One of the most important steps a writer can take to help their craft is to join a writers’ group. It’s literally a collection of people who are experiencing the same struggle you are, and it can be incredibly encouraging.
How They Work
A small group of people meet at a predefined location, usually a bookstore or someone’s house. Everyone is a writer, so it’s a safe zone to express your successes, frustrations, and everything in between. Also, each person is at a different stage in their writing. Some are already published, others are agenting, and others are working on their first manuscript. Normally, there’s a set page limit, so all of you bring, say, ten pages a week every Thursday night at 7 PM. Each person either reads their piece aloud or has it read aloud by someone else in the group. Then the group takes a few minutes (some are stricter and time it) to discuss any big-ticket items.
I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of two great writers’ groups in my writing career. A friend – who later became my husband – invited me to tag along to his group. The first time I went, I had no clue what to expect. We were meeting at a Barnes & Noble, and, when I walked in, there was this small table toward the back where eight or nine people were sitting. I found Michael and was immediately welcomed with open arms in the group. I made several friends that, three years later, I still keep in touch with. As for the structure, each person picked someone else to read their five pages. We went around the circle and gave short feedback. The author was not aloud to speak until the feedback was complete.
The second writers’ group I’ve loved (which I’m currently in now) is also amazing. We meet at one woman’s house and sit around her dining room table. Everyone reads their own ten pages out loud, then whoever has a comment speaks and the group discusses. The author is allowed to comment with the group. It’s a loving community of 8-13 people (depending on the week), and we share food and life as well.
There are many benefits to joining a writers’ group.
1) Simply put, you have access to a support group. These people either know what it’s like to go through what you are now or they want to know, so they encourage sharing stories, both successes and failures.
2) You get the experience of several other people looking at your work. A lot of the people I’ve been in groups with have been English teachers in the past, so they’re great at catching grammatical mistakes. Others have life experiences that give them different knowledge than you. For example, in my first book, Deception, I have an EMP go off in the first fifty pages. Well, I don’t have much experience with EMPs, but someone in our group did and pointed out a flaw in my description. Now my book can be more authentic!
3) Reading your work out loud, whether it’s you or someone else doing the reading, lets you hear different mistakes than reading it in your head. You hear flow, tone of voice, rhythm issues, awkward phrases, and repeated words.
4) You build friendships. You see these people for a few hours every single week. If you’re anything like the group I’m currently in, unless a bunch of people will be absent, we even meet on holiday weekends. Why? Because we love seeing each other–and we want our work critiqued, but we do love seeing each other! I’ve made good friends at both writers’ groups and talk with several of them frequently.
Things to Keep in Mind
All of that said, there are a few things about writers’ groups to be mindful of.
1) Not every writers’ group is going to be great. In a search for our second group, Michael and I had to try a bunch of them out. Some of them just didn’t fit our needs – whether the people weren’t friendly or no one was really giving us feedback. Side note: you may feel confident with a couple weeks of no feedback, but assess whether your work is really that polished or if the group can’t offer any helpful comments. Before you make your decision, be sure to attend a few weeks, as things and people change every week.
2) Not all the feedback you receive will be good or even right. Be strong in your work. If someone says they don’t like a section in your piece, but you like it or it’s critical, consider reworking it, but if it can’t go, then don’t change it! Your work is your baby. You worked hard to put those words down, and, darn it, if you love it, keep it.
3) Alternatively, you’ll have to break up with some of your words. It will be hard, but there will be times where you’ve typed this beautifully written passage with exquisite descriptions and character development, but someone in the group will say, “Nothing’s really happening in these four pages.” Now your world is crumbling down because, like before, you poured your heart and soul into this section, and they have the audacity to not like it. Before you dismiss them as crazy fools who don’t know what they’re talking about, really look at your piece. If you’re writing a high-octane thriller, a four page description of a sunset probably doesn’t have a place in your book. Keep an open mind.
How to Join One
If I’ve got you convinced that you need to join a writers’ group, obviously the next step is to find one in your area. If you live in a big city, that will probably be easier. Google your city (or part of town) and search either for writers groups or writers guilds. Writers guilds are organizations built for writers. They usually do mini-conferences, have connections to publishers or agents, and sponsor contests and writers’ groups. For instance, the Houston Writers Guild manages a lot of writers’ groups in Houston. Getting connected with your writing community can be beneficial in numerous ways!