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Don’t Even Think About Joining My Writing Group

5 December, 2007


Definition of a writing group’s purpose:  A writing group brings together people who want to help each other achieve their writing goals. That sounds straightforward, even benign, doesn’t it?

But a writing group has the potential to turn V E R Y  B A D.

I’ve had a few horrible experiences–luckily only a few–when participating in a writing group as a member or facilitator. The trouble usually can be traced to the problem of a writing group attracting a MAP (Most Annoying Person). But MAPs differ in what makes them annoying. Below is my Most Unwanted List: types I wouldn’t want to join my writing group.

  1. All-Too-Busy Bees
    They always tell the group that even though they were pressed for time, they have managed to dash something off, not revised of course. But could everyone please give detailed comments? It’s difficult to critique a rush job. And why bother? If they can’t find the time to craft something decent, why should others in the group waste their time reading it?
  2. Fossil-Miners
    They are still mining their writing fossils, stuff they’ve written months or years ago. It’s OK to use stuff from the past, but at least update it before presenting it to a group.
  3. Invisibles
    They like talking about writing and may be quite knowledgeable about techniques and trends. But their writing is invisible, in that they never show it to the group. They may talk about a major writing project they have on the boil. But they tell the group they can’t divulge even a snippet of the plot or characters, for fear that some mysterious ‘others’ will steal their work and become rich and famous. Please, Scott, beam them up and away.
  4. Never-ending Storytellers
    They make a good start on a story and get positive feedback. But the rewrite never surfaces. They return to the next session with the beginning of a totally different story, then another and another. Haven’t they ever heard of closure?
  5. Ignoble Savages
    Read books on writing? Research a genre? Enrol in a writing class or workshop to gain skills? None of these activities appeal to Ignoble Savages. They wish to sip from the well of creativity without getting their hands dirty by plumbing possible leads or different techniques. For them, it’s all about art, not craft. In a writing group, their lack of technical knowledge means that they either don’t give any feedback, or if they do it is not substantial or helpful.
    Sub-species: Brain Suckers. They DO want to know more about writing—but won’t undertake the hard work required. Instead, they suck up information from others. Some expect others in the writing group to be their personal writing mentors. For free, of course.
  6. How-to Gurus
    They have plenty to say and given half a chance will happily lecture the group on any number of writing topics. They write long, involved critique notes, showing how their ideas would immensely improve others’ work. Before the group knows what is happening, it has become a writing class—and guess who’s leading it?Sub-species: Super-Critical Writing Geniuses. They also have plenty to say, but none of it is positive. They are so focused on what needs improving that they forget to consider others’ feelings.
  7. Written-in-Stoners
    Their latest revision looks suspiciously like the previous one. Their first draft is similar to the last one. They seem to write in stone, creating a story monument to be revered, not changed, improved. They simply will not revise, even when the group makes some great suggestions.
  8. Life-Fiction Blurries
    They say they are writing fiction. But they have trouble separating their fiction elements from the real-life events that they’ve drawn upon. When the group suggests ways to strengthen a character or event, they protest, ‘But it really happened that way,’ or, ‘He was really like that.’ Very few group members feel comfortable about critiquing a fictional character, if they suspect it’s the author in disguise.
  9. Absolutists
    They channel a Universal Critic, making their comments absolutes rather than simply a personal opinion. They lay down judgments: The timing was…. The main character is…. It helps to comment in a more personal way: To me, the timing seemed…. I felt that your main character….
    Even their questions are judgmental. They rarely seek information (e.g., Why did you decide to start with the character crying?). Instead, they accuse: Wouldn’t it be better not to start with the character crying?
  10. Nit-pickers
    Thank you, Greg, for suggesting this little horror:  ‘Never mind the many rich and varied elements of fiction writing that one might critique – plot, character, point of view, dialogue, tone, etc. – the Nit-picker chooses to focus on…the number of dots in an ellipsis and when it should have three and when it should have four….’
    Nit-pickers have a useful role when a writer is working on a near-final draft. But for early drafts, their pickiness can sidetrack the group’s discussion of more important issues, and worse, incite nit-picking in others.
  11. Re-Writers
    Thanks to Tara for mentioning the people who ‘line edit every sentence’ in others’
  12. work, in order to ‘recreate the story’ in their own style or voice. The implication is that the other group members’ work is problematic or just plain uninteresting.
    Their tactic reminds me of the old movie, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The re-writer may keep another group member’s plot, title and characters—but like an alien being, settles in to completely change the story’s emphasis, pace, and dialogue. Spooky.
  13. Chronic Explainers
    Thanks to Jennifer for this one. Chronic Explainers try to prevent critique of their own work by giving a lengthy prologue about the meanings and nuances the other group members should have picked up. If someone in the writing group has to explain a story in order for their readers to ‘get’ it, how are they going to attract a wider audience for their efforts?Sub-species: Arguers. Arguers respond to critique comments by explaining how and why their piece is the way it is. E.g., I chose to write it this way because….’ The bigger problem is that when a writing group responds to an Arguer’s comments, rather than the piece itself, it enters murky waters and wastes time.
  14. Off-topic Blatherers
    Jennifer suggested this type. The group may be critiquing a short story set in London, only to have Blatherers chime in with something like, ‘I used to have an aunt who lived in London….’ Once they are in the grip of their memory or pet peeve, it’s hard to get the critique back on track.Sub-species: True Confessors. True Confessors can take a writing group completely off-topic, by revealing information so steamy or horrific or incredibly personal that it’s impossible to critique the stuff.
  15. Black Holes. Black Holes contribute nada. They suck in the energy of the other group members, happy to get their comments. But they do not reciprocate. They may remain silent, which weakens a group’s camaraderie and trust. Or they may not provide enough feedback, or enough specific feedback to help others. Responding to others’ work with only one phrase, e.g. ‘Generally I liked it’ isn’t that helpful. Some Black Holes are simply shy and if encouraged eventually come good.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. 19 December, 2007 4:31 am

    I just wrote a whole post about this on my blog. I’d add the Arguer, the Chronic Explainer, the Star of the Show, and the Off-Topic Blatherer.
    I like the idea of MAPs (Most Annoying Persons). And I’ll include your additions to my list as other examples of people to watch out for. The one type I haven’t dealt with is the person who tries all the tactics of the other MAPs, with the intent of destroying a group. Luckily, they are very rare.



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