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Should writers be part of a writing group?

Writing groups – what is your opinion of them? Do you think they they’re a brilliant way of stoking our creative fires in a  supportive environment, or is our precious time better spent getting down to writing, rather than just chatting about it?

Best-selling author Zadie Smith said one ought to ‘Avoid cliques, gangs, groups. The presence of a crowd won’t make your writing any better than it is.’ But then there are notable groups through history such as The Bloomsbury Group (e.g. Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster) and The Inklings (e.g. J.R,R Tolkien and C.S. Lewis) whose members consistently claimed that their creative companions only helped to enrich their work.

The Bloomsbury Group

So, what’s the deal? Can these kinds of groups be helpful to us as writers, or do they provide yet another layer of procrastination to join hands with Facebook, twitter and all their web-based, time-sapping cousins? After all, we cannot get down to the physical act of bums on seats and words on a page whilst talking about where our writing is or isn’t working, can we?

I spent years firmly in the No Writing Group camp. A couple of less than inspiring experiences left me determined to just get on with it. I remember one in particular when a writer read out one of his pieces of work, laughing uproariously at his own jokes that were completely lost on the rest of us in the room and that painful, prolonged silence at the end when it came to listeners providing feedback. What on earth, I wondered, was I doing there?

But all of that changed not long ago when a scriptwriter friend suggested a few of us try getting together to bounce some ideas around. I avoided her email for as long as I could, but then surprised myself. Because instead of politely declining  her offer, I found myself typing Why not?

The results, I can’t deny it, have surprised me hugely. Being part of a writing group has challenged me, putting me out of my comfort zone (I was the child at school who always preferred working alone) and it is helping to keep me accountable. I am feeling so inspired by this group and suspect wherever I live and whatever I’m doing, I shall be seeking out other writers to help me see my work in a new, necessary light.

Why writers groups can be helpful:

  • Needless to say, writing can be so solitary; lonely even. Most writers are fine with this solitary pursuit. However, you will automatically begin with a common interest. Only other writers will understand what it’s like to get your 20th rejection letter, have people ask why you haven’t had your book published, ask what your ‘real job’ is or truly appreciate what a rigorous discipline it is to complete a full novel / script / collection of short stories etc.
  • As we all know, we are often too close to our work, so the feedback we receive can be invaluable, making small but powerful differences to our writing.
  • Listening to other people read our stories can be illuminating. We can get something valuable from this that we cannot get even when reading aloud to ourselves (of which I am a big advocate – click here to read why)
  • A group provides an exciting network of knowledge about local cultural events, brilliant books to read, writers tips and literary / creative know-how.

How to set up a writers group:

  • You may think you don’t know other writers in your area but you will be amazed how many people there are out there who long to write. Don’t limit yourself to experienced or ten-times published authors. In fact, I don’t really like the term ‘aspiring writer’. If you write, you’re a writer. Full stop.
  • Don’t let the group get too big. Any more than five or six you may be struggling with that dynamic that can be so potent amongst smaller groups.
  • Don’t limit yourself to one or two hours. Give yourself the entire morning, afternoon or evening. Once a month is a good place to start and take it from there.
  • It can be fun to rotate around houses and let different people play ‘host’, providing coffee / cake / lunch / wine!
  • You may want to stick to the same genre within your group i.e. fiction, life writing, poetry which automatically gives you something in common with the others. But then again, you may decide you want to widen this remit. See what works for you and your group.
  • It is SO important to say what we like about the writing of others as well as suggesting revisions.
  • You can make some rules, but don’t be dogmatic about them. For example, does it feel more helpful to read work for the first time before the meeting or during it? Let the group develop organically until you have found a process and rhythm that works for all members and feels right.
  • If you are not clicking with your fellow writers after some time, don’t despair. There are plenty of other writers out there who are longing for some kind of writing community.

The most important thing in all of this is the willingness to listen to (and/or read) the work of others and be respectfully honest about it. And then, when you are brave enough, to share your own work. Everybody’s writing – yes, even the work of a ten times published author – can benefit from a fresh perspective.

What is your experience of writers groups? I’d love to hear about it.

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