Last summer, I joined a writing group that meets every Monday night for two hours. During the meetings we participate in two timed writing prompts and then read our work aloud. The format is loosely based on Natalie Goldberg’s notion of writing practice. This type of improvisational writing is admittedly not my forte. I’m not an off the cuff writer. I work in layers; I write after doing a lot of thinking ahead of time. So this group soon became a way for me to practice writing spontaneously.
The first few weeks I was so nervous I had trouble writing through the nausea I’d feel at the prospect of sharing my work unedited. I desperately wanted not to suck and prove that I belonged alongside the other writers. But as the weeks went by, I realized something. I was only competing with myself. It was up to me to engage with the prompts, to make something out of nothing, to beat the clock. The other members of the group merely served as my witness, cheering me on through solidarity. Sometimes a prompt would really connect with me but not someone else, or vice versa. As weeks turned into months, I’ve noticed my writing has gotten tighter and thanks to the feedback, I’ve developed a better sense of what I do well. And all in a positive, collegial environment.
But then the euphoria I felt being with my writing peers began to wane a few months ago. Participating in the group was a huge boost to my self-confidence, but it wasn’t enough anymore. I was growing tired with merely practicing writing and wanted to transition to writing for publication in a group environment. It didn’t help that my current group only focused on transitory works, never to revisit them. We also only gave each other positive feedback to keep the inner critic at bay. And that was the problem. I wanted criticism – the good and the bad – so I could get better. Only knowing what I was doing well wasn’t an accurate picture of my abilities overall.
I happened to find a listing in the local paper for a writing group that was looking for new members pursing publication. The ad stressed they were looking for serious, professional writers. I wasn’t sure that was me. Sure, I was writing full-time with the goal of publication, but I would not call myself professional, since I was still unpublished. But I thought it couldn't hurt to call for more info. After talking to the organizer, she assured me that I’d fit right in and added me to the mailing list.
I was really excited to be apart of something where publication was a goal, but all my insecurities came back with a vengeance. What if everyone else was awesome and more experienced than me? I didn’t want to be the one holding everyone back. Then there was the issue of the writing sample. This was my first impression with these folks – they would see my writing before they’d see me, and I didn’t want to eff it up.
After a lengthy internal debate, I decided to submit the first five pages of my historical romance novel because I was getting ready to enter a contest and wanted my submission to benefit from the other members’ critiques. (This later turned out to be fortuitous because of Editor X’s full request, but I did not know that at the time.) I had other pieces of course, but I wanted to tinker with them a bit before I sent them out. The romance novel on the other hand was fresh in my mind. But what if the other members hated romance and wouldn’t be able to get past the genre to assess my writing?
But then the other samples from the other participants came in. One incomplete and two finished literary short stories, one comic book script, and a rough introductory chapter to a nonfiction book. A good mix, and nothing in the samples suggested these people would be out of my league. As I started preparing my critiques in anticipation for our meeting, I realized I had a lot to contribute as I went through the different pieces. All the classes I took, all the books I read, the techniques I taught myself were all coming together in a real way. I had internalized so much in working on my own stories, it was easy to overlook the techniques I used almost instinctually. But when looking at other people’s work with fresh eyes, all the tips and tricks I learned were easier to apply and showed me just how far I’d come.
We had our first meeting the last week in April. Just like before, I was terrified. I arrived at the café we’d be meeting at a bit early and sat in the parking lot trying to calm down. When I finally got out of the car and met the others, it was clear we were all in the same position. Some had started subbing already but the rest were people like me – close to sending things out but in need of guidance and support. We went around the table, discussing each piece. When we got to mine, I was thrilled to find that people weren’t turned off by the genre and had some constructive things to say about the piece (which bolstered my courage to send the manuscript off to Editor X the following day).
I’m still meeting with my old writing group, and am looking forward to the second meeting of my new group in two weeks’ time. Each one serves as an outlet for different facets of writing. Here are a few of my guidelines in participating in writing groups:
- Joining a writing group can help cement your identity as a writer.
- A writing group can be a safe environment to develop your craft and interact with other writers.
- Be aware of how the writing group’s scope will and will not help you in developing your craft.
- Critiquing other people’s work can help put your own writing in perspective.
- Never underestimate how the support of others can help you on your writing journey.
And finally, here are a couple links to other posts from the past couple of weeks that deal with writing groups that may be of use to you:
How having a critique partner can improve your writing from The Graceful Doe - a discussion of the benefits of working with a critique partner (applicable to writing groups) and recommendations for handling the critique process.
Guidelines for Author Critique Groups from Sylvia Dickey Smith Books - More guidelines for engaging in the critique process.
20 Questions for Test Readers from yingle yangle - a handy list of questions to ask when requesting feedback and to keep in mind when critiquing other people’s work.
Writing Group post series from Writers & Artists:
Part 1 – Every Writer Needs Readers
Part 2 – Establish Your Goals
Part 3 – Learn from Others
Part 4 – Quality Not Quantity
Happy writing (alone or with company)!