Bad Advice Wednesday: Start a Writers Group?

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour


My Writing Group

A long time ago I would write a story, feel good about it, and send it out to the Paris Review or the New Yorker.  I recall putting the very first of these in a blue mailbox in Ithaca, New York (which dates it early ’70s), and actually going to visit the mailbox for the next week or so.  After a month I got the rejection slip and the story back (remember paper?  envelopes?  “stamps”?  one-month manuscript turnaround?) and then I’d decide one of two things, or I’d pick both:  1) The story sucked.  2) The magazine and its editors and readers and the whole culture that spawned it and them and pretty much everyone in the world sucked.  And so back to my typewriter (remember typewriters?), a fresh story.  Because why would you revise something that sucked?

Of course the rejection meant nothing, offered nothing by way of criticism, implied nothing, predicted nothing.  But that was all I had to go on.  Because I was too shy to show my work to anyone but the screeners at famous magazines.

Later, much later, I’d go to grad school and get over my shyness, but for those long apprentice years I was the secret writer.

Now I have a group of reliable friends who are writers, too.  We send one another  pages, we send back comments.  We get on the phone and talk through solutions to narrative problems.  When I get a reading  from an editor, I can discuss both letter and editor with someone who knows the work in question.  Four, five, six people, great friendships, years of back and forth.

I’d prefer we all be able to meet, but we’re all over the world and don’t all know each other and so that’s not going to happen.

My advice to myself is to start or join a group close to home, meet once with them once a month.  You’d have to have a rule about when the cocktails commenced.  You’d have to have an understanding about how much everyone was expected to put into each manuscript.  But you’d go home with a clear idea of what in your writing was working and what was not, a sense of how readers were responding.  You wouldn’t have to walk around with delusions of grandeur quite as long.  And you wouldn’t be alone with any despair that came up.

But I’m puzzled about how it should go.  Or if I should even consider it.

So.  I want to hear about your writing group.  How does it work?  How often do you meet?  How many people?  What has gone right in your group?  What has gone wrong?  Juicy stories are welcome along with any tips.  Failure stories along with success stories.  And theories of all kinds.

And this week’s bad advice, for those who haven’t taken it in advance: start or join a writers group.  It might be the most important thing a new writer could do.  But I have a strong feeling that it wouldn’t hurt a pro.

  1. I know I’m a little late to the party, but I belong to the Allied Authors of Wisconsin (, and I’m happy to share a little about how we operate:

    Meetings are once a week at members’ homes (on rotation), and we tend to have three to four readers per meeting. We begin by ascertaining how many people brought something to read, reaffirming who is hosting the next meeting, and going over any miscellaneous business (e.g., website changes), and then each member gives a brief report if he or she has anything writing-related to share with the group. (Someone takes minutes, which are posted on the website for review and, ultimately, approval.)

    The author typically reads his or her own work, though at times the author might elect to have someone else read so that he or she can pay extra attention to the flow of sentences, etc. Typically, a reader shares a single chapter, maybe two if they are short.

    The group then makes a handful of comments, one by one. We try to be as concise as possible and not repeat others’ points (except to say, “I agree with X about Y”) so that we can get as many readers in as possible.

    We end meetings with a social time, where we continue to talk about our writing, writing in general, or other topics of mutual interest. All in all, it’s a good balance of professional interaction and fellowship.

    If you’re interested, I’ve recently written a blog post that talks about why writers groups still matter and what a person should expect to get out of one — and what he or she should expect to put in:

    Take care!

  2. Peter Peteet writes:

    Came here looking for the “Writer,edit thyself”post in order to send it to a friend in a “writer’s group”which is also a mechanic’s forum.This “place”,FB,readings and workshops are as close to the grail as I’ve gotten-so far;as a delinquent in high school detention I had a “writer’s group” of two in a running exchange of graffiti on desktops.I think that this grail may be closer than Utopia and more like eternity- “not later,or in some unfindable place”. (M.Oliver).

  3. Matthew Taylor writes:

    Hi. I’m new to the Cocktail Hour, but I wanted to add my comments.

    I was involved with a writers group for about four years, meeting once a month. I was asked to join by a friend who knew I was writing. The group has existed around some core members for about six years (which I understand is remarkable for this kind of thing) and originally emerged from a class they took together.

    The basic rules were these:
    – Everyone had to contribute writing on a regular basis; nobody could just be there to critique. Stories were distributed in advance by email; everyone was expected to have read them at least once before the meeting.
    – Once the critiques began, we went around the room each talking in turn, without interruption. Once everyone had a chance to speak, we’d open it up for discussion, or to let the author respond.
    – While we engaged in small talk before and after, we got down to business quickly rather than frittering the time away on the news of the day.
    – We had roughly an equal number of men and women. We found that three people was too few (author plus two readers); eight people bordered on too many (we could not get through the reading in the time allowed). We met for about two hours.
    – Rewrites were okay, but not too many; chapters from novels were allowed. Nonfiction was also allowed, but fiction preferred.

