How Your Writing Group Is Holding You Back


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.

2. Structure

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:

3. Scheduling

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.

4. Leadership

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.

 5. Support

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.

What have I left out? What qualities do you look for in a writing group? Share in the comments below.

Post to Twitter

5 Ways To Get Out Of A Writing Funk

If you’re like me, there comes that moment when you loathe what you’ve written. You read what poured out on the page in a meteor shower of inspiration. And then everything that felt glittering and brilliant just yesterday now feels trite. Flat. Messy. Implausible. We read our favorite books and think, Jeez, I’ll never write…

How to Turn Setbacks Into Progress

Your novel was turned down by a publisher. You just received a form rejection letter – the worst kind-  from an agent. Or maybe the feedback from your workshop flattened you to the point of paralysis. You thought your story was so much closer. Setbacks can crush us. And cause even the most resilient writers…

Writing Success Redefined

How do you measure your success as a writer? Is it by how much money you earn from your writing? Is it the publishing contract? Nailing an agent? Sure, those are external markers of success. But what does success as a writer mean to you? Years ago, when I began writing in earnest, a dancer…

Writing to Draw Readers in Emotionally

Flannery O’Connor once said that, as writers, we can’t create emotion with emotion. We need to provide it with a body, to “create a world with weight and extension.” Love on its own, for example, is too broad and abstract for the reader to feel. If we write about something as ethereal as love without anchoring it…

7 Ways to Write Better (That Have Nothing to Do With Writing)

 When it comes to unleashing our best, most potent writing, it’s not only about the hours we have, it’s the quality of mind and body we bring to those hours. There’s the skill of writing and then there’s our physiological, mental and emotional state. Ultimately, you can’t separate them. Here are some ways to improve…

Going From Stupid to Cool

In February of last year, I attended a weekend west coast swing dance intensive with dancer, choreographer, teacher extraordinaire, Robert Royston. The weekend was ultra light on footwork and dance patterns and high on technique; the physics of movement, partner dynamics and connection, how to spin from a low to high center of gravity, musicality, and…

What is Writer’s Voice?

We hear it prescribed in workshops and countless writing books. “Find your voice!” We’re encouraged to develop a “unique voice.” Literary magazines say they’re looking for “fresh new voices.” But what is writer’s voice, exactly? Years ago, during my first semester as an MFA student, my mentor told me the first draft of a story…

Getting Under the Skin

 It’s one thing to understand a character. It’s another thing to become them. Readers crave the latter. In my early twenties, at Columbia University’s Summer Writing Program, I was fortunate to have novelist and short story author Ethan Canin critique my first completed short story. The story centered around a love triangle of sorts: two…

The Difference Between Plot and Story

My first writing workshops in NYC included a few lawyers with novels-in-progress based on real life cases they’d defended throughout their careers. They were writing what they knew. Intricate and wild criminal cases brimming with drama and excitement. Endless twists. Mega suspense. Their plots were riveting. But there was no story. No character development. No…