Writers Groups: What to Look For

This post is for my fellow writers:

Woot! After years of searching I’ve found a writers group that feels like a great fit. They tore my chapters to smithereens and left me feeling inspired and better prepared to improve my writing. I’m so glad to have found them.

I’m fact, now that I’ve found a group I like, it’s easier to see what qualities I should have been looking for in writing group members all along. That’s what today’s post is about.

Some things to look for in your next writers group:

They take their work seriously. Everyone present is actively working on a writing project they care about.

Critiques are more honest than “nice.” “You’ve got too much exposition here.” “I don’t like this character.” “I felt confused during this part…” Everyone’s respectful, but it’s understood that the goal is improvement, not ego strokes.

They arrive prepared and on time. People arrive having read the week’s submissions with their comments ready to go. The group “gets down to business” promptly and keeps an eye on the clock.

No Explaining or Defending. The person being critiqued listens actively, and is allowed to ask a clarifying question or two at the end. That’s it. This cuts down on the defensive monologues that can make meetings drag on.

High Expectations = Fewer Energy Vampires. You’ve probably met an energy vampire if you’ve ever attended a public meeting. They’re the ones who bring either drama or distraction, making the experience less pleasant for everybody. In writing groups, energy vampires exhibit some of the following behaviors:

  • Using the meeting to try to sell you something.
  • Making sexual advances.
  • Telling you what to write.
  • Asking for feedback, but then responding badly.
  • Talking about themselves instead of their work.
  • Complaining.
  • Being disruptive or ignoring the agenda.

A screencap of Samuel L Jackson looking incredulous.

Knock on wood, but I haven’t run into any energy vampires in this new group. I suspect it’s because the meetings come with homework and vampires don’t like homework. They just wanna show up and suck. (Get it? Har har.)

There’s a big difference between writing groups that provide writing time and those that provide writing feedback. When I was a beginner, those “show up and we’ll write together” groups were encouraging, but that’s not what I need these days. Instead, I need people knowledgeable enough to sniff my story and tell me what stinks.

You’ve probably heard the phrase “you get out of this group what you put into it” and that’s true of critique groups. Reading other people’s work, in quantity, is a big investment of time and energy. But because everyone puts in the work, there’s lots of quality feedback to go around.

If you’re building a writing career, you might benefit from peers with similar ambitions. Look for people who care as much and work as hard as you, regardless of what they’re writing. Genre compatibility is nice, but not that important.

My advice for intermediate writers: Search for critique groups specifically, and pick one with a structured agenda and a history of regular meetings. Favor groups where the writing happens outside the meeting. And if at all possible, choose a group that meets in person. I know it’s difficult to find a good fit, but keep at it till you do, ’cause it’s worth it.

Good luck! And keep on writing!