Writing Groups and Writers, a Match Made in Heaven or Hell?

by Sherwood Smith

That was the provocative topic for a panel recently. The description went like this: Many consider critiques from their writers’ group a valuable part of their submission process. Others tend to believe that writers’ groups tend to dilute individual style, tending toward “groupthink.”

Someone was asking me about writing groups just the other day.

Okay, true story. Years and years ago (twenty or so) when I was reading slush for a small zine, my co-editor and I used to send personal rejections, rather than boilerplate. Though it was a teeny zine that didn’t pay, writers were so desperate for any kind of feedback that we got a ton of subs. One time we got a story—lively, full of promise—from a certain city. The story was flawed by cliche plot devices as well as prose, and grammar and spelling errors.

We touched on that in our rejection, encouraged the writer, and figured we were done. Very soon after, we got a story that felt similar to that one, and lo and behold, it was from the same city, but sent by a different name. It reminded us enough of the previous story that we wondered if the first writer had changed their name. Then bam, bam, two more stories, same city, and the thing is, the stories all shared a lot of the same errors: familiar plot devices and character types, certain words misspelled, grammar mistakes, etc. When we wrote to the last one, we said there was no need to change names every time they sent in a submission.
Well, we got a hurt letter back saying that they were four different writers, and each wrote about different things—one always wrote SF, another about elves, the third always did fairy tales, the fourth urban fantasy. They had been a writer’s group for many years, met frequently, and critiqued each other’s work thoroughly before they sent it out. They were doing everything that professionals suggested for writers who wanted to go pro.

The problem was, they were reinforcing one another’s weak points because those weak points were invisible to the group. Another problem was that they had worked together so long that their stories were not just similar in prose errors, but in feel.

They had begun writing for one another.

I once told someone about that group, who said, “Well, the problem is that they weren’t really professional. You have to have a workshop with at least one pro.”

I found that answer irksome for two reasons. First, those writers believed they were being professional, as they were following a pro’s advice to the best of their ability. Also, their group was what they had. You can’t go order up a “pro” just because you happen to need one.

In the years since, I’ve come to a third observation: that professional groups can have their own problems. (By professional I mean either run by writers who have sold fiction to the big six, or for profit workshops, or some combination thereof.)

The first and most obvious was the group that prided itself on flaying the members by extra harsh critiquing methods. They seemed to feel that a critique wasn’t successful until the author on the hot seat ended up in tears.  That seems to me a recipe for bullying and grandstanding, but some have been very proud of belonging to such groups. (Or maybe just surviving them!)

Then there were the workshops that  people paid to attend, but from which attendees returned to their friends with advice that sounded appalling—send out a story a week, or in another case, follow the ‘clinic’s recipe for a sure-file novel sale (this outline was the hoariest clichés). What to say to the proud graduate? So many times, it’s like when people ask “Do you like my new sweetie?” or “How do I look in this outfit?” They do NOT want to hear what you really think, especially if they paid down good money.

But those are workshops. What about professional writing groups? Well, there was one group of well-known pros who had all become so comfortable with one another that there was a gradual falling off in quality of their work, according to reviewers, until it seemed that none of them could sell to the big publishers anymore, though once they had been industry darlings.

I realize that this is beginning to sound like “writing groups are bad.” That is not what I’m saying. There are also famous and successful writing groups, like the Inklings. In my generation, the Scribblies—all of whom have distinctive voices, yet successful careers to this day. There’s the Blue Heaven group, which has produced terrific writers.

I suspect that to stay successful a group needs people at all levels of writing, people who write different types of thing, and new blood. Otherwise, there is that danger of getting too comfortable, and writing for one another.

Some writers avoid the problem altogether by avoiding groups. But then there’s the problem of feedback. Some writers don’t want it, but many do, or discover that they need it.

For those who need feedback, fresh eyes are crucial. Old friends who love our stuff can not only reinforce habits that we are not aware of that are keeping us from improving, but by degrees we might begin writing for them. And unless their taste is either universal or so fine it reaches the literary empyrean, we’re earnestly heading right for a rut, while we think we’re doing everything right, and of course all the praise feels good.

