Get Thee to a Writing Group

Everyone — and I mean everyone, author or not — has writing advice to offer. I’ve found some of it helpful, some of it frustrating, and a lot that just doesn’t apply to me. The best advice I’ve ever received, and could ever give, is to write. Just write. Sit down and do the work, even if you think it sucks. All writing is practice, and practice is the best way to get very good at something. Do it a lot. Every day, if you can. That may not be possible for everyone — it’s certainly not possible for me — but the more you write, the better you get at writing. Full stop.

The second-best piece of writing advice I have is to join a writing group. I was lucky enough to find a great one on the first try, and they’ve stuck with me through the blissful, stressful, sometimes painful, process of writing my first book. I don’t know where I’d be without them, but I probably wouldn’t have a finished book now, and if I did it wouldn’t be as good. Every meeting is like an injection of pure inspiration, along with a good meal and sometimes dessert. We usually have our meetings once a month, over dinner at a restaurant. Besides writing, the topic of food and where to eat it is probably the thing we discuss the most. When I figured that out, I knew it was a sign this was the group for me.

When I joined the group about three years ago, we all had projects in the works. Often, a waiter or waitress would overhear some of our conversation at dinner and ask us, “Oh, are you all writers?” We’d mumble, “Yes, yes. We all have things we’re working on.” Now, one of us has published a collection of short stories; one has finished her first manuscript and is getting ready to query agents; one has a script in the finals of a prestigious competition; one was accepted to a big-time diversity fellowship and released a tie-in book to a Pixar film; one is an actual professional screenwriting consultant and reader for several big contests. And, of course, I’ve just published my first book. At our December meeting earlier this week, someone brought along a paperback copy of Buzzworthy for me to sign (which felt really weird), so this time when the waitress asked, “Are you writers?” my friend held up the actual, physical book, pointed to me and said, “She wrote this!” It was one of those moments you never forget as an author.

You can’t have my group, though. They’re mine. You’ll have to find your own. And not all writing groups are a great fit. It may take some time and a few false starts to find the right one. Check online for groups in your area. Bookstores and libraries are also a great resource. I recommend trying out a few groups until you find the right mix. Be picky. Consider the members of the group your alpha readers. They’ll help you shape your ideas into a solid final product. It’s a good chance to talk through those hitches that come up in the course of your writing. I can’t tell you how many times I was stuck and someone in my group said just the right thing to get me unstuck.

So what makes a good group? Here are some criteria that make a writing squad (as I like to think of mine) really super:

  • A small group with no more than six to seven regular members
  • People who offer constructive comments, and accept them well from others
  • People who understand the basics of storytelling and craft
  • People who are good listeners and don’t monopolize the conversation
  • People whose work you enjoy reading
  • People with a similar sense of humor
  • People who are supportive and encouraging

There are other criteria you may want to consider, based on your own preferences for feedback. Like, we don’t tend to get too far into the weeds in my group. If there are grammar, punctuation, or spelling errors we might point them out, but we don’t spend a lot of time on that stuff. We will, however, go out of our way to physically demonstrate (and I mean, get out of our chairs and act it out) why a character could not see another character through a particular doorway, depending on where they are standing in a room. But that’s just us.

Finally, here are some types to avoid when seeking out a group:

  • Anyone who can’t take criticism
  • Anyone who makes it all about themselves
  • Anyone whose feedback is personal, petty or not constructive
  • Anyone who continually flakes on the group meetings or seems like their heart isn’t in it
  • Anyone who isn’t interested in reading your preferred genre or who writes in a genre that doesn’t interest you.

The last one is arguable, because I’d encourage anyone who wants to be a writer to try and be open to new experiences. But, for instance, if you write clean romance and someone in the group only writes erotica, you’re going to have to make the call as to whether you want to read and comment on their pages with an open mind. It’s all about the give and take. It shouldn’t be a chore to read someone else’s work.

Otherwise, if you encounter any of these people in a group, don’t go back. There are plenty of helpful, talented writers out there who want to see you succeed as much as they want to succeed themselves. Don’t waste your valuable time on the rest. You’ll get a lot more out of it if the group is cohesive. It’s okay if you all come from a variety of backgrounds, skills, and disciplines. In fact, I think that’s better.

Needless to say, don’t be any of these people in a group yourself. For at least the first meeting, maybe the second too, just sit back and listen to what they have to say and how they interact. You can offer your input here and there, but take your time and ease into it. Learn the vibe of a group and figure out how you fit into it. It’s like being in a band, when everyone is jamming along, you can make beautiful music together. And your writing will be better for it, I guarantee.