When I first discovered writing, I was living in a small town and finishing up grad school. The closest thing there was to a writing group was the MFA program at school (I was not in the program) and whatever groups I was not privy to. Sadly, the program was also being discontinued so they didn’t have a lot of time to be focusing on outside writers.
At first, I couldn’t really see what the point of a writing group was. Why would I go hang out with a bunch of writers who were further along in their careers? They probably wouldn’t want an amateur hanging around them. Another reason was because I was afraid. I was just starting out, learning from other writers online (blogs, Q&As, books, etc.), and was no where close to confident enough to share my writing anywhere in public.
But the more I wrote, the more I started to gain some confidence. I was no where close to “good”, but I was learning that it was okay to not be Ernest Hemingway or Stephen King. I was creating my own voice. So, when I moved to a bigger city, the first thing I did was find a writing group. Since then, I’ve learned a ton of valuable things.
It’s one thing to tell yourself that you’ll write today. It’s a whole new adventure to actually schedule that time into your calendar. It’s a block of two hours where I am marked as ‘busy’ and can sit in front of my computer or notebook uninterrupted. The phone is on silent and all you can hear are the sounds of others typing away.
Without this scheduled chunk of time, there’s so many excuses to avoid writing. If I’m at home, I’m thinking about the laundry I have to do, the dishes that are still soaking in the sink, or I get distracted playing with the cats. But, I know that every Wednesday, I have a set time where I can work on any writing project. That time is my time. It also teaches me how important scheduling time for writing outside of writing group is. You aren’t going to finish a novel any time soon by just writing two hours once a week. Setting time outside of writing group is also important.
Scheduling time also creates a sense of accountability. We have a smaller writing group, usually less than 10 people at a meeting (hey, we all have lives that do require us to sacrifice our writing schedule), so it’s noticeable when someone isn’t there. Obviously, we would never make someone feel bad about not coming one week, but it does create a sense of accountability to the group.
It also creates accountability for your writing. Declaring that you are spending those two hours on a project helps you stay focused on it. Maybe that’s the only two hours I will have that week to work on it. For me, it is promising my writing project that it will have two hours of dedicated time.
Our writing group is smaller so we have the opportunity to get to know each other’s writing — and each other as individuals. In the first fifteen to thirty minutes of each group, we sit and update each other on our writing projects, happenings in life, and general updates. Because we can talk about our lives outside of writing as well, we learn more about people and actually develop friendships. That’s how I got signed up for a half marathon in December — a member of our writing group also directs our city’s marathon!
All of us have different things going on in life. Sometimes when we are chatting, we learn how different people approach challenges in their writing or how they balance writing with their life. Listening to these stories is great fuel for writing as well. Learning how individuals handle situations and balance their life is helpful for when you go through the same struggles.
We also have a group of very diverse writers. A few members are actively working with editors and publishers. Some also participate in other writing groups throughout the week. A few of us write for fun. We all have different combinations of genres that we write. There is so much for us to learn and take from each other to use in our own writing.
Our group has even talked about adding some ‘seminars’ to our rotation, dedicating one of our meetings to learning from a writer. We have also talked about bringing in experts to talk on their field, or having our own members share their expertise. We all have diverse backgrounds and, if someone wants to learn about a different one so they can incorporate it into their book, they can. For example, instead of just reading about what it takes to work an observatory, I did the research by physically going to an observatory and asking questions. In writing group cases, you’re bringing the expert to your location.
Sharing Helps Your Confidence
What I love about our group, especially where I am at in my writing career, is that we don’t do critiques. Some groups do, but we have decided to make an inclusive group that helps people gain confidence, learn new ideas, and grow.
While critiques are great, when you are ready for them, we have a unique method for somewhat evening the playing field. At the end of every meeting, we encourage everyone to share what they have written. Yes, we ask people to share what they have just written, not edited, with the group. This way, we can hear the story people are writing for themselves. There aren’t hours and hours of editing behind the piece. Rather, we hear the raw writings of everyone in the room.
Sure, some people are more practiced in getting better writing out the first time, but it helps us work through the kinks. And, because we don’t critique, we can all listen with interest and just hear a three minute reading of a new story. Even better, when you attend multiple weeks in a row, you can often hear the story continue. I can say with confidence that no matter where our levels of writing are or our genres of choice, we are all interested in the story and can’t wait to hear what happens next.
This also changes how we read. I was absolutely terrified the first time I had to read out loud with the group. In fact, the first time I had to do it, there were only three of us there and one of them was a multiple-published author while the other was working on a contract for his writing. I was an amateur in a room of professionals! But, after reading, I felt a weight lift off my chest. There was no place to critique, and the two genuinely seemed interested in my story. It was a safe space to share, and especially after hearing their writing, I got to hear fascinating stories and new writing voices I hadn’t been exposed to before. It was an amazing learning experience. Nowadays, I don’t get nearly as nervous sharing my writing, even outside writing group.
Now, if you are looking for a group that does critiques, which some of our writing group friends also participate in, that can also do wonders for you. There are scheduled readings, and you have to be willing to put in the work. If you bring in a piece that you want edited, you’re going to have to put some effort in and reciprocate the procedure. You have to give in order to receive.
If you want a critique group but can’t find one in your area, I suggest looking at Scribophile. It’s an online community that shares a lot of writing tips but also gives you a place to give and receive help. The more times you critique or edit other people’s writing, the more points you get. The more points you get, the more pieces of your own writing you can post. They prefer a limit of words, so you can’t go posting an entire book and expect someone to edit the whole thing, but it helps you work chapter by chapter, with short stories, or with poems. I strongly suggest checking it out. There are a whole lot of other options on the website so if you’re a writer and want some help, but can’t necessarily hire a personal editor full time, this is a good way to get some input on your work.
While our group doesn’t partake in this, one of the critique groups in our city does. They come up with a yearly anthology project that each member contributes to. In the end, each member writes a story that gets published at the end of the year. The topic varies, so sometimes you might be writing a piece outside of your normal genre. It helps you grow as a writer, stretch your creative muscle, and get some practice writing. In the end, you can say you have a piece of your work in a published book!
Joining this group has been one of the most fun things I’ve done since moving. Keeping my writing appointment every Wednesday, whether I’m editing or writing something new, has helped me progress as a writer. My writing has, in my opinion, gotten better, even without the critiques. I also have a new group of friends that I can invest time in. Some of us like to show up early and get a few more minutes of chat.
What sort of benefits have you found from your writing group? Does your group do things differently? Let me know!
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