Then there’s the fact that finding fresh eyes can be a problem. That’s the eternal search for many writers. So they join various writing groups on-line, or . . . it’s back to the workshops, like Clarion or Odyssey, which are six weeks long, or Viable Paradise, which is eight days. Then there are face to face ones—the one I visited last week was GLAWS, the Greater Los Angeles Writers Society. This group was enthusiastic, friendly, and full of talent.

I was a part of Viable Paradise last year, and will be this year. I loved the collegial atmosphere that also managed to be supportive. I liked the intensive one-on-one sessions as well as the group critiques. And talking to industry pros was a real treat. Because the session was a week, there was no chance of developing a group-think, though I believe that many VP grads form enduring friendships with other members; in fact, some years have been getting together to trade news and manuscripts for a while, now.

But not everyone can afford these workshops. There are some free online workshops like Critters, Absolute Write, and Hatrack River. I am acquainted with the people who run all three. They try to bring in fresh ideas and they monitor forums to ward off trolls and bullies. There are many other groups out there, some with their proponents and nay-sayers, but like writing processes, not every group is a perfect fit for every writer. Giving them a try is the best way to see if they work for you.

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Writing Groups and Writers, a Match Made in Heaven or Hell? — 30 Comments

  1. “I suspect that to stay successful a group needs people at all levels of writing, people who write different types of thing, and new blood. Otherwise, there is that danger of getting too comfortable, and writing for one another.”

    I think, in the end, when you’re dealing with people qua people, you have to deal with the fact that the motivation to work hard isn’t natural, the motivation to be lazy is big and heavy and obvious. One of the best things about having a group of people at all levels of writing (within a certain range) is that you allow a bit of competitiveness in. Though we say writers groups are supposed to be supportive, not supposed to make you cry, a little bit of, ‘I know, if I work harder, I can totally pull off something that’s better than that other person,’ can be lovely and motivating.

    Of course, you also need to have people who have some identity as a writer. In my group we only do genre fiction, and we typecast our writers very thoroughly, trying to make sure they’re fitting their proposed genres. This can be beneficial, if they’re writing a mystery without any mystery, it’s good to be reminded of the big picture. But it can also be dangerously overdeterministic to someone who’s just trying to figure out what sort of book they’re writing. We have one author who is writing an epic fantasy with some romance sensibilities. Some of the more vocal people in the group want to get her to admit she’s writing romance, even if that’s not what she wants to be writing, because they doubt she can pull off the action and drama that the fantasy requires. I say push yourself, write what you want to write, not what you think you can write, and I know I need to keep fighting for that, because it is too easy to slip into groupthink. I am the new blood in the group, and I must take that responsibility seriously.

    Thanks for reminding me! Promote dissent!!!

  2. Interesting thoughts, Cara. I do think that one cannot underestimate the social element in writers groups that meet regularly, even if no one is being lazy. The social being might conflict with the writer being.

    In the case of the fantasy writer, the group might be giving problematical advice, as a romantic fantasy is a different bird than a romance with fantasy elements. Or a Fantasy with romantic elements.

    I’m glad you’re encouraging that person to write what she wants to write. Once she gets that down, well, there’s always the rewrite!

  3. One danger of any group–I’ve never been in a writers’ group but I imagine it applies–is that attention does not get evenly distributed. One person either tries to dominate or another person does a “poor me” and kind people rush to support this person and don’t get their own needs taken care of.
    I suppose there have to be expectations set up from the beginning and members have to stick to them?

