What can you learn from a writers group? Is there a reason to join a writers group?
Writers groups can be an amazing resource for the aspiring author. I attribute much of my early writing success to writers groups, as they helped inspire me to hone the skill — which ultimately led to me turning writing into my career.
I joined my first writers group pretty much on a lark. I was working at a bookstore where a group met every week, and I decided to jump in after serving coffee to several of their gatherings. Even though I’m not the type of person who joins groups of any kind, it ended up being a very fun and informative experience. I quickly learned the value of being part of these little communities.
What is a Writers Group?
I’ve participated in, formed, and led several writing groups over the years, and I can tell you that they’re not all the same. The common through line is that they were all groups of people who enjoyed writing to some degree. Beyond that, there were a lot of variables.
A couple of the groups were very strict and formalized. The group ran on procedure and side conversations or distractions were actively discouraged. Everyone at the table had a chance to read what they brought, and everyone took turns giving feedback. You were also expected to bring enough printed copies of your work for everyone to get their own (for marking up or writing comments).
Other groups were far less formal and often turned into discussions about self-publishing and book marketing after a few people shared and got their feedback. I suppose these wouldn’t be “official” writing groups as much as they were semi-social meetings of aspiring writers, but I still learned a lot from these meetings.
What I Learned from Writers Groups
Actually, I learned a lot from years of participation in these groups. For the sake of this post, I tried to distill eight specific points that stick out in my memory.
Read your work aloud
It’s amazing how much you can learn about your storytelling by reading the work out loud. Vocalization exposes problems with sentences and flow that the eyes just don’t seem to catch. This is especially true when it comes to dialogue. I’ve learned to always read my dialogue out loud to make sure it sounds like something a person would actually say. A simple trick, but it really works.
Learn to take criticism
Writers groups can help you learn one of the most important skills a writer can have: the ability to absorb and make use of feedback. I’ve been making a living with writing for over a decade and I still face notes, complaints, and rejection on a regular basis. If you take any of it personally, you risk losing opportunities to improve as a writer.
What I learned from all my time spent in groups is that there was a direct correlation between a writer’s willingness to accept and learn from feedback and their improvement over time. Some people were like brick walls and feedback and suggestions just bounced off their foreheads. Thus they would consistently make the same errors in all of their work.
Avoid autobiographical characters unless they’re intentional
What did I see a lot of? Flat, cardboard characters and stories with very little interpersonal conflict. This happens if every character in the story is based on the writer. I doubt this is ever an intentional decision, but it happens quite often with aspiring authors.
The problem is that if every character has the same fundamental beliefs, emotions, and ideas, there’s no source for conflict. If a vegan writer makes every character believe that meat is murder, the resulting dialogue will be pretty damn boring and self-congratulatory. It’s the writer’s responsibility to occupy the thoughts and feelings of a variety of different characters — ideally pitting opposing ideas against each other to create tension and drama. This often means “becoming” a type of person that you absolutely hate or someone that you wouldn’t agree with at all. This is harder than it sounds because you can’t become them from your perspective…you have to become them from their perspective.
Don’t seek comfort in familiarity
I can’t tell you how many poorly-conceived knockoffs of Lord of the Rings I’ve had to endure over the past ten years. Some stories were almost shot-for-shot retellings of the movies with a few name changes. I’ve even read some that shamelessly ripped dialogue straight from the films.
This used to make me kind of angry, because my mind processed it as plagiarism or intellectual property theft. Or at the very least, it seemed kind of lazy. Then I realized that such writing could help a person hone their skills by allowing them to focus on the prose rather than the details of the story.
The key thing to remember there is that a slight rewrite of one of the most famous stories in the world is probably not the way to go if you’re looking to publish your own novel.
Assumptions and tropes can lead to story issues
I don’t know a better way to explain this point than with a specific example.
At one meeting, a writer shared the first chapter of their sci-fi manuscript and talked about how they were struggling with the dialogue.