    What I liked is that it gave me a reason to write. People would commit to submitting a story for the next meeting and then had to deliver. It gave me a deadline that I would otherwise not have. I also appreciated the comments and perspective of my group members. They’d all had bad workshop experiences and so knew how to behave. I especially liked when one of my stories would spark differnces of opinion in the other members. I would sit back and listen to the feelings that my work was generating — I wouldn’t have to say a word. It was gratifying.

    What I didn’t like is basically two facits of the same thing: some group members were more able to place their work for publication than others. This meant that a) some had exciting news of publication often, while others had little (such as me) to share; and b) I was writing stories for the group but could not get them published, so I now have a backlog of stories in limbo — do I edit them further? do I abandon them? Ultimately, I felt I had nothing more to contribute to the group and therefore quit, but on good terms.

    On reading the above comments, I think I was in a lucky and rare situation, and for that I’m grateful.

    • Bill writes:

      Hi Matthew. Great to have you. Sounds like a good workshop. The not getting published part kind of sucks, but that may not last if you keep at it, and keep listening. I’d suggest collecting all the stories you’ve written so far and all associated materials and putting them in a box marked “Apprenticeship, Round One.” Or maybe a Word file. And put the box in the attic. Or the Word file in a new folder called ATTIC. And declare that the next session of your group is going to mark the beginning of Round Two, with a story unlike anything you’ve ever written, great leaps. Later, in a year or two, you can go up to the attic and see if any of your old characters are sitting around waiting for you.

  4. John Jack writes:

    I’ve belonged to or at least participated in a number of writing group venues. Each with a few ups and lots of downs. The power play games and desperate cravings for approval are heavy on the down side. The cardinal rule of writing commentary, workshops, whatever, it’s about the writing, not the writer seems to have a gamut of interpretations.

    All of my worst experiences have been violations of that rule. Personal attacks on my belief systems, you know, politics and religion, social mores, participation mystique stuff and such. One attempted writing workshop was horrendous. The facilitator laid out the rule, then proceeded to personally attack the participants, including me. C’est la vie. I walked out.

    Online, in person, academic, municipal, regional conference, I’ve tried it all and had mixed results. I’m not comfortable saying it’s been weighted to the good. I will say that the negativity compelled me to greater efforts. I’ll show them. Not that I have. But I learned to stifle my negativity, learned what it is, its intents and meanings, at least sufficiently to satisfy my needs and understandings.

    The most insightful and pleasant writing advice I’ve gotten from my clients who I copyedit for. And not too surprisingly, their methods and messages are ideal in terms of decorum. They’re professional writers, albeit stenographers who are not permitted to alter what’s said in testimony, for all its emotionally freighted baggage. Their comments are on point: this felt real, that fake, this engaging, that slow, that kind of stuff. They’re writers in every sense of the word but not creative writers allowed every discretionary rhetoric.

    Creative writers, huh, they read differently than readers, than editors, than publishers, than screening readers, than reviewers and critics. There is one practice I don’t care for, fault finding for the sake of fault finding. I’m of a nature as a social being to believe it’s wrong and be severely sensitive to uncalled-for negative evaluation. Put out a work in progress for commentary, it’s a free for all, going to a dance and it’s a knife fight. In my experience, that’s how struggling creative writers read. The ugly green eyed artistic jealousy monster every time.

    No, I won’t start a writing group. I found one that blows my mind away. It’s the dialogue, a conversation taking place over the span of recorded literary history, movements and schools of thought, at length and in depth, from Sophocles and Aristotle and Virgil on through time up to present, writers and sophists and rhetoricians, poeticists writing on writing. Freytag, Lubbock, Friedman, Gardner, Barthes, Chatman, Lukeman, Toulan, Maass, and on and on. That’s the writing group conversation I want to participate in. I’m listening. Have learned far more than I bargained for. Have something to contribute. But it’s intense and requires a bit more attention than the average writer is ready, willing, or able to engage.

    Something sublime, profound is afoot in the writing culture. I’ve got a thumb on the pulse of it. I found it by prying into the span of writing’s primary and secondary discourses. It boils down to how writers approach the ages old argumentum of predetermination versus free will. It’s coming to a head again. It will be or already is, though unrecognized, a distinct departure from previous literary movements and schools of thought, yet incorporating them, and a synthesis of the whole. Call it multiculturalism.

    • Bill writes:

      John, you’re like a one-man writing group. It’s true a certain family dynamic can take over. I mean in any group…

  5. Dave writes:

    Love the picture. Is that you third from left?