  4. i think:

    . spreading out one’s interactions (some in group, some to individual betas, some to wherever) gives you a better chance of learning to evaluate feedback

    and

    . being selective about how much one changes one’s writing in response (for me it seems to be a remarkably consistent 50% per critique, with about three notable exceptions)

    …gives one a decent chance of improving one’s work without losing one’s voice.

    spoken like yet another likely-unpublishable amateur, of course 🙂

    (though now i want to brag that i *did* just get a professional textbook chapter published, i realize that’s a different ballgame 😉

  5. Pilgrimsoul: Yeah, that social part of getting together is a tough one to navigate around. The charismatic member is usually going to get more attention, unconscious reader investment/sympathy than the old frumpy member with the scratchy voice.

    Lyo: yeah, these things are so hard to quantify. Sometimes I wonder if, say, James Joyce, had been part of a writers group, even a good one, would he have bowed to people saying “Your text just doesn’t make sense. So hard to follow!”

    But then I think of the writer in another workshop who insisted that everyone in the group was not sensitive to her elevated style, her poetic soul, when the others thought the work in question purple, (that is, overwrought, and every idea repeated at least twice with ever more flowery adjectives festooning sentences)–I guess it comes down to finding that balance between one’s inner vision and what readers can embrace.

  6. Online groups avoid the social aspect and can easily be larger, but there is the issue of whether you can know the people and how good they are at advice.

  7. “Then there’s the fact that finding fresh eyes can be a problem.”

    That is the big problem.The best balance, if one has time for the requirements, is one of the big online groups along with a couple regular readers. That way you get fresh eyes plus a consistency check from those who are familiar with your work. (I say that as someone who writes series.)

  8. I’ve been in a number of writing groups over the years. Some sort of petered out, one, where I was a founding member, is still going strong thirty plus years later (without me, alas–I moved away). There are a number of things that help me get good stuff from the group:

    * knowing the people I’m working with. One guy in a group I was in was really good about mechanical plot points, but could drive you crazy explaining why each typo was an offense against spelling or grammar. Outlining what sort of help I was looking for–“just mark the typos if you like; what I really need eyes for is whether the plot is working…” didn’t work with him. He had to explain everything. So I let him, but I learned what to listen for. Similarly, I’ve been in a group with a woman who saw everything through the lens of romances, and saying “I’m trying to do something different here” didn’t help her. But she was really helpful about the romantic elements of the story, so I took that away and used it.

    * a writer’s group, as much as it’s about getting crit from other writers, is about giving critiques. I think a lot of the benefit I’ve gotten over the years has been in analyzing why someone else’s story is working or isn’t for me, and applying those things to my own writing.

    * remembering that, in the end, it’s my story. Early on, it was easy to start trying to rejigger everything to fix every objection, or to try to fix things the way my readers thought I ought to. But my name goes on the cover, as it were. It may be that, because I had already published a couple of books before I went to my first workshop, it was a little easier for me to hold on to my writing-self (but only a little).

    When I started writing I’d never heard of beta readers or writers’ groups, so I probably walked in with a certain amount of guardedness about changing my intent or style. I also had a huge amount of anxiety about asking anyone to read anything I hadn’t already judged good enough to go to the editor–it felt like an imposition, and why would anyone want to read something raw? Knowing that I was providing a service in return (and seeing how raw some other submissions were) really helped with that.

  9. Beth: that’s a very good point about consistency. I was reading a review just yesterday in which someone complained that the main characters in the series seemed to have altered personality totally. A book they might otherwise have enjoyed, had this been the their first encounter, had ruined the series for them.

    Madeleine, so true about critiques. I believe it forces us to think a different way, and we can bring that thinking back to our own stuff, and see it fresh.

  10. I run a workshop in Bethesda, MD, and I always tell the attendees that there is a virtue in pure number. If I dislike your hero, feh. What do I know? If two of us dislike your hero, coincidence! But if three, five, the entire group of readers finds your hero grating and sexist and worthy of being scraped off the bottom of a shoe, then maybe you do have a problem if that is not what you wanted.
    In one classic session, we read a story which ended with the hero and heroine on a windy beach. Unfortunately the writer was so lyrical, so elliptical, and so full of metaphor, that it was kind of hard to make out what was actually happening. We debated it, and finally I took a vote. Half the class insisted they were having sex on the sand, and cited textual evidence to back this up. The other half held that he murdered her and flung the body into the surf. There was text to support this viewpoint too. When appealed to, the author cried out that we were morbid, and of COURSE it was sex on the sand. But she had obviously failed to communicate clearly to the reader.

