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Can a Writing Group Improve Your Writing?

Can a Writing Group Improve Your WritingAfter many years of avoiding the issue and finding excuses I finally bit the bullet, took the plunge, climbed into the saddle, put my best foot forward, hit the road, got on the bus and joined the Figurative Language Society.  Actually, that’s a lie, what I did without hesitation, prevarication or deviation is finally join a writers’ group.

To be honest I’ve always had reservations

about the concept, is there benefit in discussing something so hard to pin down or define?  I still have a sneaking suspicion that writing is something that you can either do or you can’t and discussing the process will never get you any further forward with what you’re trying achieve, especially if you have no clear idea yourself either.

I suppose I largely believe that writing, like many creative activities, cannot be taught, you either have it or you don’t.  Although, Malcolm Gadwell has highlighted there is no such thing as genius, simply intensive practice which then forms the foundation for genius.  He does make a convincing case and the scientist within me can see the strength of his arguments.  But then that scientist is always being harangued by my starving artist, freezing in his lonely garret wondering where his next meal will come from and when his flighty, mysterious muse will return to guide his hand across the page.  I can tell you it’s not easy being me.

However, over the course of the summer I’ve been re-evaluating my position on writers’ groups and thinking a little bit more about the real reason for avoiding them.  At the heart of it all is fear, fear of being forced to discuss my writing and, oh my god, having other people read my efforts and passing an opinion.  This has always been the stuff of nightmares for me, waking up in a cold sweat, standing by the side of the bed screaming kind of nightmare, your PJs shredded at your feet; you’ve never had those kind of nightmares?  Really?  It’s just me?  Well ok, let’s move on because clearly there’s nothing to see here.

So this revelation then led me to think about why I write.  There are lots of reasons; because I enjoy it, because I think I can do it fairly well.  But the big driver I realised was I wanted other people to read what I write.  Well, if this is the case a writers’ group is surely the best place for this to happen, unless I’m somehow discovered by a publisher after a heated argument with a stranger (the publisher) in the pub in which I, with élan, humour and intelligence, defend the status of Ulysses as the world’s greatest piece of literature, and a stranger is forced to ask me if I am by any chance a writer.  Sorry about that, my starving writer escaped from his garret again, I’m going to have to improve security.

I have now been to a writers’ group four times I believe.  The first occasion was a little fact-finding mission, a commando raid behind enemy lines to assess their strength and develop a plan of action.  I was surprised to find that the group was made up of fairly normal people who just happened to have an interest in writing.  What I found most disconcerting about my first experience was the fact that all everyone was talking about was writing.  I know, I know, I was attending a writing group so what did I expect, knitting tips?  What I meant was writing has always been a private thing for me, like a perversion or sexual peccadillo, not something to be discussed in polite company.  And here I was in a public space, under full lighting, being asked what I was writing at the moment, what do I write about, what genre do I focus on?  I had found my people!  This must be what coming out of the closet feels like.

My second visit was slightly more nerve-racking because I jumped off the high board into the deep end and read something out to the group!  And guess what, no one laughed and there were even some words of encouragement and a little bit of discussion.  Now there’s no holding me back, I am a fully paid up member of a writers’ group, I discuss my writing, its problems and strengths without embarrassment, and I am beginning to have constructive opinions on what other people have written.  And this last thing has been the most unexpected benefit, it’s simply not enough to say you like or dislike something, the group expect more, just as I expect more if I go to the effort of putting something out there.  Forcing myself to analyse other members’ writing has started to give me more of an insight into the strengths and weaknesses of my own writing.

Although, I’m not yet ready to give up on my romantic lonely artist beliefs, all in all it has been a positive experience.  I’ve met new people, been assured that what I’m working on isn’t laugh-out-loud bad, received some helpful advice and seen some improvement in my own work.

What has been your experience of writers’ groups, have they helped you to find your inner genius, or have they left you colder than a polar bear’s nose?

About Mark At The Word...

Once upon a time, when Mark was 8, he was asked to read a story he'd written about robots destroying the world to the whole school. He read that story, everyone laughed in the right places and a writer was born.

When not writing Mark reads to escape the many frustrations that life has created for him.

View all contributions by Mark At The Word...

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  • Rod Griffiths April 7, 2015, 9:31 am

    I have been member of several groups, including Worcester Writers Circle that can lay claim to being one of the oldest in the country – more than 70 years and still going strong. Groups vary, some are aimed at prose, some at poetry, some are eclectic, some are essentially hobby groups while others have serious writers intent on publication. I think I have learned something from all of them. I think it is common to feel some trepidation at first – almost every newcomer I have heard has started their first piece with some sort of apology but most of us get over it and our writing starts to improve.

    I am now doing an MA in Creative Writing (at the age of almost 70) and can write you a well referenced theoretical piece on why writing workshops are likely to be effective, but you don’t want a few thousand words here do you.

    • Mark April 13, 2015, 9:30 am

      Dear Rod,

      Thanks for the feedback. Congratulations on starting the MA in Creative Writing, do you think it is helping your writing? Like most things in life, if you take an open approach to writing groups then it is likely that you’ll get something from them. As I said in my article what has been of most benefit to me has been the requirement to critique other members’ efforts. This has really helped me look at what I write in a new, more honest way. Thanks for the offer of an article, we are always looking for input, so please feel free to send in your piece.

  • Ruth December 8, 2014, 2:10 pm

    Surely, change is always good. It stops complacency creeping in, a cosiness, and makes every member stop and think. We have recently had a new member to our group, the first for a long time. Her writing is good, keeps us all on edge as she reads her stories, and leaves us, not only discussing her work, but making us re-think our own efforts. Hopefully, this is reciprocated, and she is influenced by the others!

    • Mark December 17, 2014, 9:06 am

      You’re right, like a shark, we need to move forward, without that movement creativity tends to die, as my Mum used to say, a change is as good as a rest. The group has given me a new dimension and hopefully I can bring something new to the group.

  • Maria December 1, 2014, 10:53 pm

    Good for you! Critique groups are great because you learn so much by listening to what others say, and then you take that home, and hopefully avoid doing the same.

    It’s also very motivating to be amongst other writers. Like you said, you’ve found your tribe.

    • Mark December 17, 2014, 9:14 am

      Yes it’s true, these are my people, although it still feels a little odd to be talking about writing in more detail than I’m used to. However, these discussions will ultimately be a benefit.

  • Sharon Black November 25, 2014, 10:18 am

    Thought-provoking and humorous article (yes I’ve had those shredded PJ ones). I totally agree about the benefit of writing groups. Due to my location in the hairy left armpit of France, I don’t have access to Actual Breathing Writers so I take part in online groups a couple of times a year and these are a huge help – not only for honing my poetry but also for the support, camaraderie and geeky fun of hanging out with others word pedants on a regular basis. There’s also the crucial bonus, as you say, of having to feed back on other people’s work which in turn makes me more aware, objectively, of my own writing. There are lots of forums out there – a quick google search should turn up the goods.

    • Mark December 22, 2014, 7:38 am

      As it’s France I’m sure it’s a much hairier armpit than elsewhere in Europe. It’s really easy to become completely self-absorbed in your own writing, it is after all a little egotistical, so being forced to provide constructive feedback on other people’s work can only be a good thing. By the way I’m glad I’m not on my own as far as the PJs go.