The 4 Hidden Dangers of Writing Groups

Danger of writing groups

photo by ToGa Wanderings / via Flickr

Note from Jane: Last week, I ran a comprehensive guest post on how to find the right critique group. To help add to the nuance and complexity of that issue, I’m happy to feature the following guest post by Jennie Nash (@jennienash), the Chief Creative Officer of Author Accelerator. 


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.

Creativity IncTo 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.

1. No one tells the truth and no one really wants to hear it.

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:

  • Every writer in your group needs to agree to speak the truth and to accept the truth. It helps enormously if the writers in the group have a similar level of expertise and experience, and if they share the same clearly stated goals. Someone writing a book because it’s cathartic and fun is in a very different place from someone writing a book for publication, and it could be that you need to shake up the composition of the group in order to be able to make a commitment to the truth. Making these changes can be heartbreaking—but that’s part of truth telling, too.
  • Each member needs to speak with deep kindness and a sense of hope when it’s their turn to offer a critique. Mean-spirited attacks that leave you gasping for breath and feeling small are among the most damaging realities of all. There is a difference between telling the truth and being mean. Don’t allow mean.
  • Each member needs to take a deep breath and welcome the truth when it’s their turn to hear it. Remember that when someone is criticizing your work, they are not criticizing you.
  • Finally, the group needs to make a commitment to understanding what giving good notes is all about. Which brings us to No. 2 below.

2. Struggling writers are not often the best judges of struggling writing.

At Pixar, giving good notes happens in a meeting of what’s known as the Braintrust. “The Braintrust,” Catmull writes, “is made up of people with a deep understanding of storytelling and, usually, people who have been through the process themselves.” This is a critical concept that most writing groups don’t adhere to, because they can’t adhere to it. They’re often comprised of writers who are struggling to find their way for the first time, and it’s one of the main dangers of being in a writing group.

There is not one single thing wrong with struggle. Struggle is part of the creative process for everyone at every level, but why would you think that being in a room with other people who are also struggling with the same things you are, and who have no experience with that struggle, would be a good way to nurture your work? Yes, you might get camaraderie and community, which is nice, but by design, the odds of getting specific, focused, useful help with your story are low. Why is that? As Catmull writes:

While problems in a film are fairly easy to identify, the sources of those problems are often extraordinarily difficult to assess. … Think of it like a patient complaining of a knee pain that stems from his fallen arches. If you operate on the knee, it wouldn’t just fail to alleviate the pain, it could compound it. To alleviate the pain, you have to find and deal with the root of the problem.

A group of writers who are not trained to assess problems with a story or argument often get it wrong, or get it partially right, or demand specific remedies—not necessarily on purpose, but by a sort of unconscious group-think approach of what they like or don’t like. It’s not good. It comes without any assistance in how to move forward. You get the “it’s not working” feedback, but not the nurturing and patience you need to fix your problem, and certainly not the editorial understanding you need to prevent it from happening again. People may offer ideas for how they would fix things, or how they see your story or what they would do, but this is a sure path for crushing fragile new projects and wavering confidence.

So what exactly IS a good note? Here is the principle as Catmull describes it on his website:

Truly candid feedback is the only way to ensure excellence. When giving notes, be sure to include:

What is Wrong

What is Missing

What Isn’t Clear

What Doesn’t Make Sense

A good note is specific. A good note does not make demands. Most of all, a good note inspires.

Copy that principle down and laminate it so you can look at it during your writing group critiques. It is so smart. It’s not about praise of any kind whatsoever (although Catmull does say that most Braintrust meetings start with the members praising the director.) And it is not about ways the writer should fix the problem. It’s about identifying weakness in a very specific way, articulating them, and helping the writer to see them, and to sort out how to go about fixing them.

Try the following fixes for your writing group:

  • Use Catmull’s criteria for giving good notes—and I mean literally. Make each note follow his format, and don’t allow any other commentary. That means never saying, “Ohh, what if your character is from another planet instead?” or  “I think you should start at Chapter 5,” or “You’re the best writer, I’m so jealous, I wish I could write like you.”
  • Hone your story analysis skills by learning the craft of self-editing—I highly recommend The Artful Edit by Susan Bell (principles of editing), Handling the Truth by Beth Kephart (the critical importance of truth in memoir) and Wired for Story by Lisa Cron (how to write fiction designed to give the reader what the brain craves.) Read these books in your writing group and discuss them and evaluate your own work according to their principles. This will be a powerful learning tool. You may also like my guide, How to Edit A Complete Manuscript. It teaches you how to put down your writer’s hat and put on an editing hat.