  11. I’ve had more success with online groups than r.l. groups. My first r.l. group completely ignored what I was looking for in a crit (what I need for each piece is different based on where it’s at in the process, i.e. an early draft versus something that’s about ready for polishing up) and shredded the piece so badly that I just didn’t WANT to go back any more. The second group just never pulled together. And I’ve had friends pay for workshops with big names end up not completing the workshop because it ended up all about the big name and the “little lowly writer” didn’t really get any help.

    Online, it really seems to depend on the size. I know some people swear by what was once the Del Rey workshop, but I found it less than ideal for a number of reasons ranging from being ignored to inconsistent crits to downright rudeness that the people who ran the workshop seemed uninclined to do anything about. I tried Hatrack, and the group I was put in fell apart almost as quickly as the one real life group I was in. There seems to be a balance that’s hard to achieve in a group in terms of membership level and administrator involvement. And I’ve found a lot of the better groups seem to be ones you pay for, which is something I can’t do right now.

    My solution was to start a group. Dreaming In Ink has been around for a decade. We keep it small (no more than 30 at one time), we have a minimum requirement for number of crits and what those crits should include, and as an Admin, I keep involved. The interesting thing has been that while we’ve had a fairly consistent core of writers, we have enough of a turnover to keep us on our toes. And we also allow all levels of writing ability and interest into the group: no one has to be published at the time they join, or even be interested in getting published. The biggest problem has been “return” critiques. We don’t require them (for a number of reasons), so sometimes we have members who critique everything in sight who don’t seem to get a lot of feedback themselves. We also get the occasional member who comes in, posts their one freebie, gets feedback, then disappears. But overall the mix of new and established writers and new and established members seems to work for us. New voices keep us from getting stagnate, and most the people who have been with us awhile are not what we would call “head patters” while at the same time they do become familiar enough with the styles of other members to take that into account.

  12. Domynoe: that sounds like a great example of the trial and error method of finding a group that works for everybody involved, including the crucial element of new blood.

  13. I’ve been writing for years with a small group in my small city–they are “all I’ve got.” The problem with this group is that they don’t understand the genres I write in, and keep wanting to apply the rules they’re learning at RWA. At first this was really discouraging, but eventually we learned enough about each other that I can get good feedback from them on certain levels, though the big aspects of plot and character sometimes are still not working. And the other thing that matters to me is having a deadline for finishing stories, chapters, revisions, etc. It’s easy for me to spin my wheels on trivia and stay stuck, but if I know I need to show something to the group on Tuesday, I’ll move along.

    I’ve also done a lot with Online Writing Workshop, which I’ve really liked, because I’ve encountered some excellent, professional readers who spent a lot of time and energy giving me good pointers–but because online groups work on the barter system (you have to critique others in order to get a critique), I also got a fair number of responses that were useless. Still, it’s my best access to other writers in my own fields of interest–though there is a charge, it’s not that much, but I know for many, even a small charge can be too much.

    I participated at Baen’s for awhile, but found the attitudes of some of the other reader/writers to be less than useful (for example, the one who said that he stopped reading my story because he really hated the main character on a moral level. I guess if he’d explained that in enough detail for me to make revisions, it could have helped, but I got the feeling that he was mainly wanting to tell me how moral he was).

    But for both online and in-person groups, it’s also been invaluable to have the experience of giving the critiques. Even though I’m an English teacher and am used to giving constructive criticism on non-fiction, academic writing, it’s an entirely different thing with peers writing fiction. It’s really helped me read my own writing with a little more critical difference. And just the moral support of sympathy with the struggles and celebration of the successes means a lot.

  14. Mamculuna: yes, giving critiques really can be beneficial for both parties. Though critiquing is a skill that needs to be learned as much as writing.

