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Why to Say NO to Writers' Groups

The Algonquin Roundtable, the zenith of writers' groups.

I have written on this blog, and elsewhere, about the value of writers’ groups for critique and support. Let me take the other side now, and this is a generalized reflection, not aimed at any particular experience.

1. You can probably get the same effect from good beta readers. Good beta readers (notice I say “good”) will read the whole project at once. Of course, this is the tension. Your group can read the first fifty pages over a series of meetings and, if honest, say, “This ain’t working” before you write the other 74,500 of those words in a whole novel. The writers’ group can head off some basic problems, such as boring opening chapters, stiff or unrealistic characters, or some experimental technique that comes across pretentious (such as a failed attempt at magical realism or at noir in Appalachia, although that might work…..).

2. Because you can only submit piecemeal, the flow of your project can get lost, assuming it is something like a 75,000-plus-word novel. People come and go in the group; they don’t get to read all of your work-in-progress (WIP), so something is truly lost in transition. And let’s be honest; the new people aren’t going to want to read the previous 20,000 words they missed.

3. Equally, some members will pop in and out and not be (or not seem to be) committed to the process. I’ve known some who attended once to get some feedback on their work and never returned (not cool). In terms of commitment, it’s a bit like marriage. You have to be committed to the institution and theoretical concept of marriage (or the group) as much as to the group members (or marital partner) themselves.

4. You have to put up with some prickly personalities. That’s a nice way of saying people can be jerks. And if they are, something has to happen.

5. The group needs a recognized leader. Sorry. Leaderless groups simply do not exist in reality. (We’re fooling ourselves when we think a group is totally democratic.) Someone has to run the show. Someone has to set up the meetings, enforce the norms, address the complaints about those not following the norms, mediate, move the meeting on when a discussion starts to get heated. Someone has to gatekeep the new members, has to report to the outside entities, even if it’s just the managers of the place where the group meets.

6. Writers’ critique groups have to be maintained over the long haul. They take a long-term commitment. The one I’m in has been around ten years, and will keep on for many more.

7. The members in the group may be wrong about your writing. They may not so much be wrong as not a fan of a genre that you are good at, which is more likely, and they don’t understand the norms or expectations of the genre. I don’t like or read or touch with that long pole anything that smacks of vampires, porn, romance, erotica, and such. I have no idea what the conventions of that stuff are. I’ll do what I can with it, but I don’t want to read about the geography of male body parts in the act of copulation (and have been expected to lately, which I didn’t appreciate).

8. You truly have to respect your peers’ judgment. Otherwise the whole experience is pointless. I am happy to say I do, very much, which is why I don’t want this to seem like some kind of Manifesto against my group.

9. Final and perhaps main reason: It can take time away from your own writing. I personally have limited time for writing--not this moment since we’re off for the semester, but generally I have limited time. I have to weigh the time I spend in critique and meeting with the value I get from their input. But writing takes time away from other endeavors. I could be serving at a soup kitchen now; I can’t visit the elderly in the time of COVID, and I’m almost in the elderly category anyway! Time is relative, really, not a solid, touchable commodity.

These are my reasons why you might find a writers’ group not for you. I really don’t think any of them outweigh the power of a good writers critique group, but not everyone can find such an entity.

However, there is one bottom line: none of us writes as well as we think we do. We need honest input, and you won’t get it from your family.

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