Okay, so this post extolling the virtues of writing groups is about poetry, a literary pursuit for which the chance of monetary pay-off is so slim it’s basically off the table entirely.
But if you’re writing fiction, and your goal as a writer is to find a real audience for your work, sorry, but I think you have to be very cautious about joining a writing group.
1. Blind leading the blind. If you want to learn how to become a success in anything, you need to find mentors, models, and teachers who are already successful at that thing. A writing group — unless it’s well-stocked with published authors — can’t offer you anything but the opinions of people who are capable of educated guesses, at best. At worst, they may well be naive or even ignorant. You have to ask yourself: what sort of person do you want advising you on your work?
2. Your precious time. Participating in a writing group takes time. The meetings alone take time. Critiquing other peoples’ work takes time. And what could you be doing, if you weren’t spending all that time on your writing group? Um, writing, perhaps?
3. And your precious focus. One of the most important things you have to do, as a writer, is to pinpoint what you want to accomplish with your WIP. Any time anyone peers over your shoulder, points at a sentence/character/theme and says “well, what about this, though?” and you are obligated (because you’re polite!) to respond, then guess what. You’ve just been distracted. And when you’re distracted, you’re not honing in on what you’re trying do do, as a writer.
4. Committee syndrome. Related to #3, but important enough to merit it’s own line on the list. Committees create only one thing: consensus. Committees cannot create novels, or any other kind of art for that matter. The minute you start offering your writing up to some committee, you build a nice consensus on what’s “good” and what “works” etc. etc., but you are also consigning your WIP to mediocrity or worse.
5. False security. Say you manage to wow your writing group members with your latest example of scintillating prose. So what? To paraphrase Dean Wesley Smith, the only readers who matter are the ones who are going to pay you for your work. And here’s the thing: being praised for something we’ve written is a peak experience — it’s satisfying, it sates us as a culmination of sorts. The danger is that after that peak, we tend to let up. This is often subconscious, of course. “Oh,” says our sneaky little mind. “I’ve done it. I’m finished. I can rest for a bit now.” Well guess what — you’re not finished. Wowing your reading group means absolutely nothing in the grand scheme of things. And every second you spend your time polishing that little trophy on your shelf is another second you’ve wasted when you should be pressing forward toward your real goals as a writer.
6. False insecurity. Okay, let’s look at the opposite scenarios. Say your writing group hates your latest example of scintillating prose. Does that mean you stink? Well first of all, maybe not. See #1 above. But even if the group is correct, and your stuff could use some work, what do you gain by knowing? Nothing, except if you count it as a “gain” when you let people suck you dry of all that pesky self-confidence. Look, it takes tremendous courage to become a writer. Don’t put yourself in a position where you’re spending your bravery reserves on the wrong things.
7. Creating and judging are mutually exclusive pursuits–and the creating bit is the one that is most important to writers. It’s “the zone.” I’m a golfer. And I can tell you that if I’m in a self-critical frame of mind, I cannot hit a pure golf shot. Well guess what, the same goes with writing. Yes, there’s a place for looking at your work critically. The risk is that participating in a writing group will cause you to add too much of that self-critical mode to the mix that makes up your writing life — in a sense, to your identity as a writer. Put another way, as a writer you have to learn to get in the zone, and that means controlling the self-critical periods of your writing cycles very, very carefully — because too much self-critical destroys creativity.
So does that mean writing groups over absolutely no benefits? Well, no. They may be a networking resource. They may be your outlook for socializing. You may, if you’re lucky, win a couple of future readers through writing group contacts.
But if you want to invest in yourself as a writer by getting feedback on your work? Look for workshops where you can learn from published, successful writers.
My 2 cents.