    I’ve heard mostly good things about OWW.

  15. Fascinating. I’ve heard good things about that Blue Heaven group and have been impressed by the members, and I’ve known many people who’ve been enthusiastic members of OWW. I pointed one young man toward Absolute Write, and he later told me it had made a lot of difference to him.

    The social being might conflict with the writer being.

    That line resonated with me. I think it’s one reason why I’ve felt put on the spot when I’ve been asked about my writing when I’m in a group setting (a party). I think that’s a reason why I wouldn’t want to be in a writing group that did discussions of one another’s writing. Eeep! I like one-on-one feedback, both giving and receiving.

    I like what Madeleine Robbins said about listening for the part of a person’s advice and critique that you can take. That makes good sense.

  16. It can also be interesting to consider how or if writer workshops function differently, focus differently, than writing classes per se, which are run by one person.

    I’m not teaching writing as creative writing these days, but I am teaching writing, because a history student who doesn’t possess the skills for clearly-written, well-organized prose isn’t going anywhere — the same with students in Lit courses, American Studies courses and any other Studies courses. U.S. students tend to be woefully bad writers even at the levels of seniors honors and even first year grad student levels (exceptions! always! And we adore them!).

    What I’ve been learning through these experiences is that teaching changes one’s own approach and thinking about writing enormously, at least in terms of how one consciously thinks about a writing project. One way to put this is that teaching, which is about breaking out all the elements, one-by-one, and then organizing them into a whole, forces one to consciously think in structuralist terms.

    This isn’t only the case with writing. Our friends who are now also teaching their art disciplines in everything from music to video art, have also come to this.

    Love, C.

  17. Foxessa: Or one thinks about how individuals learn. (Speaking from my own teaching experience.)

    I like that point about one person as opposed to a group.

    However, if there is a dominant person in a group, they can wrench things off the rails or else be inspiring, depending.

  18. Sherwood,
    While we instructors are around for eight days at VP, it officially runs Sunday evening to Friday evening for the students. Don’t want to disappoint them if when they didn’t get eight full days.

    Steve

  19. Another thing that is important to consider is that what works for one person may not for another. The same group that is tailor-made for me might be too harsh or too easy or too disorganized or too something else for you. Frequently there isn’t a “right” or “wrong” but simply finding what works for you.

    One guy who was considered an arrogant jerk by most people in our online workshop ended up giving me the best critique I’d ever had, and I learned more from him than anyone else. His snark was heavy but funny, and I didn’t feel like I’d been attacked (as some had) but instead finally “got it.”

  20. Since 1998 I’ve been a more-or-less regular attendee at Milford in the UK (www.milfordSF.co.uk) which is an annual one week event nominally called a ‘conference’ but actually more like a peer-group workshop where up to 15 writers get together to crit each other’s writing (up to 15k words in one or two pieces). I’m now part of the organising committee and maintain the website. Apart from a couple of us, the faces change every year with (currently) a core group of writers attending reasonably regularly. Usually we have a balance of approximately 50% newcomers to 50% returning participants, and there are always a few out-of-country writers. It’s only open to writers who have had at least one professinal sale, but this can be just a single short story, so experience varies tremendously. Some of our attendees are multiple-novel authors. Crits are honest but delivered even handedly, and the changeover of attendees every year means we don’t fall into a rut. It’s always the-same-but-different. It’s been running since 1972, so we must be doing something right.

    I’d love to attend Viable Paradise but I’m in the UK and can’t afford it. Ditto Clarion. Besides expense I work for myself and can’t take six weeks away from my business. So Milford is a great compromise and a marvelous writing-battery recharger.

  21. I’ve attended Milford (http://www.milfordsf.co.uk), the professional sff writing workshop in Wales. Everyone there has made at least one professional sale, though many of the regular attendees have done far more than that. What I like about it is that since most of the writers there are British I get a completely different view of my stories than I get from my regular writing group. Plus, well, it’s in Wales.