3. Struggling writers are not often the best judges of struggling writing, Part 2.

This point is so important that I’m making it again, in a different way.

Let’s assume that neither you nor your writing group members can hone their story analysis skills overnight. This is, in fact, often the reality. Many writers think they understand story and narrative because they love to read, and they are great readers, and they recognize a great story when it’s on the page. But that is very different from knowing how a dramatic narrative (for fiction) or a narrative argument (for non fiction) is constructed, or knowing how to get the emotion on the page, or knowing how to hold the readers’ expectation in your mind as you write. These are very different skills. Some writers are native geniuses at it, but those people are very rare. Most writers are honing their story analysis and narrative design skills in terms of their own writing, not in terms of being able to articulate it to other writers.

So how can you help each other with your work? If the people in your group don’t have the knowledge and expertise to diagnose problems, don’t do it. Seriously. Don’t. Consider skipping the editorial analysis completely and make the group be about accountability, camaraderie, support, and information-sharing instead of about the words on the page. 

Try the following fixes for your writing group:

  • Give each writer time to talk about the weaknesses they see in their work and the solutions they are contemplating. Let them try to sort those things out in a supportive space. Often, simply having to articulate your problem goes a long way towards solving it. I find that writers frequently know what’s wrong with their own work if you give them the time and space to confront those truths, and this is far better than asking people who are not trained to weigh in on what’s wrong with the work.
  • Give everyone half an hour to talk about the problems they are having making time to write—or the doubt they are feeling about the point of their story, or their lack of faith in their worthiness as a writer. These are experiences every human is indeed an expert on (managing time, facing doubt, being brave) and experiences that can be fundamental to writing success.
  • Assign members research projects. Spend time sharing what you have read about changes in the industry, trends in pricing, what readers are doing and saying and thinking, and how writers are reaching readers. Look at newsletters such as The Hot Sheet about the business of writing, or at Shelf Awareness, about the business of bookselling. Identify useful writing blogs (Save the Cat, Shawn Coyne) and push yourself to include sites that focus on social media and entrepreneurial skills (Alexis Grant, Joanna Penn, and Dan Blank). All of this is just as important to being a successful writer than the words on the page. I do not believe that excellent writing can come from writers whose only goal is to sell, but I also believe that writers who ignore the realities of how books are bought and sold, and ignore the demands of their readers and their competitors, are writing with their heads in the sand. Publishing success is often deemed to be mostly a matter of luck and timing—and while luck and timing certainly play a role, knowledge about the demands of readers and the realities of publishing is almost always a factor, as well.
  • Save up your pennies to find an actual expert to help you with the words on the page. This could be an online group workshop from somewhere like Gotham Writers Workshop, UCLA Extension Writer’s Program or Writer’s Digest; a class at a nearby college; or hiring an editor or book coach. (Jane has a fabulous list of resources on her site here.)

4. Failure is not an option in a writer’s group, but failure is a part of the writing process.

Writing is a creative undertaking, and all creative undertakings are messy. Things sometimes get worse before they get better. Things can take a long time to come into focus, as you ping back and forth between what you thought you were doing and what you are actually doing, between the start of the story and the finish, between one narrative thread and another. Failure is part of the territory—a big part of it. Writing groups, however, tend to exclusively celebrate forward progress, and clean, linear thinking.

This happens because writing groups focus on only on one tiny slice of work at a time. If that slice happens to be logical, chronological, clear and well written, you get a thumbs up. Problems related to how that slice fits into the whole sweep of the story, or how it supports the premise, or how it aligns with the overall structure are largely ignored—and yet many of the most common problems I see are the result of flaws in these areas. When seen through a micro lens, a chapter can be beautiful and moving and polished yet be an utter failure at doing what it needs to do on a macro level—which is to drive the story or the argument forward towards a clear and resonant resolution.