The first few scenes took place on the bridge of a spaceship on its way to a planet. There were about six characters described in detail who then chatted back and forth about nothing. The writer was all too aware that it was all small talk that had no bearing on the story.
I asked him why they were talking at all if they had nothing to say. He then replied that the scene was on the bridge of a spaceship and it takes a lot of people to fly a spaceship. There had to be a lot of people present, and it seemed strange to introduce them all if they didn’t speak.
Say what now?
Believe it or not, this kind of roundabout logic affects writers all the time. We’re so used to seeing certain things in our favorite stories, we get trapped into thinking we have to follow the same rules. The bridge of the Enterprise has around 7-10 people on it at any given time, so therefore my ship should, too.
Turns out the only character that mattered in this writer’s whole scene — pages of dialogue — was the protagonist. The rest fly away and never come back after the first chapter. So I asked him why he didn’t just make it a one-person ship and remove the need for the added exposition and dialogue altogether. That worked.
Alternatively, he could have written a fully-staffed bridge with five, ten, or twenty people on it. He just didn’t need to have them all speak. When Star Trek gives you an establishing shot of the bridge, they don’t cut to each bridge officer in turn to make sure they rattle off a line.
Sometimes a writing group is super helpful with problems like this because we’re too close to our own work to see a simple solution.
The author’s personal vision can impede readability
Another regular sighting in writers groups that helped me train out a bad habit was the need to control every aspect of the story. That’s how I see it at least, so let me explain.
You probably already know that “telling not showing” and “infodumping” can be big problems. What I’ve come to realize is that these can both be symptoms of a bigger issue rather than their own unique problems.
For many aspiring writers that I worked with, the bigger issue was a need to cling to control. They would get a vision in their head and do everything in their power to make sure a reader sees the exact same thing.
This is where you get long, meticulous character descriptions that are essentially a word-for-word breakdown of an actual drawing or photo, down to specifying which hand they’re holding something in and what color their undershirt is.
Or you have scene descriptions that go on for pages describing the color and size of every building, the shapes of the clouds, the position of the sun, the masonry, the grass, how many dogs are barking (and their breeds), and what the air tastes like.
Readers have imaginations and they like using them. That’s why they’re reading instead of watching a movie. But the problem is that many aspiring authors approach storytelling as if they’re transcribing a movie. They see a scene in their head, visually, and they want to get every element of that scene down on paper.
This leads to too much information being spilled out on the page instead of giving the reader just enough detail to fuel their own imagination.
Writing doesn’t get easier, you just get better
After nearly 20 years of writing — often with deadlines and very demanding clients — I can say that writing never gets easier.
Stick with me here because I’m making a point.
Effective writing is extremely challenging, but a ridiculous number of people underestimate it. If you can put words on a page, you’re a writer — and if you can do it with proper spelling and grammar, you’re a great writer.
Not quite. Words on a page are not the purpose of writing any more than lines of code are the purpose of software. The purpose of writing is to elicit responses in the reader. This is true for both creative writing and copywriting — which is why I’ve always preached that the best marketing writers are creative rather than technical.
Eliciting the responses you want is difficult. It’s even harder when you’re trying to do it with a story that was born in your head. You’re creating people, voices, places, emotions, all with the intention of entertaining or moving a human being you’ve never even met.
This takes both skill and style. You have to master the technical aspects of writing and become a masterful communicator. In time, you slowly bend the rules or add flair so that your writing becomes organic and connected to you personally.
All of this is hard. And these are goalposts, so they never move. What does change is your abilities. The more time you put into writing, the better you will become and the easier it will start to seem. But don’t let your own growing skill lull you into complacency because what we do is hard, and to do it exceptionally is really freakin’ hard.
The writing never gets easier, you just get better at it. All you’ve got to do is put in the time.
Circling back, writers groups are a great way to improve your skills or keep them sharp. If nothing else, they can help you stay motivated and inspired so that you keep writing — and that’s the trick. As Stephen King said, the only way to get better at writing is to write. (For what it’s worth, I totally agree.)