  22. Karen: that’s fascinating. I’d love to know what differences you perceived between British and American perspectives on the stories, if you can generalize.

  23. I’ve tried real life writing groups and came up against that problem of writing for the group instead of writing what I wanted. Each time I ended up taking a long break from writing because I’d begun to hate it.

    Since moving to a non-English country, I don’t have the opportunity to be a part of a r.l. writing group, so I joined Forward Motion Writers (http://www.fmwriters.com). It’s a wonderful mix of motivation, writing help and critiques. I’ve also used Critters which does great work too.

  24. I’ve been in a variety of writers groups, and learned a few things generally about giving (and receiving) critiques, plus some of the pitfalls of the group activity.

    The first group I was in was a circle of friends with a general shared interest in fantasy and SF. It started out well enough – we’d go around the circle reading sections of a work-in-progress. And give some responses after each reading. This worked well enough initially. I began to get some feel for how an audience would respond to the work. But it didn’t always go very deep in the criticism.

    But a change came when one personality came into the group, a rather domineering sort, who felt she knew everything about everything, either the details of whatever you put into your book or the mechanics of writing. On top of that, she would over-run anyone else’s comments. Rather than fight her, the group devolve into merely reading and patting each other on the back. I drifted out of that.

    Another group I still belong to, again a circle of friends (screenwriters), we have careful rules for our sessions. Material is read ahead of the meeting. The first thing when we begin, is what we call “the circle of love” – that is we go around and say something positive about what we read. Even if it is limited to “Congratulations on finishing this.” Then we launch into specific criticisms – but it is always geared toward what the writer has indicated is needed. In some cases, the writer is stuck with specific characters or situations because that’s part of the assignment they got. But generally, we allow ourselves to cut to the bone of the writing (not the writer!) because the object is to help the writer deliver the best work possible.

    By and large, that group is very good. But there does tend to be an undercurrent of group-think to it. Sometimes this can be good, but sometimes the group is just not connecting with the writer’s intent. There have been tendencies for the group to suggest avenues of storytelling that take the story way off into other directions. And it is hard for the writer in that situation to step back and go “No, that is NOT what my story is.”

    In a third group I’ve participated in, it mostly functions similarly to the screenwriting group, and there is mostly very good feedback from the members. The level of sophistication in the writers varies somewhat, but they’re mostly good. But there was one writer who seemed to feel his writing was wonderful and beyond need of further work. No matter how diplomatically you put it, you could not get him to register that he needed to do more work.

    He also did not understand some of the mechanics of presentation (we’re talking multiple fonts and distracting layout). We tried to be encouraging – he has a knack, it just needs more work – but he seems to have felt he couldn’t get what he needed from us. He went to another group, and apparently went through the same thing. I suspect he was not getting the “Oh that’s wonderful!” pats on the back that he wanted.

    Which is another danger in groups. Some people join not to polish their writing, but to get psychological strokes. They care more about being affirmed than about making the writing shine.

    But it does come back to trust. You need to trust those who are giving you feedback. And you have to hear everything not with your emotional responses, but with a critical ear for what will help you make the writing better.

    Sorry to run on so long!

  25. Sarah: that’s valuable info. And yep, no matter how carefully a group is set up, often times personalities will run all over the rules. We’re human, it happens.

  26. I’ve had such interesting experiences with workshops, critiques, and writing groups. My first writing conference, sponsored by BYU and known as the Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers Workshop, was an amazing experience. I learned how much I didn’t know and just tried to absorb everything I could. We workshopped with a published writer in a small (12-15) group setting for 5 days and also attended lectures, etc, by the faculty in the afternoon sessions. We also met and interacted with editors and agents at this conference. I couldn’t take down notes fast enough. I was lucky to have in my workshop group a great author, Betsy Partridge, known most famously for her non-fiction works, as the published faculty instructor, but additionally, there were a handful of other published authors in my group. Each had such fantastic insights to share/teach and the experience was incredible.

