Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Improving your craft as a writer can sometimes feel like a rollercoaster ride: one day you’re breathless from a breakthrough, the next you’re stagnant with self-doubt. The advantage of writing in the twenty-first century is that help abounds—books, articles, blogs, videos, conferences, online courses, etc. are now more accessible than ever. While each of these has its place in the writer’s toolkit, perhaps one of the most essential assets for writers set on honing their craft is a writing group.
There are many types of writing and critique groups—some meet online only, some meet in person, some meet once a week, some once a month. There’s almost certainly a group in your area or online that will be a good fit for you. But I think it’s safe to say all groups have at least the following six characteristics in common that guarantee you’ll be improving your craft just by showing up.
1. Join a community
While the tools for self-improvement listed above can be invaluable, almost all of them take place in a vacuum. The beauty of a writing group is that it’s a built-in community of people like you, eager to improve their craft and help you improve yours.
- Do you have a habit of holing up in your writing cave until well-intentioned friends and family coax you out?
- Are you fiercely defensive of your work and have a hard time taking advice about revisions?
- Do you find yourself feeling lonely in your writing and publishing goals?
Whatever your personal writing challenges, it’s almost universally true that joining a writing community can give you the perspective and camaraderie you need to navigate them successfully. Plus, having a weekly or monthly critique group waiting on you for the next installment of your book can help you establish and keep an eye on that work-life balance.
2. Catch sight of your blind spots
Speaking of eyes . . . every writer has their blind spots. You most likely have a mental list of your strengths and weaknesses, but some things are just bound to elude you. In a writing group, your work is read, discussed, and critiqued on a regular basis. You’ll start to see patterns in the type of feedback you’re getting. And as you keep writing, that advice will make its way into your work-in-progress; sometimes intentionally, sometimes subconsciously.
But before you know it, you’ll be making headway, growing stronger and more perceptive, you’ll see your work transformed before your eyes. It’s like shining a spotlight on the weaker areas of your craft so that you can see the way forward to each next step on your writing journey.
3. See your work in a new light
Another benefit of having consistent feedback is that you start to gain an outsider’s perspective on your story. Apart from beta readers, writing partners are sometimes the only people who can simulate a reader’s response to your story before you send it out into the world. This is essential for understanding your target readership, their needs and expectations, and how your story addresses them. If you’re intentional about analyzing and using that information to your advantage, you’ll be in great shape to represent your story to an agent, publisher, or your target audience itself. Your writing group can give you the gift of being aware of how the world outside your own mind perceives and interacts with your story.
4. Stay in the loop
Publishing is an industry like any other—it has its own unique terminology and expectations that a newcomer may not know. Joining a writing group is an excellent way to get exposure to that insider knowledge. Writer’s platform, query letter, marketability, target audience, publishing rights; these are just a few examples of terms and topics that new writers might not encounter elsewhere but will find empowering to learn about as they pursue their own publishing goals.
Even for experienced writers, the industry is changing at such a whirlwind pace, that it can feel daunting at times just to keep up with current information. But when you’re meeting weekly or monthly with your community of writers, you’re bound to hear news of the latest local and national trends. You’ll have opportunities to attend author events, meet key figures in the industry, attend conferences and workshops, and stay up to date on the changes in the market and shifting expectations of your readership.
Want to give yourself the best chance of standing out in the slush pile, maintain realistic expectations, set attainable writing and publication goals? Being an active part of a writing group will almost certainly ensure that you have the necessary knowledge and tools.
5. Find your voice
When you first start sharing your work with others, it’s nerve-wracking. You’re opening your mind and your heart, sharing your creative work without knowing how it will be received. What if they don’t like it? What if I’m not a good writer? What if I only think it’s good?
When you share your work (maybe for the first time!) in the context of a critique group, you can at least have the comfort of being among friends. Everyone else has been there. Every other writer in your group has felt the vulnerability of standing up to read their work for the first time or has sat with shaky fingers trying to get up the courage to press that Send button. It’s hard—there’s no getting around that—but when you know you’re not alone, you can feel confident that your work will be received with respect and compassion.
6. Share your knowledge
Writing groups aren’t just for beginners. If they were, the critique would be somewhat limited. Seasoned writers have the opportunity to mentor and share essential knowledge to fledgling writers. Imagine how rewarding that might be!
And sometimes it’s just plain satisfying to be the most knowledgeable person in the room. Writing groups rely on the wisdom of experienced writers to steer them in the right direction. The best part, as any teacher will tell you, is that training others helps you refine that knowledge for yourself and apply it in ways you may not have considered before. You may be surprised what your “students” have to teach you.
What are you waiting for?
Jonathan Maberry points out that there are two camps in the writing world: those who believe it’s a competition and those who believe it’s a community. In a competitive view, we’re all trying to outdo each other, so we are often guarded and cloistered behind our walls. But, if being a writer is about joining a national and international community where we can learn from each other and improve together, then we can all benefit from mutual support.
Well, you know by now which view I subscribe to. So go join a writing group! From your first meeting you’ll start improving your craft and helping others do the same.
Do you belong to a writing group? What are your experiences and what have you gained / lost from your group? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.