I’ve been part of the writer group London Writers’ Cafe for almost two years now and I find it completely invaluable to my writing life. But I know writing groups are often criticised. There’s an infamous Buzzfeed article which always has me in stitches If Jane Austen Got Feedback From Some Guy In A Writing Workshop. I won’t say that I haven’t encountered these types readers before. They do exist.
But aggressively helpful readers aside, writers groups are an indispensable part of being a writer for several reasons. But only if you use them in the right way. So here are my top tips for writers groups and how to make it an effective part of your writing life.
Find the right one! – You have to find the right writers group for you. I’ve been to writers groups at university and then one other when I came to London before finding the London Writers Cafe. It’s important to find one which hits certain boxes. First, it has to be well run. Maybe it’s a big group with hundreds of members like ours, or a group of friends meeting up in a cafe, but there has to be structure and commitment or else it will just fall by the wayside. Our group is run by the incomparable Lisa and Liz who put heart and soul into the group and it really shows.
It’s also best you find a group which has a mix of people. If you plan only to write a particular genre, then by all means, find a Sci-fi writing group or a Crime writing group. But I find that listening to someone’s work outside my genre can often inspire me to think about my own work in different ways.
Commitment – I see lots of people joining the Writers group and only coming to one or two sessions before disappearing. Usually, they’ve come just to read out their own work. I personally feel you this is the worst way to use a writers group. I rarely read out my own work, but I go to all the meetings and I find I get so much out of it. Hearing and learning from other people means I always walk away inspired.
Learning to take constructive criticism – Oh dear. But it’s an essential part of being a writer. Or, at least, a writer who wants to be published one day. When I first started at the London Writers Cafe, it took me a fair few months before I was brave enough to read and I’m glad I waited. It gave me a chance to listen to other receiving constructive criticism and realizing how ugly it can be when the writer decides to take it personally. It also massively affects how much you can get out of the group and how useful it is. I’m not saying it’s easy.
So go ahead! Have a drink. Throw your head back and cackle madly. What do these idiots know? Clearly, they don’t understand your particular brand of genius. Wait until I win the Man Booker prize, they’ll see.
Then, go home and look at the notes. I find defensiveness breaks down like this; two-thirds of your anger is because you already know. Let’s face it, you were reading it out at the group because you suspected it wasn’t quite perfect, and you were right. The rest of your defensiveness is a mixture of ‘but I put so much time into it, it’s all wasted’ and ‘but I liked it…’ First, no time is ever wasted in writing and it’s never going to be right first time around. And second, if you like it, great! If your ambition is to write things you’re happy with, you’re already there. But the people giving constructive criticism are the people you want to sell to. If they aren’t seeing it, go back and try again.
Learning to give constructive criticism – In many ways, this can be harder than taking criticism. Very few people are expert readers but ‘we know what we like’. There are a few literary writers in my group. Unfortunately, literary writing is simply not my cup of tea. Sometimes we have writers of romantic fantasy. Again, not my area. But you have to learn to read and judge everyone’s work but its own merits.
There’s a difference between a criticism on a technical point, i.e. you’ve switched a character’s name halfway through the page and a reader’s opinion, i.e. I personally don’t find this character very likable. A technical point needs to be corrected. An opinion needs to be taken into account by the writer – if no one likes the character, could the character be wrong? That’s for the writer to decide, not for the reader to insist it’s wrong.
I’m actually planning a post about how to constructively criticise a writer’s work, so look out for that next week.
Take it all with a pinch of salt – having said how important constructive criticism is, it’s also worth remembering that sometimes a writer’s group can be a bit like the blind leading the blind. This is where commitment comes back in. I’ve been going to this group for a long time now so I know everyone’s work and style. I know who writes like I do and who probably wouldn’t like my style of writing so I can weigh their decisions in different ways. For example, Lisa, the lady who runs our group is a literary writer, so our styles really don’t match! But I greatly value her opinions because she’s very intelligent with her advice, writes amazingly and works in publishing so knows her business. But that doesn’t mean everyone who reads it is going to be right and it’s worth taking all criticism as advice rather than edict. As I say, most of the time, you’ll already know what’s wrong and you’re generally just looking for confirmation.
Hello. My name is Melanie and I’m a writer. At the end of the day, a writers group is a bit like any other support group out there. Most groups end in the pub, drinking and chatting. Writing is lonely. You can spend most of your free time at your computer and never see anyone outside of work. At a writers group, you can bond with people just like you. People who understand the pain!