Recently, a reader told me that members of her writing group had eviscerated her novel-in-progress. The collective feedback was so disheartening she wanted to ditch her manuscript and quit the writing gig altogether.
My heart always breaks a little when I hear stories like this.
But it reminded me of all the peer groups I’ve participated in throughout the years, and how delicate that dynamic is.
The last writing group I belonged to, a small, stellar tribe of Hudson Valley writer friends, left me energized and on fire after each meeting, hungry to race back to my keyboard and revise.
Prior groups had left me confused and gridlocked.
I’m a big believer in writing groups.
The camaraderie can be life saving. And getting feedback on our work is paramount.
But sharing your writing is an intimate, vulnerable, brave act.
And groups are a fragile ecosystem. Some catapult you. Others hold you back. Some even silence you.
Here are some ways your writing group might be derailing you.
1. They can pinpoint your work’s weak spots, but can’t articulate or offer a way to improve it.
Your peers may have a sense where your draft is missing the mark, but they don’t have the technical vocabulary to steer you towards specific, concrete progress.
I had this experience early on when a few of my pals from NYU gathered once a week in downtown Manhattan. We were fresh on the heels of our first writing workshop. And while we bonded in our shared writing passion, we had no clue how to help each other raise the caliber of our stories. Despite our sincerest efforts, it was a case of the blind leading the blind.
Ideally, there’s at least one writer in the group whose a notch or two above where you are now.
This is important. Otherwise, you could wind up spinning your wheels on your novel or story indefinitely.
2. They never catch you being good.
Some writers think the sole purpose of giving feedback is to spotlight flaws. But weaknesses can’t be the only takeaway for the writer. It’s a lot like a parenting. If you spend more time discussing your kid’s C in science, but ignore the A in his reading, all he hears is how deficient he is.
Should you cast your eye on your weaknesses? Absolutely. Especially if they’re interfering with your strengths. Doling out nothing but praise, by the way, is also a disservice.
But there’s a skewed perspective baked into our beliefs, that by fixating on our weaknesses, we will sidestep failure.
Marcus Buckingham, who wrote Now, Discover Your Strengths, believes you will reach excellence only by understanding and cultivating your strengths, something I’ve found to be true in working with writers of all levels.
3. They give you standard advice.
Your peers might be handing down the same old “Show, show, show” or, “Write what you know” mantras, neither of which is great advice. Sometimes it’s better to tell, sometimes it’s better to show, there’s telling and then there’s artful telling, and your peers might not yet know the difference. And writing what you know can be equally limiting. In Writer Unleashed, we devote an entire module to unwrapping standard rules because they’re so much more complex and fascinating than the soundbite.
Writing advice shouldn’t be prescriptive. It should be expand your work’s possibilities.
4. There’s a shortage of kindness and compassion.
If feedback isn’t delivered respectfully, you put up walls. You shut down. Your writing becomes too cautious. It’s the worst, most dangerous kind of censorship.
Kindness and non-judgement are fundamental to entrusting your work to anybody. This is non-negotiable.
Here’s what to look for in joining or starting a writing group.
1. Creative Compatibility
Many groups ask you to submit a writing sample so they can decide by committee whether to accept you in or not.
But you should ask the same of your potential writing mates. Read a sample of existing members’ work to see if you have anything useful to offer them. Is there something about their work you admire that you can learn from? What kind of writing is it? If you write literary fiction, but members of the group write science fiction or graphic novels, this might not be your posse.
I once belonged to a group where submission was a free for all. Some writers would submit as late as 10 pm the night before the meeting, sometimes the day of. Some weeks all five of us would submit and our meeting would drag on till midnight. Other weeks nobody submitted and the meeting would get cancelled last minute. This didn’t go over well with me.
I thrive with structure and deadlines. I appreciate having my submission date on my calendar so I can schedule time to work on it. And I like to have other writers’ work in my inbox at least a week prior to meeting so I can read it a few times, let my thoughts about it simmer and percolate. This ensures the most thorough, cogent feedback.
Two works in progress per meeting is plenty, by the way. In my experience, anything more becomes burdensome and dilutes the quality and depth of feedback given.
Which leads me to # 3:
Do you meet once a month? Every other month? How often do you submit? Who submits when?
My last group, a small band of four, met every 2nd or 3rd Sunday from 10 am to Noon. We discussed two writers’ submissions per meeting, which gave us each a two-month breathing space to write.
Ideally one member is at the helm at every meeting, making sure it starts and ends on time, that schmoozing doesn’t run amok, and that each manuscript gets a full hour of attention.
Your ideal readers will notice and champion your strengths, even those hiding out in a messy first draft.
The most useful feedback comes from a space of curiosity and generosity. One work’s challenges become a catalyst to discuss the challenges every writer on the planet faces.
Your peers will help you investigate your material, locate the heart beat of your story and help you move through the stuck points, which is where the real fun begins.
The litmus test, of course, is whether you’re elevating your work and, above all, if you feel a high level of trust for your peers. A writing group should be a safe container, a laboratory for you to explore, take risks, experiment, fail over and over, and grow.