Some of the best passages in Catmull’s book chronicle the early, messy stages of beloved stories like Toy Story. Can you imagine Woody ever being a character who was fuzzy and unformed? He was, and as you can imagine, that impacted every element of the story. The writers and producers wrestled with his character for a long time before hitting on the slightly neurotic little toy cowboy who adores his owner Andy and is nervous about the newcomer, Buzz. Catmull’s point in letting us inside Woody’s transformation is to show us that the creative process is never linear and straightforward, and that you must make room for failure:

Pixar films are not good at first, and our job is to make them so—to go, as I say, “from suck to not-suck.” This idea—that all movies we now think of as brilliant were, at one time, terrible—is a hard concept for many to grasp. … Creativity has to start somewhere, and we are true believers in the power of bracing, candid feedback and the iterative process—reworking, reworking, and reworking again, until a flawed story finds its throughline or a hollow character finds its soul. 

Try the following fixes for your writing group—which are all reiterations of the points we’ve outlined, above.

  • Tell the truth. If someone is not working—if it has a fatal flaw, if it’s ill conceived, if it has an underlying problem of logic—say so, in as specific way as possible. Don’t hold back for the sake of being nice. Nice is saving a writer from years of writing in the wrong direction.
  • Be open to criticism. If you get deep criticism on something you have written, consider that you might need to scratch it, start again, go back to Go. Allow that reality a place at the table. Many writers say that they know something is working when they start throwing out a lot of pages. They can see their vision clearly—and they can see what doesn’t fit.
  • Give good notes—and ask for them. Encourage the members of your group to ask for the help they think they need. Rather than reading a passage of text and waiting for generic feedback, urge the writer to say, “I’m having trouble with the passage where I explain my system for writing a resume. I’d like you guys to listen to see what I am missing.” This is, in effect, asking for a “good note.”
  • Talk about the failure. Talk about the doubt and the agony of it all. Let the pain be part of the mix, because creating something out of nothing is not easy. It’s highly emotional work, no matter what the genre. Writers need support—real support, not just surface level support—and they need a place where they can fail. Let your writing group be that place, and you will be providing an invaluable service.
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Jennie Nash

Jennie Nash

Jennie Nash is an author and book coach, and the Chief Creative Officer of Author Accelerator.  Sign up for her weekly coaching lessons at JennieNash.com.

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70 Comments on "The 4 Hidden Dangers of Writing Groups"

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[…] Writing groups can cause fatal frustration, deep self-doubt, and sometimes years of wasted effort. Learn the most common dangers of writing groups, and find out how to improve your group to give yo…  […]

Anna Dobritt

I belong to an online critique group on Facebook. The comments on excerpts I have posted are great. I’ve learned so much about grammar, staying in pov, and punctuation, it’s scary. Sure, you need to develop lizard skin, but it’s worth it. What I have learned, I’ve been busy appplying to what I’ve already written. Thanks you Writers World and Randall Andrews for all the help you have given me.

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[…] Writing groups can cause fatal frustration, deep self-doubt, and sometimes years of wasted effort. Learn the most common dangers of writing groups, and find out how to improve your group to give yo…  […]

philipparees

How to Edit a complete manuscript was one of the most lucid ( and practical) guides on the subject I have read ( and I have read more than a fair few). Thank you.

kitty pearl

Thanks for #3 – great references!

Lisa Katzenberger

Really great insight here. Thanks for sharing your ideas Jennie.

Samantha Bryant (@mirymom1)

Excellent article. I think my writing critique group has been through many of these phases, but I’m proud of how we’re functioning now.

Diana Stevan

Thank you for this excellent article. I’ve been a member of a writers’ group for over a decade. We get a lot of support from one another and some good critiques. But I am aware that we are all less than candid at times. And for that reason, I’m about to join an online critique group that promises what Pixar suggests. So, now I’ll have both types of groups to draw on.

Gayle Allen

Terrific article – lots of great food for thought and ways to take action, as well!

Alexis Grant (@alexisgrant)

Great post — and thanks for the mention!

