I met a woman we’ll call Tina in a college creative writing class. With a 10-inch band of black jelly bracelets and burgundy-striped, black hair, Tina exuded 1990s cool. Every outfit she wore included fishnet stockings tucked into a worn pair of Doc Martens. Fans like me willingly stood in clouds of her clove cigarette smoke, perhaps hoping to inhale a few atoms of talent from this published, twenty-something author.
If “show, don’t tell” is the first advice writers receive, the second is to join a writing group. I secretly hoped Tina would slip me an invitation to the coveted critique group she called a salon. Sadly, that never happened. Still, writing friends told me all the cool kids had a writing group. So I searched for one at coffee shops, open mics, and writing classes, hoping a great group would help me not just finish my projects, but help me get them published.
Three decades and multiple writing groups later, I can attest to their value. As a writing coach, I regularly extoll their benefits to students and clients. In my experience, 99.9% of writing group members are generous souls who’ll spend hours poring over your manuscripts. The most successful groups—like the one in Portland that Chelsea Cain, Monica Drake, Cheryl Strayed, Lidia Yuknavitch, and Chuck Palahniuk belong to—can launch the careers of bestsellers. It’s the reason so many writers use words like amazing, necessary, and sacred to describe them.
But if writing groups are so helpful and so beloved, why do some writers never graduate from project-in-progress to project done? Is it a matter of following the twelve-step slogan “keep coming back; it works if you work it,” or could a healthy, highly coveted writing group fail you?
When most people think of writing groups, it’s the workshop-driven critique group they have in mind. In these groups, writers exchange pages and give each other feedback. But other groups exist, and not all dissect manuscripts. Some are designed for accountability or focus solely on helping writers generate new material. That’s important because each stage in the writing process requires something different.
Yet not every writer or writing group knows this. Even when they do, their helpful nature might compel them to honor your feedback requests. Unfortunately, ill-timed critiques can lead to resentments that make your writing group feel less like a helpful resource and more like a swamp full of Grendels whose sole purpose is tearing your project limb from limb.
The real reason writing groups sometimes fail us has nothing to do with the lovely people in them. The failure is due to a mismatch between what you need and what the group offers. Most people wouldn’t try to buy beef from a gynecologist, nor would they bend over and ask the produce manager at their favorite grocery store for a prostate exam. But sometimes that’s exactly what we ask the wrong writing groups to do. And that’s why the very best writing groups with the very best people will occasionally fail you.
When working through a first draft, your goal might be to race to the end so you can get a sense of the story you’re trying to tell. But workshopping scenes along the way will thwart your forward motion, no matter how skilled or kind your reviewers. Instead of drafting new chapters, you’ll feel compelled to revise and then resubmit the same material to your group, hoping they’ll confirm you’re on the right track. And therein lies the problem. Not only will that slow your drafting down, but you’ll waste valuable creative energy on something that might get cut. Think of it as the polishing a turd problem. Even if the writing doesn’t stink, you might need to flush it. Resubmitting potential turds can also lead you down tangents that stall your story or bloat your word count.
That doesn’t mean you can’t ask for feedback, especially if you’re struggling with doubts. Instead of asking for a literary proctology exam, tell your group you need nourishment, then request positive feedback. Ask group members to flag what’s working, what makes them curious, and what they want more of. Let that feedback fuel your creativity so you can race to the finish line and then see what really matters.
But that’s not the only way writing groups can unwittingly thwart your progress. The opposite of the critique group is the generativity group where writers respond to prompts and then share their freshly created works. If the critique group is the proctologist of the literary world, then generativity groups are more like produce stands. They can be loads of fun, and if you find the right one, you’ll feel nourished and generate a ton of new material.
That’s fabulous if you’re early in your writing career, between projects, or just starting a new one. But when you’re in the throes of heavy revision and you know where you’re going, what you need is an accountability group or occasional course-corrective feedback from one or two highly skilled writers. Get that and you’re likely to shift from project-in-progress to project done, even if your group doesn’t contain a Tina or refer to itself as a salon.
So how do you choose the best writing group for you?
- Know the stage of your main project.
- Think about what you need based on that stage.
- Find a group that meets your needs.
- If your group’s purpose doesn’t align with your needs take a break. If you depart with grace, they’ll still love you.
What writing group issues have you faced? Share them in comments. I’d love to hear from you.
Lisa Ellison is an editor, writing coach, and speaker with an Ed.S in Clinical Mental Health Counseling and a background in mindfulness. She has spent the last two decades helping clients and students turn difficult experiences into art and currently teaches courses in memoir, creative nonfiction, and mindful writing practices. Her life story and essays have appeared on NPR’s With Good Reason and in Hippocampus Literary Magazine, Kenyon Review Online, Huffington Post, and The Guardian, among others. She’s currently working on a memoir about how traveling with a heavy metal band into post-Bosnian-War Yugoslavia helped her survive her brother’s suicide. To learn more about Lisa’s work and writing, check out her website or follow her on Twitter @LisaEllisonsPen.