Are you looking for that secret element to improve your writing? Do you wish you knew where you could get some personalized advice on writing, editing, or publishing from someone who knows your situation? Do you just need help getting motivated? There’s one answer to all these writerly problems, and I wrote for years before I found it: the writers’ group.
I’ve now been a member of a writers’ group for eleven years, and I’ve come to believe being in a writers group is the number one thing you can do to turbocharge your writing and career. It’s so essential, I would recommend it to any writer. I’m not sure there’s another way for most writers to get out the best writing we’re capable of. Here are the top six reasons to join a writers’ group:
I’ll admit it, sometimes I get jealous when another writer in my group really nails a scene. Or when one of the writers at the table inserts a phrase or a line of dialogue that perfectly reveals an aspect of one of their characters. Actually, I think envy can be a healthy emotion in writers. Especially when these are people I’ve known for months or years. Hey, I can write as well as that!
So why haven’t I?
A good writers’ group will make you think, “I’ve really got to up my game if I’m going to keep up with these guys!” When other writers are hot, when they bring in something that makes you say “Damn!” When they’re providing the group with a master class in how it’s done, you know it’s time to get to down to work on your own story or manuscript.
5) Seeing Others’ Mistakes
This is the flipside to competition: seeing the mistakes other writers make and avoiding them yourself.
You know, you can read all the advice you want about “show don’t tell,” but until you’ve heard another writer read their story that’s nothing but telling, you might not realize exactly what that advice means, or how mind-numbing it can be.
Or, after you’ve been in a writers’ group a while, you’ll come across so many cliches in book openings that you’ll instinctively begin to eschew them in your own works. (“John woke up, unable to remember how he’d gotten to the hotel room. He rose and checked his appearance in the mirror.”)
There are plenty of other mistakes you’ll encounter again and again. Because you’re not emotionally attached, and because you’re coming to it with fresh eyes and ears, it’s simply easier to notice these things in other peoples’ writing. Once you’ve come across these writing weaknesses a few times, it becomes a lot easier to notice when you’re doing it, too.
4) Getting Back on Track
Vacations are momentum killers for writers. The week before you go out of town is always crazy with preparations, and the week after you have to unpack and run all those errands you didn’t get to while you were gone. You can easily go two to three weeks without working on your work in progress. And once you’ve been away that long, you start to really dread getting back to it. After you haven’t worked on your project for a while, it’s hard to get back into the groove.
I find that going to my writers’ group after a period of inactivity on my writing gives me a recharge. It makes me ready to return to my work. Maybe it’s the positive comments I receive on my latest chapter. Maybe it’s being around other writers excited about their work. Maybe it’s simply thinking again about the writing process. Whatever the reason, after time off, I find a writers’ group meeting exactly the thing to get me to sit down at the computer and make those changes to my novel I’ve been meaning to, or finish that short story I started.
Of course, that’s not the only way writers go off track. Sometimes you can write every day, and still hit a wall. If I get stuck on a scene, or I can’t figure out how to resolve a plot point, I often take the problem to my writers’ group. In those cases, talking it out with other writers, many of whom have written about similar situations, can provide all sorts of ideas and new approaches.
So here’s another reason we can add to the list of why you should definitely be in a writer’s group: getting back on track when you’ve lost your way.
Okay, this is the one everybody thinks of when they imagine writers’ groups. Reading your latest chapter or story to the group and getting feedback. In fact, before I joined a group, I assumed the critique was the main point. Not so–it’s only number three on the list! But it is very important. I can’t tell you how many times my fellow writers have pointed out awkward passages, wrong words, or gaps in story logic I’d somehow missed.
There’s something about reading your work aloud that reveals weak or inconsistent writing that you missed when going over your work on the page. Maybe it’s just that hearing the words with your ears provides a different pathway to your brain. I sometimes catch as many errors in my work when reading it aloud at the group as all the other writers put together.
This is also where I think it’s important to join the right group. The thing I like about my group is how the other writers have a way of making it feel collaborative. We’re not there to tear anybody’s work apart–we’re there to work together and produce the best pieces of writing we’re capable of. When you take that view, it becomes easy to get your pages back, even when they’re covered with red correction marks. Sure it’ll take some work to bring the piece up to snuff-but that’s why we come to the meeting every week. If you’re in a writers’ group where it doesn’t feel collaborative, you should probably look around and find another one.
2) Moral Support
This one’s easy to overlook, but it’s so vital. Now, I’ve been writing since I was a little kid. Short stories, poems, screenplays, essays for school or even for myself. I guess I’m pretty well internally motivated. Even if I wasn’t in a group, I’d still be writing.
But I’m not sure I would have finished my seven novels without my writers’ group supporting me, or maybe it would have taken me much longer. During times when I’m feeling insecure about my writing, the other members of my group are there to assure me every writers goes through down periods. And when I’m feeling up, the meetings of my writers’ group energize me, supercharge me, make me eager to come back and write for the rest of the week.
But even moral support is subsidiary to what I’ve discovered is the primary advantage of being in a writers’ group: it makes me try harder. Before joining a writers’ group, I might have glossed over an awkward passage or half-assed a difficult scene, or skipped it entirely. “I’ll get back to that later,” I’d promise myself, but often I never did.
I know now I’m going to end up reading that chapter in front of other people, so I really have to polish my work. Make sure everything is exactly how it should be. Even if I think it’s good, it gets an extra re-reading, and if it’s bad, I keep going at it until I know it’s something worth reading to the other members. Of course, they’ll find even more wrong with it once I read out loud, and that’s fine. But I don’t want to waste their time bringing something in that’s sub-par.
So are you in a writers’ group yet? If not, look around. Check your local library, that’s where writers’ groups tend to meet. There is no other single thing you can do that will boost every aspect of our writing so much.