Writers love the idea of writing groups. Writing is, after all, a very lonely pursuit. You sit alone in a room wrestling your ideas onto the page, struggling to fend off the constant attacks of doubt. Your regular friends probably don’t quite get what you are doing and can’t help. So it makes perfect sense to join other writers who can help you navigate the joys and sorrows of the creative process.
Unfortunately, the reality of writing groups is far more complicated than that. Underneath the good intentions there are serious dangers lurking.
In my work as a book coach I often see the damage that writing groups do, and it is not benign. Writing groups can cause fatal frustration, deep self-doubt, and sometimes years of wasted effort. In this post I’m going to outline the most common dangers of writing groups, and will also propose some ways you could improve your group to give you more of what you need—and less of what you don’t.
To illustrate my points, I’m turning to wisdom shared in Creativity, Inc by Ed Catmull, President of Pixar and Disney Animation. In this book, Catmull shows the many ways that the powerhouse studio has managed creativity, and in the process produced some of the most resonant and beloved stories of our time. He talks about the concept of management on a really big scale—department hierarchies and multi-million dollar movie projects—but the fact of the matter is that we all must manage our own creativity if we are going to do any good work, and his wisdom applies to all of us.
Most writing groups tiptoe around glaring weaknesses in the work being shared and sometimes tell outright lies about it, because they don’t want to hurt people’s feelings. All the writer hears is praise or vague criticism that isn’t very actionable, and so they assume that what they are writing is solid (if not awesome) and they plow on creating fundamentally flawed work.
Praise is wonderful—it feels good to hear it—but it is not very helpful for the writer committed to writing a book that engages the reader. Writers must find a way to welcome criticism, even harsh criticism, but writer’s groups tend not to foster this skill, and as a result, no one grows, no one learns, and people become deluded about their work—believing it to be better than it is.
At Pixar, truth-telling is a central part of the creative process. As Catmull writes:
In the very early days of Pixar, John, Andrew, Pete, Lee, and Joe made a promise to one another. No matter what happened, they would always tell each other the truth. They did this because they recognized how important and rare candid feedback is and how, without it, our films would suffer. Then and now, the term we use to describe this kind of constructive criticism is “good notes.”
Before we get to the good notes part, let’s look at the promise to tell the truth. That’s the critical thing a good writers group needs—not an implicit promise, but an actual commitment. Every single member of your group needs to understand the promise about telling the truth, believe in it, commit to it, and welcome it when it is their turn in the hot seat. This starts with a shift in mindset, which Catmull describes beautifully:
Naturally, every director would prefer to be told that his film is a masterpiece. But, because of the way [our group] is structured, the pain of being told that flaws are apparent or revisions are needed is minimized. Rarely does a director get defensive, because no one is pulling rank or telling the filmmaker what to do. The film itself—not the filmmaker—is under the microscope. This principle eludes most people, but it is crucial: You are not your idea, and if you identify too closely with your idea, you will take offense when they are challenged. To set up a healthy feedback system, you must remove power dynamics from the equation—you must enable yourself, in other words, to focus on the problem, not the person.
Try the following fixes for your writing group:
I’ll never forget the first time I went to a writers’ group. My hands were shaking as I read out my story from a sheet of paper. When I finished I looked up and the other writers smiled politely and told me how good it was. Next, a small man called John read out an excerpt from the erotic fantasy novel he was working on. There was something about trolls having sex with statues. When he finished, we all smiled and told him how good it was.
I left my first ever writers’ group feeling elated. My ego had been well and truly stroked. At the time it was probably the confidence boost I needed. But did it improve my writing? Nope, not in the slightest.
Fast forward a few years, and I’ve come to appreciate the real value of a well-organised crit group. I’ve attended evening classes, studied creative writing at university and nowadays I meet with Writers’ Bloc once a month in the back room of a cosy pub to craft my writing into something it never could have been if I’d struggled on alone.
If you’ve been thinking of joining a critique group, let me convince you why it’s a truly excellent idea.
It gives you a fresh perspective
Compliments are nice but there’s only so much they can do for you
If you haven’t tried a crit group before, you may have only shared your writing with friends and family members. While that can be useful, their feedback should be taken with a sizable pinch of salt. Particularly when it’s your mum telling you you’re going to be the next J.K.Rowling.
Compliments are nice but there’s only so much they can do for you. A good writers’ group will offer you a fresh pair of eyes and give you honest, specific and helpful feedback on how you can make your stories better.
At Writers’ Bloc crit sessions we use the Milford Rules – which means we submit work ahead of the actual meet up to read and digest. Then at the session we sit in a circle and take it in turns to offer feedback to the writer. The writer in question is not allowed to speak whilst receiving feedback, which – although difficult – helps with the flow and prevents anyone jumping in to defend their writing. Ultimately, you’re not going to be there to defend your character motivation or plot choices every time someone reads your story in the big wide world. So it makes sense to see if your story works well on its own.
Writing is often seen as a solitary pursuit, but a growing number of people are exploring and experiencing with the benefits of writing together.
Here, some writers and facilitators featured in the Professional Writing Academy’s Running Writing Groups course explain the value of a joining a writing group or workshop.
‘The energy is there, and there’s also the sense of being led, having the prompts given to you and not knowing what they are. There’s that feeling of challenge, really, and suddenly something will appear and you’ll have no idea what will happen. Sometimes in a group we’ll do character development, and after about half an hour we’ll all take a break to look at these amazing characters that have walked into the room with us. That’s part of the energy that writing in a group gives you.’
‘I think there’s a huge privilege in sharing in a group, a huge privilege, and when people are listening to each other you really enable that first piece of writing to grow, and you explore together. You can explore quite difficult and even disturbing ideas together, and there’s a safety in that as well. I love the differences in people and their work as well as the similarities, and I always find it quite exciting when you put one writing prompt down, and you get so many different and brilliantly exciting ideas. It keeps you refreshed, hearing other people’s ideas.’
‘The first thing that comes to mind is just hearing other voices. Our own perspective is always limited, even though we count on it to guide us. It’s way too limited, so it can tend to get us stuck as well. When there are other voices in the room, and you hear someone say ‘I was thinking of doing this’, or ‘I discovered this’, it can really resonate with something inside you. It’s beautiful that it deepens and broadens what we know to be possible. That’s the one thing. The other most important thing is the sense of community. Not only in the sense that you’re not alone, but working, creating and learning together.’
People could come to a group if they’ve lost energy in their writing, haven’t written in years and are beginning again, or even they’ve never written at all.Penny Shuttle
‘I think it comes down to two things. One is that it helps to build participants’ confidence. When they come out of that individual writing place they might have at home, or somewhere else, they discover that there are other people like them who share their enthusiasm. No matter what kind of writing they do, or what level they’re at with it, they seem to get huge enjoyment and motivation from being amongst the community of other people.’
Listen to an interview with Susannah Marriott of the Professional Writing Academy on the importance of investing in yourself as a writer.