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Writing group: Stay or go?

8 February, 2010

I do not often join writing groups.  I have never been group-oriented and after teaching group communication for years, I am well aware of how the group’s dynamic is shaped—for better or worse—by individual members.  (In an early post,  somewhat tongue-in-cheek, I listed the types of difficult members sometimes  found in a writing group.)

But I was interested when  I read an ad about a writing group that operates from a local neighbourhood centre.  Last Thursday, I traveled up the mountain highway through fog and mist to the group’s first meeting this year. My intention was to sit in on one session and decide if it would be useful and enjoyable.

If you are thinking of forming or joining a writing group, what important elements should you look for?

Group’s age

If a group is new, you must be prepared for a settling-in period, sometimes rocky, when more time may be spent on developing the group’s practices and not working on writing.

A group that has functioned a very long time may have its own problems. It may have become  so structured or in-bred that it does not welcome new members or new ideas.

This group I visited has apparently been going for years. The first meeting seemed harmonious and new people were welcomed.

Leadership

It often helps if a writing group has a formal leader, someone to set assignments and keep the group dynamics positive. Some writing groups pay for a professional to lead them. Others are founded by one person who then assumes leadership, for better or worse. And sometimes the ‘leader’  is a how-to book that the group follows for its assignments.

The group I visited has a long-time leader who was organised and also kept control of the group without being heavy-handed.

Numbers

A group needs a critical mass. If it has fewer than 6 people, group activities may be difficult to continue on the days when only 2-3 people show up. A group with more than 10-15 members has less time to discuss each person’s work.

The group I visited usually has 10 regulars and 5-10 sporadics.  The meeting started with a dozen people but by the end, 20 people had crammed into the room. On top of this, some people sent their apologies, which suggests even more people could appear at the next meeting. The number of people could be a problem.

Interests and aims

Is it important that a group includes people you like spending time with? Only you can decide. I believe it helps if people in the group share similar writing goals and interests, and also if they generally are on par in terms of what they know about writing and how motivated they are to write and improve.

Some groups focus on external recognition, e.g., winning competition and publishing. Other groups focus on support and creativity, and the emphasis is more on writing than rewriting.

On the basis of one meeting, I cannot say much about the aims of the group. The leader said people should enjoy writing on its own and not get hung up chasing the almost impossible goal of publishing. From this, I  am guessing that most of the members use the group to explore their creativity, share their writing, meet new people, and have fun. I have no idea how many wish to do anything beyond this.

Structure

Some groups stick to critiquing each other’s work. Others try out writing activities and assignments.

The session I attended included some discussion about writing, two writing prompts we undertook  in the session, and a writing assignment due at the next meeting. The prompts were stimulating, and it was fun hearing how different people responded.

Presenting material and getting feedback

In the last writing group I was in, we emailed our material so that others had time to read and reflect. In other groups, members never see the other members’  material but only hear it read out loud.

In this group, the procedure is for people to read out, plus provide a hard copy for everyone else. I like reading material on my own first, but can see how reading and responding immediately keeps a group moving along, rather than getting bogged down in intense feedback.

In providing feedback, the emphasis in this group is on what people like. If you do not like a piece or something about it, you keep quiet.  In this first session, feedback was short and general.

Frequency of meetings

It was only at the end of the session that I realised this group meets weekly. My former group met monthly. Now I knew why this group is focused on poetry and short prose pieces (600 words max.).

Stay or go?

As I drove home, I pondered whether to  stay with the group or not.

With the drive and session, it means 3 hours a week, plus time each week writing an assignment to read out. I asked myself these questions:

Do I want to write assignments that probably will not link in with  my other writing?

Will I get new information? New ways of thinking about writing? Will it be a chance to learn? Or will it be enjoyable, comfortable—but not provide anything new or interesting for me?

The group apparently writes lots of poetry, from haiku to Elizabethan sonnets. Writing poetry again is tempting, but is this enough of a drawcard for me?

