The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

The Bad

The truth about writers’ groups.

I’ve belonged to many writers groups over the years, in several different areas of the United States. So I feel I am in a unique position to understand what makes up a good one.

A good writers group offers camaraderie and an understanding ear (something our non-writing friends cannot) as well as free editing, mentoring, growth and advice.

Questions to ask yourself to determine if a group you are considering is the right one for you:

Are the other writers your target audience? Do the others in the group read your genre?

If they don’t, you are likely to get many critiques asking what words mean, and correcting terms, word count and phrases that are common in the genre of your novel, but unfamiliar to those in the group. Not only is this time consuming and generally unhelpful in any practical sense, but it can actually damage your novel. Yes, I did say damage. If you are unsure of your skills you may concede to this pressure and end up leaching all the color and vitality out of your manuscript.

If you choose to participate in a group that reads mainly vampire novels and sci-fi, for instance, you are likely to run into problems with comprehension if you write say, romance, or literary.

Another question to ask yourself is:

Are the folks in your group writing at the same level as yourself?

If they are writing at a level much above yours and they are kind and mentoring folks, good for you! You’ve found a good group! Stay and glean all you can from these kind and giving people.

If, however, they are much more skillful than yourself (or even just think they are), but unkind and egotistical, then you are in for a hellish experience. One of the very first groups I belonged to as a young writer in Virginia was this sort. I always left feeling, not inspired, but depressed and anxious, and as if I would never attain the level of the other writers.

At the very least you will come away from a meeting like this with a feeling that your writing is worthless. Again, this can actually do damage, not only to your manuscript, but to your nascent view of yourself as a writer.

A final question you might ask is: are the others in the group serious writers?

By this I mean: do they write every day, or do they just doodle a bit when the feeling comes over them; when they feel inspired. There’s nothing wrong with this, by the way, but if you are serious about taking your writing all the way to a career, these hobbyists won’t be of any help to you.

Okay, that’s the Bad.

Now for the Ugly…yes, it can be even worse!

Ahhh…the uglies. If you’ve been in many writers’ groups you have undoubtedly encountered them. They come in many guises. But let me tell you about two of the most toxic I have encountered.

First there’s the Monolog-ist. This guy loves to hear himself talk. And talk. And TALK. He will monopolize the meeting (the meeting you’ve been looking forward to for days) to the point where folks begin looking at each other around the table to see if it’s only them, or if this guy really has been talking for 10 solid minutes. About his wife, or his job, or his political leanings, or his car, his house, his sex life, his dog, his shoelaces. Until you want to scream, “Dude, SHUT UP!

But that wouldn’t be nice.

So, you sit patiently and wait for him to wind down. You examine your fingernails, plan your grocery shopping list…waste your precious Saturday afternoon.

Another ugly that haunts some meetings is The Expert. The Expert knows more about your topic than you do. He will cite pseudo facts and give Wiki-links to back them up. If you dispute them he will challenge you to email him with your links after the meeting. The others around the table will listen and assume The Expert knows what he’s talking about…he certainly seems to. The Expert has a little of the Monolog-ist in him—because he will dispute your facts at length. For the first few meetings you may not mind this too much. After all, this guy really seems to want to help. But after going home to redo your research each time this occurs you soon discover The Expert is not really as knowledgeable as he pretends to be. Your research is solid, your facts irrefutable.

The Ugly

So, you rise to his challenge at the next meeting and politely suggest he stop checking your facts. The meeting degenerates into a brawl. No solid critiquing of your work or anybody else’s gets done. The Expert is quiet for a meeting or two, presumably chastened. But then one evening it’s His turn to give His opinion…and you see that maniacal gleam in his eye.

Even if you like the other writers in these groups, STOP GOING! If the group’s leader or the other writers do not rise up and control a tyrant, the group will just be a drain on your time, toxic to your life, and your work. Stop attending and look for another group. You’ll be so happy you did.

And now, at last, the Good  (always nice to leave on a positive note).

Good writers groups are out there. A good writers group has a leader(s) that directs the meetings and keeps them on track if they begin to stray. In a good group writers check their egos at the door on the way in. They are well-read, well-mannered and come from a wide range of life experiences. If they have something to say that might be hard to hear, they say it kindly. A good group is one where the writers respect each other.

Sound too good to be true? Well, it’s not. I have belonged to several. I belong to one now.

If you know what you’re looking for you’ll be able to find it. And if you can’t? Well then, Creative One, why not create your own group? Cruise the established groups in your area and find some good writers. Get to know them. The internet provides any number of venues to advertise and attract the sort of people you want to your group. One such venue is Meetup.com. Think about what you want the atmosphere of your group to be. What is the ideal you have in mind? Then set about making it happen.

