I recently attended a holiday party where I chatted with a fellow author on all manner of writerly things. We found our writing journeys and experiences differed in several ways. He’s a full-time novelist while I squeeze writing into the spare hours around my 9-to-5 muggle job. He’s been represented by multiple agents throughout his career while I am still searching for representation. His sole creative focus is novels while I diversify with columns, short stories, and full-length manuscripts.
The balance of our conversation focused on writing groups and workshops. He finds them to be unhelpful while I can’t imagine writing without the support of my local critique group, the Frederick Writers’ Salon. My enthusiasm piqued his curiosity and questions ensued. How did I find them? How often do we meet? How are the meetings formatted? Do I find the feedback helpful? Do I actually take critique recommendations?
I think these questions were spurred by honest curiosity with a healthy dose of incredulity. His personal experience with group critiques hadn’t turned out well, after all, and he seemed not to have much faith in them. I made a passionate case for the benefits of writing groups but ended by saying that perhaps they’re not for everybody. We eventually moved on to mingle with others at the party, but two days later, I’m still thinking about that conversation.
I believe what I said—that writing critique groups may not work for everyone—but I also believe the potential benefits far outweigh the drawbacks for most writers. For those who are on the fence about joining (or establishing!) a local writing group, I’d like to summarize my “passionate case” for them and share why I’ve benefitted immensely from being active in mine.
First, there is the direct benefit of having work reviewed and critiqued. Getting different sets of unbiased eyes on your stories will help catch issues you may not see yourself when you are too close to the work. For example, writers tend to be intimately familiar with their worldbuilding and might skimp on details vital to a reader’s understanding of the story. A solid workshopping of the manuscript will usually help catch such issues. Of course, the larger the critique group, the more differing opinions you will get, and that can be counter-productive if you don’t know how to process that feedback. Learning how to ask for and receive critique will help you get the most out of workshopping your manuscripts. (I have a blog post for that!)
Second, writing groups provide an indirect benefit in the form of giving critiques. It’s often said that reading makes for better writing.
I’ll take that one step further and say that critical reading (critical in the sense of discerning not judgmental) makes for even stronger writing. The more time you spend reviewing others’ stories—searching for problematic pacing, awkward sentence structures, and overused words—the more cognizant you’ll be of such issues in your own writing. In my case, I notice when writers make a habit of starting their sentences with prepositional phrases. It’s a habit I’m guilty of myself, but noting it in other authors’ manuscripts makes me hyperaware of it in my own, and I try to write and revise with that in mind.
The third benefit is perhaps the most important: motivation. For me, active participation in writing and critique sessions compels progress. You prep your work for submission and review, make note of constructive feedback, incorporate suggestions where appropriate, and resubmit for follow-up reviews. That kind of momentum can kickstart stalled projects or renew enthusiasm for ones that are a bit long in the tooth. The social aspect also provides loads of motivation. The Frederick Writers’ Salon shares information on writing contests, open submissions, and personal success stories. It’s exciting to learn that a story or manuscript shared in the group has been accepted for publication.
As I said, there are many reasons why writing groups may not be everybody’s cup of tea. Not everyone thrives in social settings or has the temperament for critical review. Some writers may respond better to one-on-one critiques or professional editing services. And still others write only for themselves with no plans to pursue publication, in which case, the services of a writing group may be unnecessary.
If, however, you are looking at the New Year with an eye to starting, resuming, or invigorating your writing career, consider giving your local writing group a test drive (and if you don’t have one if your area, who says YOU can’t establish it?) I joined my writers’ group over five years ago with a trial membership. Today, I’m a co-organizer, event host, and the publication manager for our third anthology. Most importantly, I’m an active and published writer, and I owe that in part to the tremendous support of the Frederick Writers’ Salon.