I am used to a critique-based writing group. Am I willing to to be in a group where members do not give this kind of feedback?

At this point, I don’t know the answer to these questions, so I’ve decided to attend and participate in another 3 sessions. After that, I will weigh up the advantages and disadvantages and make a decision.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. 25 February, 2010 7:06 am

    I was not a fan of writing groups either, but I realised that informal meetings with a small group (3-6) every fortnight was rather beneficial, after some ground rules were laid down

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    • 25 February, 2010 8:34 pm

      Hi Ee, Once a fortnight sounds pretty goodk and keeping things informal sounds even better. Maybe you could write about the ground rules on your blog? BTW, I very much liked the Zen Pen post. Marsha

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  2. 12 February, 2010 10:59 am

    This group sounds too general to be of use to writers wanting to be published or to those ‘just’ wanting to polish their work.

    It is really hard to find a writing group you can work with, and I haven’t found an ideal one yet – they all have pros and cons. But I wonder about your desire to have people in the group you actually like or want to spend time with, those who share your goals and interests. Perhaps this isn’t good for you! Perhaps you need different people with different ideas and aims? Sometimes its the people who aggravate me who bring out my best writing! You need angels and demons.
    As well as this I think you need groups that do different things e.g. music clubs or ‘garden clubs’ to feed your writing – it’s not all technique.
    A blog on competitions would be helpful. Glen

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    • 12 February, 2010 5:55 pm

      Hi Glen.
      I’m happy to function in a diverse group if the purpose is gardening, book reading, photography, etc. I’m less laid-back about major differences in a writing group. I agree, up to a point, with your idea about embracing the ‘demons’ in the group. But I end up feeling I am wasting my time when too many demons are present, especially people who don’t regularly share their writing, respond to others’ writing, or expand their knowledge about writing as a craft. A writing group can fail if such people soak up too much of the group’s available time and energy.

      I recently joined a short-term meditation group. Surprisingly, the experience has been valuable not only in its own right but also for insights it brings to my writing. Good example of searching for difference as a way to keep the imagination healthy. Marsha

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  3. 10 February, 2010 5:22 am

    I must say I’m not a fan of either writing groups or book clubs. I’d much prefer to have a one-on-one conversation with another writer than sit around in someone’s loungeroom and pretend to critical when all we want is mutual praise and love and adoration! Plus I’m competitive, so best to keep me away from groups, even though I’m also a pretty nice person…I think…I hope. The point is, I guess, in the writing context I’m not really a social animal. Cheers, Nigel.

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    • 10 February, 2010 10:40 am

      Hi Nigel, I too like the benefits of one-to-one talks. Writing groups, like any other groups, can go wrong in so many ways. I’m sure my sporadic interest in finding a group is more a fantasy of locating the perfect group to provide the mutual praise you mention.
      The last group I was in focused on critiquing each other’s work. At the time, I thought this close-reading was beneficial, but now I have my doubts. Group members vary widely in terms of their technical knowledge of fiction, plus their reading and interests, and all these influences affect how they critique a piece. Getting a wide range of comments, some valuable and some not, can confuse or paralyse new writers. The comments can also encourage fragmentary editing, where a writer ‘fixes’ each perceived problem without re-envisaging the piece as a whole. The result can be a dog’s breakfast.

      Congratulations–you’ve done well in your own writing, particularly the difficult field of short stories. I am planning to write a post about writing competitions, another area full of pitfalls for the unwary. Marsha

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  4. 9 February, 2010 9:33 am

    Your piece reminds me of a time before the blog, where we had to grab whatever writerly contact we could find. Now we can gather like-minded souls from anywhere, which is rather lovely.

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    • 9 February, 2010 4:18 pm

      I have sporadically looked for a FTF writing group because I like the theory of countering the high-techiness of writing on a computer by participating in a physical entity, the writing group, sharing words and coffee. But I take your point that it’s more important to find like-minded souls, no matter where they exist in space. Any suggestions? Are there any particular sites you recommend for finding these people?

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