The Downside of Writers’ Groups
Writer’s groups are a wonderful thing. They can provide a great deal of support for writers, both new and old, no matter your experience. I’ve been doing this whole writing thing for nearly a decade and I still benefit from going to a writing group. There’s a lot that’s said about the benefits of attending a group for writers. I thought I’d take a look at the drawbacks, or potential pitfalls. Because, despite my fondness for groups, there are things that you should probably be conscious of.
Different groups will have a different format. Some you stand up in front of the crowd and read your work, others you pass out writing and the crowd read, others you just have a chat about writing. There is no right way to do it, it’s whatever works best for you, but the general idea is for people to tell you what does and what doesn’t work, in their opinion, within your writing. Perhaps I’m more biased than I should be about the downsides of a writer’s group because of the situation I was in when I started attending. But I can’t be the only one in that situation, surely.
When I started attending I was in the middle of a rather serious episode of writers’ block. I was growing to hate not only my own writing, but the act of writing, the thought of writing and the thought that I could become a writer. Attending a writer’s group didn’t help me with that, it made it worse. It’s only now, after a couple of years of attending, that I’m getting out of that slump. It wasn’t the group’s fault, mind you, but it was a part of the problem.
Firstly, everybody was better than me. My writing was, at least in my mind, not worth contributing compared to some of the other people who were coming along. Everyone knew more about writing and could find all the faults in my own while I sat there and struggled to find anything wrong with theirs. They could craft perfect masterpieces of literature and I was sitting there with entire sections of my work illegible under the sheer number of notes written on the page. Why carry on writing when you could never hope to achieve the level of those around you?
So I started to try and improve my writing. I took the feedback that was given and tried to make whatever work I’d brought better. When I took it back to the group the same thing happened again. I can’t tell you the amount of times I would bring the same piece over and over again in the hopes that it would finally be able to make the other people in the group happy. But that creates its own problems. The more you’re told your work is crap, the more you really don’t want to carry on with it anymore. I should take this opportunity to point out that nobody has called my work crap, but, when you get so much feedback on how to improve something all you start hearing after a while is: ‘this is crap.’
This creates a cycle that is really hard to break out of. You hate what you’re doing so you don’t try—it doesn’t hurt when people hate it if you don’t care about it anyway—so others notice the flaws and tell you about them. Which makes you create content that is less than you’re capable of. The cycle repeats itself until you break yourself out of it.
What I started doing, to try and get out of it, was writing the way I thought other people wanted me to write. I wrote to make other people happy. This was a mistake. I was miserable, but the hope was that they’d like it and that would make me feel better about myself and my work. It didn’t. The things I wrote for other people were worse than when I was trying to write for me. They were terrible and other people noticed. The cycle repeats itself again.
I’d like to take this opportunity to say that I don’t blame the writers in the groups for giving me their feedback in the way they did. They were doing what they were meant to and it’s what I went there for, after all. Also, this isn’t really a problem with writer’s groups, more a problem with me. And this entire article is aimed at you. You, the writer who’s thinking about attending a writing group, you the writer who attends a writing group and is wondering if it’s the right place for you, or you the writer who doesn’t identify with any of this.
I did break out of the cycle. It was easy, really. A few of the other writers noticed my work was written in a different style to what I used to use, and they told me to stop writing like that. They told me to stop writing like them. They told me to go and write something I wanted to write in the way I wanted to. To try a short story or a poem. To just write something that I liked. So I did. I wrote a short story. I loved it. I brought it to the group. They loved it. Yes, there were faults with it, but they were easy to fix and the piece worked as a whole. That was something I had not had in a while. I also realised that I love writing. Really, it’s very simple.
When you write, write for you.
Listen to others and take any feedback you can get, but you don’t have to follow it. At the end of the day, it’s your work. You do what you think is best. If you write to make other people happy it shows in your writing, and then you’re stuck in this endless loop where you keep spiralling into this abyss that seems like it can’t be escaped from. Trust me, though, it can be escaped from. If you’re experiencing these issues, you can break free. Write. Write something that you want to tell. Write your story the way you want to. If people don’t like it, that’s their problem. If you like it, that’s all that matters. Once you get to a place where you’re content with your work, or you’re happy to admit that it’s flawed and that that doesn’t bother you, you’re set.
I really like going along to a writer’s group, and I think that it has benefited me greatly as a writer. By allowing me to go through this process of self-discovery, it’s made me a better writer. I can take a piece of my writing and not go home with my soul torn to shreds because of what’s been said to me. Believe it or not, I’m actually starting to enjoy writing again. So give one a go if you’re interested, but don’t fall into the same cycle that I did. Write for you. Always.
© 2017 David Chitty
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
David Chitty was born and raised in Thanet in the 90s. He devotes most of his energies to writing fantasy fiction novels.