The topic of whether or not to join a writing group gets the same kinds of responses as asking about sharing unfinished writing. Some see it as an invaluable tool for motivating themselves to write and improve, while others see it as unhelpful or even detrimental to the writing process. Having participated in several writing workshops and groups over the years, I thought I’d share some pros and cons.
Pro One: Motivation
We’ve all heard the mantra “write every day,” but it’s not always easy. If you don’t have a book deal or a submission deadline to meet, it can be hard to stick to. But when you have a set date in the calendar to meet with your writing group, that date can act as a hard deadline. Deadlines can help you stick to a writing routine and actually produce new work.
Con One: Instant Gratification vs Long Term Satisfaction
Consider eating your favourite candy. You pop it in your mouth and immediately experience satisfaction. But sadly, candy isn’t going to keep you full for long and it doesn’t give you the nutrients you need. Talking about writing can sometimes be like eating candy. Having your group members ooh and aw over an idea you have seems satisfying, it can make you feel like you’ve accomplished something. Just like eating too much candy can spoil your dinner, the feeling of accomplishment you get from sharing your ideas can prevent feeling the drive to actually sit down and follow through on that idea. And if that happens, then you’ve got a problem.
Pro Two: Helpful Feedback
The members of your group act as alpha readers. They can tell you if your story idea is worth pursuing or if you should take a different direction. They can also fill in any knowledge gaps you might have. I’ve had group members who’ve studied psychology give me really helpful insights on my characters’ motivations, and I’ve heard science students help fellow group members figure out the physics of space travel. If you’re lucky, the relationships you form in-group can also be the basis for beta reading and sensitivity reads.
Con Two: A Writers Group Is Only As Strong As Its Members
In my experience, some groups are better than others simply because the members have ‘clicked.’ The best groups I’ve been in have had members whose knowledge and experience complemented one another. I always got good input from those groups and came out feeling like I had had a fun time. But I’ve also been in groups with really green members who wouldn’t give constructive feedback or members who would easily get off topic. With those groups, I would sometimes leave with no idea how to improve my work or, at worst, bad advice (though I’ll admit, the meetings were still usually fun).
Pro Three: Networking and Mentorship
I’ve mentioned that the relationships you form with your writing group members can lead to beta and sensitivity reads, but it can also be a good place for information on the business of writing. There’s a lot to be learned from writers who are more experienced than you. If you’re lucky enough to have such members in your group (and to form good relationships with them), you might find someone to take you under their wing and maybe even get your foot in the door somewhere that you’d like to work or write for.
Con Three: It Takes Time
If you’re anything like me, you always feel pressed for time. If you’ve got a busy schedule, finding and trying out writing groups can be a challenge. Furthermore, you have to be willing to give up your time for listening to or reading your group members work and providing them with thoughtful feedback. If doing that prevents you from getting your own writing done, or you simply can’t commit to giving up that time, then maybe focussing more on independent writing and revising is a better bet.
The benefits of joining a writing group can definitely come down to luck. If you’re fortunate, your group meets your needs and helps you improve your writing, while letting you meet and form friendships. If you’re not, you might waste time and energy on bad writing advice and unproductive meetings. Just remember that no matter who you share your writing with, you’re the one at the keyboard. Join a group or not, you are still the one who has to write and edit, you’re still the captain of your writing soul.