I have been fiddling around with being a writer for at least two decades, but I’ve only gotten serious about it the past year or so. Part of my process of “getting serious” included looking for a group of strangers who I could share my writing with who would give me honest, constructive feedback. My family and friends are great support, and I’m not saying that they think everything I write is gold, but I wasn’t sure I could trust their opinions because they know and love me (so I thought if they liked what I wrote it would be mostly because they liked me).
I was also looking for something I could be accountable to. A writing group only works if people are submitting their writing, so to stay active in a group I would also have to stay active in writing. The third reason I’d decided on finding a writing group was to improve my critiquing skills (which were pretty non-existent a year ago). I wanted to be able to read more critically, not to point and laugh at typos or author errors, but to understand what makes a good story better and how it can go wrong.
So, there are my reasons: accountability/motivation and a desire for unbiased critiques. I suppose it’s a sad state of affairs when I feel I can trust a bunch of strangers over my loved ones, but I think we can all understand that feeling. The members of my writing group did not stay strangers for long, but the trust I have in my group members hasn’t changed. I’ve gained valued conspirators, a better understanding of story structure and a sense of forward momentum.
Now, on to a few tips you should keep in mind when debating joining a writing group. First, figure out your reasons for wanting a group. Each writers group will have different dynamics and structures and you need to find the one that works the best for you. This is not the one where you necessarily feel the most comfortable and the best about yourself. It is also not going to be the one that makes you seriously consider suicide after each meeting. I would suggest somewhere in the middle where you feel safe and challenged. Having members that are at a slightly higher level than you is also a good idea to help you stretch and improve your abilities.
Second, make sure you are ready to accept (and where applicable, apply) criticism. No one can tell your story like you can, but there is always room for improvement. Once you decide on the story that you are going to tell you need to listen to your group’s comments to make sure you ARE telling the story that you want to be telling. I’m not saying to make every change that is brought up because then it will no longer be your story. One rule of thumb that I’ve heard on more than one occasion is if you hear a comment once and don’t agree with it, it’s okay to brush it off. But if you hear that same comment over and over, even if you don’t agree with it, it is something to consider. It is pointing to a problem section; somewhere along the line what you were trying to say and what you actually said became two different things. You may not want to fix it in the way people suggest, but fix it you must.
On the whole I have found my writing group experience very beneficial and am looking forward to using it more fully to become a better writer as well as a better critiquer.