and just nod and take it on board. It can be tough, especially if the feedback is exceptionally brutal, but there is no point in defending what I have written. If what I wanted to say is not delivered on the page then I was unsuccessful in my attempt to write that piece or extract. Explaining the overarching storyline or detailing where my inspiration for the protagonist came from will not improve the feedback given to me, it will just take up time and make me feel better, and I don’t go to feel better. Writers’ groups are not support groups, they are critique for writing. I need to separate myself from my work and be objective when receiving feedback, and whilst that is a difficult ask, it is one I try to accomplish each week.
Although I attend to receive critique, I always try to give the best feedback I can to others, as that is what I want from them. I’m looking for writers to take my work apart and pick through it, giving me all their opinions and thoughts and not holding back at all, so I try and do the same in return.
When delivering feedback it is obviously tempting to compare the work to my own, and occasionally I find I am doing this, but when I do I supress that notion. Instead I focus on what I get from it; what does it tell me, how does it make me feel?
As I read I pick up on grammatical and spelling errors, if there are any, and mark them down, but I’m really looking for inconsistencies, plot holes, or anything that will take me out of the piece or trip me up. As soon as I’m aware that I’m sat in a pub, reading a print-out, whilst chewing the end of a pen, I work out why and mark it on the page. Then I resume reading and hope to become lost once again.
When I’m finished I think about the characters, the setting, the themes, and mull over what worked and what didn’t along with what I enjoyed and disliked. These all need to be assessed separately, as whilst I may like that moment where the antagonist makes an amusing quip, if it is out of character then it needs highlighting. The theme may disappear halfway through, or the tone of the narrative might change. I write as much down as I can, then either deliver my feedback or listen to others, all the while still considering the piece. During my feedback I always include positives amongst the negatives and point out strengths as well as weaknesses, as writers need to know what they did right as much as what they did wrong. Once critique has been given by everyone I may have another thought to add, and will do so during the conversation that inevitably occurs once each individual has shared their thoughts.
On some occasions a writer will bring a problem to the table. A scene isn’t working, there’s a plot hole they don’t know how to fix, writer’s block, or something else holding them back. At times they bring writing to show the issue, but otherwise it is a verbal question open to discourse. I have done this myself, and it is very useful to bounce ideas around a group of like-minded and understanding people.
Open-table discussions tend to get people excited and some, me included, have a tendency to interrupt when a thought appears. More and more I am forcing myself to listen instead of speaking. Whilst my idea may be good, it has equal merit to anyone else’s, and as such I hold back my enthusiasm and wait for an appropriate gap in the conversation to share it instead of forcing it in by speaking over one of my peers.
I have noticed some writers will constantly refer to their own writing when sharing ideas. Instead of tackling the topic, they will talk about what they did when they encountered a similar issue. This can lead to lengthy explanations of plotlines and character backgrounds and all kinds of irrelevant information that doesn’t help anyone. My philosophy here is to approach the actual issue at stake as a problem to be solved. Instead of using it as a springboard to talk about myself and my experiences as some kind of advice, I stay focused on the subject and offer practical suggestions and ideas.
I find attending a regular group a great motivator to ensure I actually keep writing. Each week I have to write something decent, as otherwise I will turn up empty-handed. The group I frequent has a five-page limit, so I always try to meet it. That means every week I must write at least five new pages.
Incidentally, I don’t like to bring everything I write to the group. I prefer to ask for feedback on writing that, in my mind, doesn’t work. This means I continue writing until I get stuck or write something I am not happy with, and that is the section I will present.
Bringing writing each week does give me a sense of accomplishment. Whether it’s a new short story, an article I’m working on, a poem, or an extract from a novel-in-progress, having a bunch of pages in my hand when I arrive is a good sensation. These are words I have crafted that my contemporaries are reading.
The other motivation of writers’ groups, of course, is meeting these fellow writers. I get feedback from a diverse group who all write in different styles. My work is critiqued by authors and poets with a huge range of experience and knowledge. Plus, I get to spend time with remarkable people who all share a common interest.
I would highly recommend trying out a writers’ group. If there’s one near you, go along. Fortunately there are several within Thanet and writers here are somewhat spoiled for choice, but if there isn’t one in your local area, or you are not great with meeting people, then why not join an online group? Or if you cannot find one, what about setting one up? Who’s to say your group can’t meet over Skype or Facebook? Try it out, you might enjoy it.
© 2017 Seb Reilly
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.