How Not to Join a Writers’ Group

It is important to know how writers’ groups work before going along, in case they are not what you expected.

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One day a new person came to a writers’ group I was in. By their introduction to us they were clearly a socially aware person, working a lot with charities, trying to help the disadvantaged, and seemed to empathise with other people’s predicaments. They had newly returned to writing and brought a poem to share about a difficult situation someone they knew was immersed in.

After we had heard and annotated the poem, with each member of the group noting down their own critique, we started to offer feedback, only to find the writer getting increasingly agitated by our queries and possible suggestions. It wasn’t that we were being harsh or flippant. It wasn’t that we had misunderstood the piece. It was because—in their mind—what they had written and how they had presented it was the only true way to do so. In this heightened state of believing in the need to be truthful, they hadn’t considered that they would be asked questions with regards to line breaks or tenses or word choices or any of the other things a good critique will address. In short, they didn’t realise that how they had written the piece was going to be as important as why.

In fairness to all sides, the new person had only recently heard of the group and in their eagerness to attend and share their piece had not read the critiquing guidelines—or even said they were coming—and consequently we hadn’t had a chance to brief them beforehand about what goes on in a group like ours. It helps to know the protocol, and although it was explained on the night, it is always better to know what you are walking into. As such, their defensiveness—particularly in light of their protective nature towards the subject of their poem—was somewhat understandable.

However, with a little more foresight by both the person and group, maybe with the latter including a more detailed run-through of the protocol when a new person arrives, it could have been an easier transition.

In the long run, nothing bad happened. This person still attends the group, contributes very accurate observations, and in fact has joined other writing groups. They now realise that whatever their intention is in writing a piece, when you present it to be critiqued people will ask specific points about form, viewpoint or punctuation and aren’t doing so to catch you out or to be negative. Critiques are focused on the page, viewing what we are given as a work of art/literature. Unless you are writing factual reportage it won’t be treated as Gospel, but even if it were, if you presented it to be critiqued, its layout, tenses, punctuation, and so on could get questioned.

If you are going to attend a writers’ group, be sure to read up about it first. Most have details either on websites or social media, as well as contact information, and are always happy to answer questions in advance and give you an idea of what to expect. If you do just turn up, a good group should explain how things work. If you are still unsure ask for more detail, and then don’t volunteer to go first! Let others offer their work for critique so you can see how the group works, and then decide if you want to let these people read and give feedback on your writing. It’s okay to be shy, and better to be informed.

Gary Studley is a writer, artist and teacher. He co-runs SoundLines and two live-lit nights at The Jolly Sailor and The Lighthouse.

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