The Good

Happy writing!

What are some of your writers group experiences? What advice would you give to a writer looking for a group?

15 thoughts on “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

  1. This is great information. I’ve never been part of a writer’s group (honestly, I’ve been scared off by the bad and the ugly and also haven’t found one…), but I’ve been thinking of it more lately. You’ve given me some good ideas and suggestions to think about; thank you!

  2. Gee, where can I find a good group like the one you describe? :-)

    It sounds like you have been around the block (to use a cliche), maybe more than once.

  3. Can I join your group? I’m like Julia; I’ve never joined a group before and have been leery to do so. But I know how helpful they can be too. Maybe it’s just finding that good balance among the members. Thanks for your thoughts!

    • You must be nearby to join, Leah, sorry. But you should start one out there in Cali. It’s wonderful to be a part of a community of writer friends. If you need tips on how to get it going I will help you :-)

  4. I LOVE my writers groups, and over the last three years I’ve been lucky to have 3 really great ones! That being said, I’ve also experienced my share of “ugly” groups.

    I remember one group member who refused to read my work for the next meeting because I had given her some constructive criticism at our last meeting, and she took offense. Which was strange, because I remember telling her I enjoyed her story, and that I thought it’d be even better if she developed this one character a bit more. I didn’t realize she’d be so sensitive!

    Good groups are hard to find, but in my opinion they’re worth the search!

    • Wow, she really was sensitive. (Spiteful too) People are so funny about their (our) work. I always try to be kind (and I’m sure you always are too, Natalia) but what’s the point if we can’t be honest? I think some folks just want to hear their work is wonderful and that’s it. No further work needed cause you’re a genius! (Heck- that’s what moms are for.)

      I love the group I belong to. I don’t always agree with everything everyone says, but a lot of it is spot on, and so very helpful. I always feel inspired when I leave a meeting!

  5. This is such a timely post for me, Cynthia. Thank you SO much. On Friday, I put a feeler out to a Phoenix-based group that was recommended. The organizer is out of the country currently, but will be responding back to me with the details. I never thought about the issue of ‘different genres’ being a bit of a stalemate, but – der – now that I look back on a few online groups I belonged to, that kind of critique DID HARM my writing. I was among mystery and genre writers as someone trying to write literary women’s fiction. They didn’t mesh so well… Nor did I end up meshing with the leader of the group, who stopped me from writing for TWO YEARS (the damage to my ego was that bad, but I now realize she didn’t have the expertise in my genre… at ALL). Do you happen to know of any groups in the Tucson area? I’ve been putting feelers out and coming up blank. With Tucson being such an artsy community, surely I could find a serious writing group. Thanks, again. Enjoyed this tremendously helpful post!

  6. HI Melissa,
    Here are two links to two groups down in your area. They are both on Meetup.com. You could contact them and go to a meeting, see if you click. Even if you don’t, you may meet some other writers you like.

    http://www.meetup.com/PIMAWritersForum/

    http://www.meetup.com/tucsonwriters/

    Sorry to hear about your bad experience. I can imagine what it must have been like to make you feel bad for two years. Been there myself. (((Hugs)))

    Let me know how it goes with these two if you decide to check them out.

  7. I couldn’t agree more. My writing group will celebrate its 15th anniversary this year. I have learned more from this group of gifted, generous women than any writing class I’ve ever taken. Sometimes we go through slumps when people don’t show up for a while, but then the pendulum swings and we get going again. Always, though, there is the support that makes a commitment to a long piece of fiction possible. We write different genres, fiction, non-fiction, memoir, poetry, and always learn from each other. Absolute writing group killer for me: people who spend more time whining about not being able to write than they do writing. That’s toxic in my book. Many thanks for the post.

    • I couldn’t agree more, Helen. Whining rather than writing is a downer. It annoys me no end when I hear folks less busy than myself say they have no time to write, too. Shut off the TV, I say :-)

      Glad to hear of another awesome group out there. 15 years is something to be proud of!
      Thanks for taking the time to stop by and read and comment, Helen.

  8. Thanks for the great advice here. It sounds like picking a writers’ group is a bit like selecting people for an important partnership. Separation and divorce might be at the end of some of the experiments.

    I only went to one writers’ meeting, a poetry workshop with South African poet Dennis Brutus when I was really young. No one wanted to talk to me about my poem, but they all liked each other’s a lot–so it wasn’t a great start. I’ll keep looking based on your good experience and advice, and maybe try again.

  9. Thanks for writing this. I’m a little hard pressed in my area to find a group but perhaps a shout out on Facebook may either bring a group to light or prompt us to start our own ! I’ll just need to make sure I don’t become one of the bad or ugly :)

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