    • Bill writes:

      I was thinking of Wes saying I looked like a walrus in the pond… I’m actually not in the picture but behind the camera…

  6. mgiasson writes:

    I currently belong to a writer’s group that meets once a week. The facilitator also teaches a novel writing class at a local adult education forum. That’s how I got invited to join. What works is it gives me a weekly deadline and a forum for my work. What doesn’t work is that attendance is often spotty and not everyone is a good at critique. That’s another thing this group has done for me though. I feel I am a much stronger critiquer because of this forum. I also have a few writer friends that I send things to from time to time and they reciprocate. It keeps me writing.

    • Bill writes:

      Is the facilitator paid? Does she share her work with the group, too? I’d say if people aren’t attending they should be booted. Also, I think the commentary ought to be critiqued in some way. In this case by the facilitator. You don’t say anything about fun. Is it a pleasure, this group?

  7. Martha White writes:

    I’ve tried writer’s groups now and then, with varying degrees of success. Like book groups, so much depends on finding the right cohorts — not like-minded, because you want the variety, but with a willingness to challenge each other, push each other, say “yuck” when they mean it. Friends and family often don’t work, because they’re too gentle and kind. Lately, what has worked best for me is finding one other writer to share a retreat space with — a getaway for an intensive week or two of writing — when we can emerge, glassy-eyed, bleary-eyed, stuck, or whatever, and share the WTF? moments. Often, those outside eyes can help with what to try, or how to approach a scene differently. After a week or two of carrying our characters around with us and into our conversations, we can usually sustain an online criticism for some weeks or months (for novel-length projects) that can be useful.

  8. Chelle Guch writes:

    I too started as a nervous writer. No self confidence and straight out of college. I had experienced some great writing group formats in college and attempted to replicate those outside of school. We had a few meetings but life seemed to get in the way, there were many cancellations. Please don’t misunderstand, I loved our little group, they were a great bunch of writers and people, it just didn’t work out.

    I eventually turned to one friend in particular I thought I could count on. We nicknamed ourselves, “writing buddies.” It worked fabulously unil her life took her away. I found another.

    I’ve also employed family to be my ears and readers. Some are extremely helpful and reliable, others not so much.

    Recently, I turned to Critique Circle for help. I am surprised that I’ve actually enjoyed this site. It is fun to critique others and build new relationships. It is an ongoing conversation. And, I can always reurn to my college friends for advice if needed. Critique Circle isn’t intended to replace my writing friends, it is more of a starting place and a way to releive some of the burden of being my friend. I recommend trying it. What can it hurt?

    • bill writes:

      Thanks Chelle… Critique circle… Interesting–I hadn’t heard of that. Writing buddies is a good concept, and I keep hearing it… Though there’s something about the energy and concatenational thinking of a group… Still thinking about this!

  9. Jenny Ruth Yasi writes:

    I think this is great advice, and I have wanted to find my writer’s group for a while now. However, it seems the only writer’s groups I’ve ever managed to be involved with have been within the context of a class. And even in that situation, there was such a variety of people, what they had to offer, and what they wanted, that it was difficult to keep everyone enthusiastic about the process.

    Looking for the writers group that is right for me seems sort of like searching for the Holy Grail. There was a writer’s group on Peaks Island that I was pretty interested in, but they only wanted “published” writers, and though I am definitely a published writer, with national magazine credits as well as local credits, a self-published novel and a self-published herbal, what they meant was, it was for people who had actually made some real money, children’s book authors’ primarily.

    Facebook has sort of become my writer’s group, in a tiny fractional way. At least, it is a place where I share and get some feedback regarding what people like to read and what they don’t like to read. And it is totally shocking and enlightening. But I would love to be involved with a real writers group, with cocktails and people who dare to say or write anything. Even if it doesn’t lead me straight into more publications. Being part of the community of writers, that is what I have always aspired towards, being part of the conversation. Facebook sort of does that, and it would be enough if my goal was about writing haikus or limericks. But the things we think about always get too big, and the conversations there are too nervous and too much is at stake. Far better would be the sort of writer’s group where there is no marketing going on.

    • Noah writes:

      I agree about the Holy Grail comment. For awhile I had the image of being with an intellectual community of writers, we’d be drinking wine and beer and talking about books, stuff like that. It was also, for some reason, the late 1800s or 1920s. I don’t know, I think it’s an image we chase and the reality of the writer’s groups cannot live up to the image we’ve put in our minds.

      The best thing for me in terms of correspondence has been sharing short stories with a close friend of mine. We don’t put any deadlines on each other, we respect each other’s writing, we feel comfortable enough to be ruthless if we feel that we should. I’ve never thought of myself as a workshop person, but I’ve gotten some great ideas from his feedback. What matters is the quality of the peer review.

    • Bill writes:

      Right, Jenny–many writing groups are classes or stem from classes, and carry a certain formal weight.. I do like the way you use Facebook to try ideas, get responses. Maybe the writers group everyone dreams of is just another utopian community… But that’s the great thing about utopia–it’s never far away…