Jon Gibbs

Excellent post!
Thank you for sharing 🙂

Indy

I like the fact you’ve shown the dangers, but gave guidelines to make group stronger, if that’s where a writer wants to be. Good points on both sides of the argument. Perfect timing for me – Thanks so much do sharing this!

judithworks

A really excellent article!

dallenrutherford

Thanks for the insights. Truly helpful.

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[…] Award: “4 Hidden Dangers of Writing Groups” – Heaps of great, practical insights, borrowing from Catmull’s book “Creativity […]

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[…] Writing groups can cause fatal frustration, deep self-doubt, and sometimes years of wasted effort. Learn the most common dangers of writing groups, and find out how to improve your group to give yo…  […]

juliembrown8

Hi, Jennie! I read this post, loved it, and then saw you had written it. Great job. Hope all is going well for you and that we cross paths again soon. Best, Julie

SSpjut
Finding people who are willing to give honest criticism (and accept honest criticism in return) in a writers group has been a real challenge for me personally. Even getting clear, concise feed back, is like pulling teeth. Everyone is guarding their personal feelings so tightly, they can’t separate the work from themselves – and I include myself in this observation. The flip side is, without it, we need it to grow and improve as writers. The only person I’ve found to date who will tell me like it is, is my mother. But she doesn’t like the genre I write… Read more »
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[…] tweeting with Author Accelerator’s Jennie Nash this week. She’d written an article on what’s wrong with so many writing groups, an important piece, as my colleague Lisa Cron also noted.  In our exchange, Nash referred to the […]

PLAllen

While I don’t have a writing critique group, I do have a partner that I swap work with and I think about these problems a lot. It’s hard to give criticism to someone (especially in writing) and risk the person blowing up or hating you. So far, I think that we have done a decent job with the honesty aspect, but it’s still hard.

William Ash

Great post. I think the other side to this coin is “reader” feedback, where you let readers comment and find mistakes in your MS. It seems to be a popular method that is a little insane…

Jane Friedman

Like beta readers?

Catherine Hamrick

Solid post. Thanks for sharing.

Diana Toledano

Thank you, Jane & Jennie, I’m sharing this right now with my Critique Group. This’s an amazingly helpful article. I was actually struggling about wanting to be honest but not wanting to crush anyone’s spirit… Critiquing is hard work!

Tara Powers
This was a great and timely post for me. I recently joined a critique group, and some nights I come home confused and discouraged. I also don’t feel qualified to critique other’s work. I can give general encouragement, or even specific praise, and I can give my opinion if something is missing or confusing. But I don’t want to say something that might add to a writer’s frustration since it’s entirely possible (and likely) that I could be wrong! I do enjoy my group—I’ve met some amazing writers and learned by listening—so I will continue to attend. But I will… Read more »
Jan Morrill

This article came at the perfect time. We are preparing to start a critique group next week, and I’ve forwarded this article to all of our members. It’s an excellent foundation for us to build upon. Thank you so much!

Patricia La Vigne

Presently I am in a group that understands the need for honesty and forthrightness in their critiquing. This article is an excellent resource for us to keep on track–to be honest, sensitive, “tough-skinned”, realizing the greater good is a better product. I was in another group with 2 very good friends. One of the constant things I needed to remind one of them was to be honest. I think she now understands. Thank you.

Pimion

Thanks for the post, Jennie!
“No one tells the truth and no one really wants to hear it.” couldn’t say better. To me, it’s the biggest issue of writing groups.

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[…] The 4 Hidden Dangers of Writing Groups […]

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[…] As we all know, nothing is perfect. Here is a list of the disadvantages of writing groups. […]

lindamthorne
This was interesting. Yes, there are hidden dangers, but when I started going I didn’t know how to write and I listened to everyone’s comments and, over the years, think I’ve become an expert on those groups who work best for me as well as which individuals in those groups give the best advice. I’ve dropped out of groups that seem to gloss over bad work without telling the writer the truth. I’ve actually changed groups to follow an individual or two who gave me the feedback I needed. I won’t stay in a critique groups that is not brutally… Read more »
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[…] A blog post by Jennie Nash. […]

advwoman
When I first became serious about my writing, I joined several online groups. Over time, I left all but one group due to many of the reasons cited in this excellent post. Finding people willing to give and, perhaps more important, receive honest critique was a challenge. Everyone loves hearing how their writing is fantastic and their story compelling. But the reason why I joined a writers group was to get honest, in-depth and thoughtful critique, not empty praise. I also feel a duty to help other writers by being honest in my critiques and by sharing any wisdom I… Read more »
Maureen Foss

