Why I don’t like writing groups

In my previous post I mentioned in passing that writing groups don’t work for me. Here’s why:

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been in some wonderful groups with fabulous writers, who are brilliant and incisive critics, not to mention heaps of fun to hang out with. Frankly, I don’t think you could find better groups. Yet I did not enjoy them, and found they made me less, not more, confident about my writing. After a year I gave up on writers’ groups forever.

It turns out that sitting in a room with a bunch of people taking turns to tell me what they do and don’t like about what I’ve written is my idea of hell. I hated it for several reasons but mostly because I need time to digest criticism. That’s because my initial reaction is pretty much always:

“You are completely insane and wrong and if it wasn’t illegal I would set your hair on fire!”

It takes me awhile to get from there to,

“Huh? You know I think you may be right: my six hundred thousand-word novel could stand some trimming. I can see as how sixty-three sub-plots is perhaps too many.”

Sitting and listening to criticism is too immediate for me. It makes me feel vulnerable and like I’m back in primary school, getting in trouble yet again.1 I hate it when the critiquer would look up to see how I’m taking the criticism and I’d have to bite my inner cheek to keep from showing what I was feeling.

I’m also uncomfortable with the group-think I’ve seen develop whereby one person says, “This really isn’t a mystery. You should recast it as a mainstream novel.” And pretty much everyone else keeps making the same criticism, adding their own twist on it, even though you know in your gut that they are absolutely wrong. Yet the pile up continues and you start to doubt yourself.

Then afterwards when you ask one of them about it, the person will say, “Oh, well, I didn’t really think that. Not really. I mean it might help, but I doubt it. You probably just need to make it more of a psychological mystery, you know?”

“So why didn’t you say that in there?”

They shrug. “I don’t know.”

Grrr. The group-think thing is especially likely to happen if the rest of the group is in awe of one of the writers (they’re published; everyone else isn’t) and uncomfortable contradicting them. Or if one of the group is very definite and assertive. But I have seen it happen in very well-balanced groups as well. One person will deliver a very witty and eloquent critique and (inadvertently) sway the rest of the writers to their way of thinking. I’ve not only seen this done; I’ve done it myself.

I do not find it healthy or helpful.

Which is why I rely on a group of first readers. When I think my latest novel is ready for feedback I send it off to about a dozen people whose opinions I trust. When they have time they write back with comments and criticisms. I still go through the wanting-to-set-their-hair-on-fire stage but in the privacy of my own room I can yell and stomp and no one’s the wiser. I get to the point where I understand what they’re saying much quicker when the comments are written rather than verbal. It’s less intense and less confronting. Many of these first readers are people I was in those groups with.

This is just my view. I have friends who swear by their writers’ group. I have other friends who don’t let anyone but their editors read early drafts. Each to their own. But if you are one of those people who’s been told by just about everyone that you should really join a writers group2 and then you tried it and didn’t like it. Well, you’re not alone.

  1. Okay, maybe it happened in high school also. []
  2. hey, I just suggested it in my last post []