The Writing Group: To Group or Not To Group

The following guest post comes from the very lovely and talented Jess Faraday, author of Affair of the Porcelain Dog, a novel that has been getting some serious buzz and some nice accolades.

You can find Ms. Faraday on her official blog at http://jessfaraday.com/.

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The Writing Group: To Group or Not To Group
Jess Faraday

Hi Everyone!

About a year and a half ago, I had the good fortune to sell my first novel Affair of the Porcelain Dog. Perhaps ‘good fortune’ isn’t the best term to use. There was more hard work involved than luck. And it wouldn’t have happened at all without the consistent support of my writing group: a small, hardworking cadre of writers who voluntarily suffered through four drafts of the manuscript and still managed to find astute observations each time.

I wouldn’t say that it’s essential to have a group, but it certainly helps. For one thing, you probably won’t get much out of friends and loved ones besides “it’s great”…whether or not that’s true. For another, other people going through the same process are more likely to be able to point out flaws that non-writers might not see.

But there are so many kinds of writing groups–and so many ways for groups to fail. How do you find the right one?

A simple search for writing groups turns up a dizzying array of choices. Big or small? Online or in person? Formal or informal? Structured feedback or free-form? Moderated? Open Membership? One specific type of writing, or any type? Paid or free? Hierarchical or consensus? These are just a sample of the parameters you might encounter, and each one will affect your experience with the group.

I can’t tell you what kind of group is right for you, specifically, but I can give you the most important piece of advice: know yourself.

Online or In-Person?

Some people find the anonymity of an online group less intimidating than meeting with people face-to-face. Some people find it easier to give an honest analysis in writing, especially when it comes to pointing out perceived flaws in someone’s work. And many of us find it easier to read, rather than to hear what doesn’t work for other readers.

A flip side of this is that many people don’t take the time to be diplomatic online. It’s easy to offend people–even when you don’t mean to–when they can’t see your face or hear your tone of voice. And if you’re having a bad day, it’s easy to misinterpret what someone else says about your work, even if it was meant in the most helpful way.

Think carefully about which would work best for you. Or try one of each. The format of the group isn’t as important as how well the format suits you.

Structured or Free-Form?

Whether a group meets online or in person, I’ve found it helpful for the group to have guidelines and expectations. One might think that a free-for-all provides the greatest flexibility, but I’ve found it a lot harder to get useful feedback without a few rules.

Reciprocity

Let’s face it: we’re all more interested in getting feedback about our own work than in taking time away from our projects to give feedback to others. Nowhere is this more apparent than in a group with no rules or requirements. While a couple of people may initially make a good-faith effort, I’ve seen too many unstructured groups fizzle under the weight of people tossing out pieces for crit, not giving anything in return, then getting frustrated when no one lauds their genius.

At the minimum, a group needs to have guidelines for reciprocity: members need to give in order to get. This has the added advantage of weeding out people who are only looking for a pat on the back.

Structured Feedback

Having an agreed structure for critique–ie; what specific information members need to provide when reviewing another member’s work–can provide much more useful information than “this is great!” or “ack.” Establishing diplomacy guidelines–ie; “this piece of dialogue seemed out of character” as opposed to “wow, this sucked”–can also cut down on hurt feelings. For in-person groups. having an agreed meeting structure–for example, covering a set number of member contributions each meeting–will help keep the group on track and keep the group from turning into a coffee klatch.

Group Size

I currently belong to two writing groups–one online and one in-person. Both groups are capped at about eight people. To my experience, a small group means that we can cycle through more members’ work more quickly. It also means that each person’s work can be examined more thoroughly and given more personal attention.

A larger group has the advantage of providing a wider audience for each work. It also means less personal connection between members–which some writers prefer. At the same time, it also means your work might get lost in the shuffle. And, at least in large online groups, there are always people who want feedback about their own work, but can’t be bothered to look at other members’ contributions.

Again, structure is crucial. I have belonged to two very large online groups in the past. One had moderated membership and a reciprocity requirement (ie; members had to critique one member’s work per week, whether or not they submitted anything themselves). The other had open, unmoderated membership, no structure, and no requirements. The first (over 5,000 members) is highly regarded and still going strong after more than a decade. I drifted away from the second after it became clear that the majority of people wanted an audience for their own work, but weren’t willing to provide more than a token “good job”–if that–for anyone else.

It doesn’t matter how large the group is, beyond how well that size fits with your needs. However, I’ve found that for all sized groups, moderation, reciprocity and structure are key.

 Paid or Free?

For me, this has never been a question. Who has the money to join a paid writing workshop?

On the other hand, there are advantages to for-profit workshops. First, they know that they’re competing with thousands of free workshops. They know that they must offer something that free workshops don’t. Often, it’s access to a professional: an author, an editor, an agent, a publisher, or a writing instructor. If you’re just starting out, or are seeking a little something extra from your group, a paid workshop may be the way to go.

Also, in a paid workshop, whether a class or a group organized by someone in the field, everyone there is serious enough to have committed money to the effort. So the chances of getting quality feedback from your workshop-mates increases.

However, if you do your research and find a group that fits your needs, there’s no reason that you can’t have as fulfilling an experience with a free group as you can with a group with paid membership.

Where to Go From Here

If you’re looking for a face-to-face writing group, I suggest starting your search at your local bookstore, library, or writers’ professional organization. You can browse hundreds of online writing groups right here on LJ–if you do your research, you should be able to find one that works, or you can start your own. Good luck!

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