One of the most beneficial acts you can do as a writer is letting more than one set of eyes peek at your work. It’s nerve-wracking and scary to have your work out there for others to scrutinize and judge…even if that’s what us writer’s want in the long run. Other people see things that you gloss over because you live and breathe your story and it’s difficult to step back and see it from a new perspective. Writing groups, with more reasons than merely to give feedback, are essential to taking the next step forward in your writing career. Problem is, just like you have to scrape the sludge from your writing, you have to dig a little bit to find a good group.
The focus of this piece will be how to identify a toxic group with two easy observations.
I could write a plethora of entries on writing groups and their positivity, but time is of the essence. Wisely using the time we’re given is crucial and therefore you will want to know right away if a group isn’t worth your time.
First red flag: Lack of continued participation
Everyone gets busy. As one who’s writing novels, working a part time job, keeping my wife happy, in a writing group, and diving into far too many hobbies, I understand we fill the time with more obligations and work. So if your group doesn’t meet at least once a month, it’s going to fail. It’s kind of how the world works, people like consistency. Especially if you’re looking for feedback on your novel and you can only get through a chapter a month—sorry friend, that’s gonna be a long road. It’s hard to stay motivated for a group that cancels every other month or keeps putting things off.
On a participant by participant level, if an individual is constantly not reading your work, it might be time to move on. Sometimes my writing group has eight submissions a week, that’s a lot of reading in one week! It’s understandable if a person doesn’t get to all of them or misses one every so often (are group meets every week and that’s not possible for everyone—keep that in mind. I don’t go every week either). What’s a problem is when an individual continues to have this behavior. It sets a tone for the group, that it isn’t a priority. You don’t want to be in a group where the priority isn’t helping one another or brushing it off to the last minute.
Red flag number 2: The attack vs the Critique
As a writer, you have to develop a thick skin. I know putting your work out there is hard, what’s even harder is taking criticism. Hearing someone tear your work apart, even in a constructive way, is like needles to the chest.
So as you scream inside: “How can you not see this! You said what about my favorite character?! Do you know how hard I worked on this gahhh!” Remember, these people are helping you.
If your group is cordial, it will be advice you need to hear. What you don’t need to hear is the attacker rather than the critique…er?
This is the person who tells you how wrong your story is because they’ve read a dozen (insert genre type) and never seen it done this way. Or in this (insert genre type) you always focus on (this generic advice) over (insert snooty comparison). You can call these types of individuals “I know it all because I’m writing this genre and have experience.” Comparatively, the beauty of writing groups is you have people in your genre (and outside) that come with knowledge of what they’ve read and that can be an asset. But the “I know it all because I’m writing this genre and have experience” hinder others thinking their way is the only way and trying to shove that mantra down your throat is annoying and time-consuming.
The major red flag is when the individual attacks the writer, not the writing. Once in our group, a submission had a reference to a bird. They named the bird, it was a morning in the scene, I don’t remember it verbatim, but I remember his response. Instead of giving some advice, said individual opened with, “clearly you don’t know about this “type of bird,” they don’t chirp in the morning they do blah blah blah. You haven’t done your research this is all wrong.”
Sure, maybe this writer had the wrong information on the way the fucking bird chirps, but that shouldn’t goad someone into attacking the person as a writer. I mean I invented a word once (or thought I did) and a fellow group member pointed out it was a type of fish. Didn’t demean me, he made me aware. There is a chasm between awareness and rudeness.
Don’t be Mr/Mrs. Rudeness. And if that is your actual last name…your ancestors suck.
If you witness either of these two red flags, you might be in the wrong group. What helps with these types of writers is having group moderators to keep things moving forward swiftly and safely. They tend to deter the group from falling by the wayside and reminding others of the rules on critiques. Get good moderators or become one yourself.
I’ll keep you updated on writing groups, but with these two observations under your belt, you’ll be ready to see if the group is worth your time.
Until next time,