I joined a writing group of five 27 years ago. One member died of breast cancer and is still missed. We allowed another member through the years, but have returned to our foursome. Our critiques are honest, forthright and of great benefit. Nobody is mean-spirited. We are boosters for each other and celebrate when one of us has a book published. We saw it from birth. We have book launches, book lunches, awards ceremonies, tears, extravagant themed Christmas dinners. We are a family.
Quintessentialwriters.com

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[…] The 4 Hidden Dangers of Writing Groups – Writers groups can be fabulous but it’s important to keep a few things in mind. […]

karencrider
Writers join a group for different reasons. We have people come to ours that seldom write. Maybe they are lonely and need the social aspects of being with writers. Who knows? But we do critique writers with gentleness in mind. And once we get going, good group editing usually occurs. It takes trust to be willing to open up and really address the issues at hand. Some nights it goes well, other nights it could be better. But we have writers of all levels. Some published with degrees, and some like me who have written since birth. Overall, it is… Read more »
Hades-uftg Tartarus
I’ve been a member of several on-line and face-to-face groups for over 15 years. I have yet to find a truly helpful and encouring group. I do agree with you about honesty, but Truth is an abstract concept and subjective. Nobody holds a monopoly on it. The only truth we can express is the truth as we see it. In one of my current face-to-face groups, a writer seems to find expository really engaging. I can tell she really enjoys that kind of thing. I, on the other hand, really hate it. It bores me to death. So who is… Read more »
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[…] aspects of community. This article from Jennie Nash delves more deeply into the topic by looking at the four hidden flaws of writing groups. I don’t agree with all of it, but it does make some very important points. Thanks again to […]

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[…] pattern to use when first working on being constructive with criticism helps. I recently read an article on Jane Friedman’s website about writing groups and giving good constructive criticism. In the article, Jane Friedman […]

Shelly
I have a question regarding the writing group I’m currently in. We all do follow most of the guidelines you’ve represented. We are for the most part pretty diplomatic and respectful of critiquing each other’s work, however I had submitted a short piece non related to my novel I had been working on that I had been submitting chapters to the group for feedback when it was my turn. This piece was a different style of writing and different genre altogether. I was told from someone in my group “from my previous writing, it seemed I was using too many… Read more »
Sharon M Hart

This is sound advice, especially the part about struggling writers working exclusively with other struggling writers. Do you think writing groups work better if all or most of the members write in similar genres? Or does it make little difference? Thank you for sharing.

Sandra

Hello. The link for the 40 page guide, How to Edit A Complete Manuscript, leads me to a dead end. (404 error from Dropbox. Would love a copy. Thanks

Jane Friedman

You can find an alternate version here: http://www.slideshare.net/JennieNash/how-to-edit-master-doc

Cathy

Thanks for this article. I am just starting this process and the post was helpful to know where to begin, what to expect, or even that there are so many options out there. The Catmull’s criteria for notes alone is helpful to me before I even begin in a group.

Jimmy Hill

Yes, this is exactly what happens in writers groups. To be good at writing you need to surround yourself with people who are good at writing; ie: published authors. I know this because I have just experienced a terrible writers group and it’s put me off groups, but won’t put me off writing, because i understand that they are just not writers, they are wannabee writers

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[…] That might be true when it’s inexperienced writers or readers offering the critique. (And that’s why writing groups can be more dangerous than helpful.) […]

Loraine

Brilliant! This post mentioned several awful things that happened in my last writing group but also gave me hope for the next one. Thanks!

Jessica

I’m in a superb book club on Wattpad which is pretty much a writing group under another name. They don’t do any of the “arrrg” inducing stuff listed in here. (Woo hoo!) But have shared it with them anyway because this gives great advice on how to write a better critique. =D The group has about 100 members, maybe you’ll get some more shares and comments as this article deserves them.

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