    I returned to the conference the next year as well, this time enrolling in the beginner’s class since I realized I knew so little and felt a good review of the basics would be valuable. Again, I had a great teacher, Rick Walton, and from this workshop group came my first writer’s critique group. This group met monthly for about three or four years. The value of meeting in a critique group for me was knowing that I would need to bring material with me to those monthly meetings so I was motivated to write. I think the experience in attending and contributing to a critique group in the beginning was worthwhile and continued to help me learn.

    I returned to the BYU conference the next year and this time around, the teacher/author was LIsa Wheeler. She had us send our PB manuscripts to her ahead of time so she could become familiar with at least one of our PB’s and could give us a one-on-one experience while at the workshop. Again, this was an amazing opportunity and I felt like I grew leaps and bounds from this workshopping experience.

    But here is where I started to learn about the integrity of the writer’s work. This really funny, witty, charming, great picture book I had written and workshopped the second year was the one I had sent to Lisa for that year’s workshop. She made some great suggestions and told me how the story was working and what was unclear, etc, so I re-worked the story and polished it based upon her recommendations. With each revision, the story was losing it’s wit and charm. But, it was a stronger story in a lot of other ways, so I continued on. Then, my last year in attending the conference, I brought that story with me again thinking that it was “ready” and that it would be the next great picture book to hit the shelves. I couldn’t wait to share it with my workshopping group. But, it didn’t meet with the acclaim I thought it would. It wasn’t perfect. I heard phrases like, “You need to change this?” and “Why did you do this?” and “This part is too long and takes away from the story” etc.. This group’s suggestions were the exact opposite from the group’s suggestions from the year before.

    An original reader said to me, “Where is that first story you wrote? The original was charming and freshly witty.”

    Sadly, I no longer know where that original was anymore. it was gone. I never could recapture that original charm.

    That has been my experience with everything I have written. The original pieces have a liveliness to them, but through revisions and listening to all of the voices out there, the pieces end up not my own anymore it seems. I haven’t been able to figure out how to keep them fun and whatever they started out to be because I don’t have the ability to see how to make them “better” without ruining them. Everything is so subjective anyway and what one person likes, half a dozen people don’t like. I need to be able to find a way to be true to my stories, but to have the quality of work that others will like them too because they are good stories, and because they are well-written.

    Currently, I am not attending any kind of critique group, haven’t attended any writing conferences for the past two years, and basically haven’t written anything fun or creative for a long while. Everything I’ve done lately is more technical writing. But also, seasons of life seems to be saying to me, it’s time right now to do other things. Hopefully some day I’ll get the creative juices flowing again and will succeed at polishing a work that I’m proud of.

    So, what is my opinion about writer’s groups? Until I can figure out how to say what I want to say in my stories and be true to that, I’m not sure a group structure of critiquing will do me much good. I think they can work for people just like workshops and conferences can work for people. Someday, they might work for me, but only after I acquire the skills I need to be a good writer.

  27. Greta, that can be a dismaying experience. Several above have alluded to similar situations–trying to please everyone. I guess it comes down to learning when to heed that inner voice, and when to take advice.

    I’ve heard it said that if one person in a group wants a change, it’s probably because they think the story should be more like they would write it. But if more than half independently (in other words, without copying a perceived leader) came to the same conclusion, then the chances rise that this change touches what might be a problem for a goodly number of readers.

    Even then, you face the same decisions: Am I writing this for others, am I writing it for me, am I communicating my ideas the best way I know how, or can it be bettered?

    No easy answers!

  28. Excellent points. I think writing is like any other human endeavour–it’s great to seek feedback, but at the end of the day, you’re responsible for yourself and your own performance. An established writer’s group can be great, especially when they know our foibles and call us on our rote behaviour.

    At the same time, it’s up to us to keep seeking new ways to improve, rather than staying safe and submitting our work to only one critique group or the same couple of beta readers. As one of the notes above points out, there is wisdom in numbers, so the more points of view you get on your stuff, the better. Still, the final decision–and responsibility–is yours alone.