What use are writers groups anyway?

I was, up to recently a member of two writers’ groups. One I joined on invitation, the other I had been a member of for many year.

What are writers groups?

They are groups of writers who meet in libraries, church halls or quite bars to discuss and critique each other’s work.

Writers groups have several functions. Most important among them, is that they encourage writers to continue with their lonely craft. To offer advice, critique and encouragement.

Often writers’ groups include only a handful of individuals. I have found that numbers over seven or eight become cumbersome and meetings become lengthy, but the time spent is seldom wasted.

The Pros.

Being part of a strong creative writers’ group is a great incentive to get your work on paper, writing to group prompts takes discipline and having to work to a deadline has a way of spurring a writer to greater effort. No one wants to be the writer who appeared at a meeting with nothing to contribute.

The comments and critique of a group of experienced writers helps all members to grow and their work develops. The physical task of reading your work aloud will focus your writing. Word flow, grammar, diction will have greater meaning when reading aloud looms. All of this will help you to perfect those vital skills.

Words of advice and critical feedback will drive you to hone your weekly contribution until it’s as perfect as you can make it.

Writing is a deeply personal experience, however, as creators of characters, plots and story lines I think we all yearn for an audience. And what better place to share than among a group of like-minded people that have each struggled with character development, wrestled with dialogue and sweated to plug those plot holes. An audience will bring your stories, essays or poetry to life. Just being a member of a group will inspire you, listening to the work of others will become a source of ideas. Group discussion will reveal new techniques, different ways of handling common dilemmas and even, as I discovered recently, open your eyes to new apps and programs that can be a great boon to your writing.

All the above excludes the social benefits of being a group member. The meetings themselves are lively and enjoyable and often group members will travel together to events. Readings, book launches or open mic nights may be things you mightn’t attend alone, in a group they become more doable and are a hell of a lot more fun when attended with friends.

The Cons

Being part of a writing group provides many benefits. But with the positives come a few negatives.

Every group has members who may not be as sophisticated in their literary knowledge. These members may not ‘get’ your work. It’s important that you do not join a group that has a majority of members at this level, peer review is important so try to join a group where other members are writing at a similar level to yourself or better still join a group whose members are writing at a level you wish to emulate. You will not learn from people on a path you have walked.

In a similar vein, I recommend you to steer clear of groups where members are afraid to criticise or where critique is limited to what I call ‘The standardised writing workshop advice’…… Show don’t tell / Bring more drama into the piece/ et al. is fine and often valid but most times it becomes ‘that’ member’s standard critique to all work presented. If you are faced with too much of this, it may only limit your enthusiasm and reduce your own confidence. And this standard advice is not always useful or correct. (Confidence in your own work is important, without it you’d stop writing)

The other thing to avoid is a group where members are presenting very early drafts of their work. Unedited, unrefined and unpolished work free-write notes for a potential story or poem. If this is being presented at a writers’ group, it’s burning up time. YES….. it’s fine to workshop ideas, fine to debate and brainstorm but when rough drafts are read aloud in a group, I look for the door. I don’t believe rough drafts are… more authentic… more visceral… more emotional. They are not. What they are is unrefined work, often littered with typos, grammatical errors, altering tense and are next to near impossible to read or critique.

Work presented at writers’ group should be well edited, well refined and as finished as the writer can make it, only then is advice and critique of value.

The advantages of joining a group outweigh the disadvantages. I urge all writers to seek out and sign up to a vibrant writers’ group. Be discerning, do not join a group just because it’s close to you or because you have friends who are members. Rather, find one that is the right fit. You will be amazed by how much it offers and how much your writing will improve.

About the contributor

Dave Kavanagh is husband to Ber, proud father of Adam & Rou, Managing Editor of The Blue Nib, organic gardener, part time island recluse and frustrated novelist. He can normally be found skulking behind a computer or with his head buried in a book. Published as a poet and author but far from famous.

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