In Praise of Writing Groups

By Mark Alpert

I’ve been a member of a writing group since 1993. It hasn’t been the same group of people the whole time; members have come and gone over the past quarter-century, too many to recall. But belonging to a critique group was an important part of my journey to becoming a published novelist (which happened in 2008, with the book pictured above) and has continued to inspire me in the ten years (and nine more novels) since then.

The group started as an offshoot from an after-hours fiction class I took at the West Side YMCA in Manhattan. The class instructor was a novelist and clever capitalist who realized that the combined tuition fees of the dozen students in her class were far greater than what the West Side Y was paying her to teach us the basics of fiction writing. So she invited half the students to meet at her home instead. It was a win-win for everyone except the YMCA: we paid her a lower fee for more attention to our work, and yet she ended up earning more money overall because the Y wasn’t getting any of it.

After a year, though, the writers in our group realized that we didn’t need an instructor anymore. The feedback we got from one another was the real benefit of the meetings. So we started gathering in our apartments on a rotating basis (and we managed to stay friendly with our erstwhile instructor, who hopefully thought of us as fledglings who’d successfully left the nest). We usually met once a month, which gave everyone enough time to write about twenty pages of fiction. In the earliest days I guess we must’ve used the U.S. mail to distribute our pages to everyone in the group in advance of the meetings, but that method seems so primitive now that I can’t believe we ever did it. Just think of all the postage we’ve saved since email was invented!

The ideal size for a writing group is probably between four and seven people. If there are too many members, it becomes impossible to read and critique everyone’s work in a reasonable amount of time. But if there are too few, you won’t get the main benefit of a writing-group critique, which is a kind of mass-audience objectivity. If only one or two people are reading your work, you run the risk of getting hopelessly idiosyncratic responses that tell you more about the readers’ tastes than the quality of your writing. But if four out of the five people in your writing group are telling you that something in your novel is bad, then in all likelihood it really is bad and you need to fix it.

Our writing group has had some enviable success. At least six members have become published authors. One won the prestigious Rome Prize, which offers a yearlong fellowship at the American Academy in Rome. And there have been calamities as well; over the years, two members have died tragically young. Others have stopped writing fiction or moved away from New York. But the group goes on. We’re meeting again next week. I just sent out emails distributing a fifty-page chunk of the Young Adult novel I’m working on. (That’s way too many pages, but I’m hoping everyone will forgive me.)

Even more than the constructive criticism, I love the idea of having a regular audience for a work in progress. I know how certain people in the group will respond to something I’m writing, and I can often anticipate their comments and revise the piece accordingly before they even see it. And I’ve made some great friends in the process.

I’m wondering, though, how common these groups are, and how long they typically endure. Has any other writing group out there reached the 25-year milestone? If so, please let me know!

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About Mark Alpert

Contributing editor at Scientific American and author of science thrillers: Final Theory (2008), The Omega Theory (2011), Extinction (2013), The Furies (2014) and The Six (2015). Next books: The Orion Plan (coming February 2016) and The Siege (July 2016). His website: www.markalpert.com

18 thoughts on “In Praise of Writing Groups

  1. I was in a F2F writing group in Florida. There were 6 of us, and we met once or twice a month. I was a rank beginner, and the others were taking writing classes so I think I reaped the most benefit, but it became too hard to travel to everyone’s house and save those afternoons.

    I’ve been with an on line group since 2005. There have been some membership changes, and we’re now down to a core of 3. It’s small, but it keeps the reading time manageable, and we each bring different skills to the table. I’m definitely in favor of other eyes on the work. We’ve gotten to the point where we’re pointing out hiccups more than waxing poetic about the turn of the phrase. We want to know what to fix, and don’t need much stroking anymore. A chapter returned with few comments is praise enough. If it’s not marked, it’s good.

    But yes, we do add smiley faces for bits that rise above our norms.

  2. The nearest in-person writers’ group to my house is two hours away, which I may attempt once in a while if they didn’t meet at night. Driving in the dark doesn’t interest me. Plus, as you mentioned, to gain real value you need to attend on a regular basis. I do have online critique partners and beta readers, whom I cherish.

    You’re lucky to have such a special group, Mark.

  3. Love my critique group, a different one now because members of the first have died, moved away, stopped writing (after publishing 18 mysteries!!!), etc.

    In the interim, I tried a writing group that didn’t distribute the work ahead of time, but instead read the work aloud at the meeting. Sometimes someone other than the writer read the piece aloud. This doesn’t work very well for two main reasons, IMHO. First, it takes up too much time at the meeting, thereby relegating the actual critique/feedback time to the back seat. Second, it doesn’t give the listeners time to absorb the work, think about it and come up with insightful feedback.

    I agree about the ideal number of participants (4 as a minimum; 7 as a maximum) because you’ll get a variety of responses, and sometimes even diametrically opposed feedback on the same issue. These differences push you to really think about your work. Often a creative solution will arise, either at the meeting, or later when you’re mulling over the feedback.

    In my experience, the longer the group has been together, the more likely it is that you’ll become more efficient and freer to give and receive the feedback without the need to couch your feedback in overly tactful ways. I’m not discounting the “sandwich” approach (i.e., positive, helpful but honest, and then positive again), but the “helpful but honest” part of your feedback will end up being more to the point with less pussy-footing around.

    Plus there’s the emotional encouragement and the friendships that develop. Many of those friendships last beyond the end of the particular writing group.

    Now, as I pack to move back to Canada after living in Mexico for 18 years, I’m looking forward to my new critique group. I don’t know who will end up tearing my work apart yet–and helping me to put it back together. My only requirement will be that the members have already studied the craft to a great extent, whether or not they’ve been published traditionally, and that we all want to improve our writing and our stories.

  4. Mark, you’re singing my favorite song.

    Like yours, my writing group was born in 1988 from classes at the community college and Missoula workshops that featured James Crumley, William Kittredge, Annick Smith, Rick DeMarinis, etc. Was I lucky to fall in among those luminaries!

    We students were all rank unpublished beginners who met at homes or coffee shops, and gradually learned to critique. At some point, a left-brained member wrangled us right-brainers into an official nonprofit, the Authors of the Flathead. We began putting on the annual Flathead River Writers conference, now in its 28th year. AOF meets weekly, with guest speakers, open readings, write-ins. Several satellite critique groups meet independently.

    I’ve been in multiple CGs over three decades, sometimes two at a time. My current gang of five all are well-calloused and we’re brutally honest with each other. As Terry says above, a clean ms w/o marks is high praise. Four to seven members is also the quantity I’ve found works best. Too few and the critique becomes incestuous.

    People come and go, move away, die, or stop writing. But new blood continues to flow in. At this point, I estimate half of AOF members are published, some traditionally, some indie. But we all remember our own rocky beginnings and welcome new writers.

    With a sizeable talent pool, we can always find someone to beta-read, edit, help with website problems, cover design, marketing, etc. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

    Am I fortunate? Oh yeah!

  5. I attempted to start a group, to share ideas and critique. I hung flyers in three area libraries. I had no takers. I was very disappointed.

    • We’re a ways off from NaNoWriMo, but you might consider it as a way to meet writers. In my area (admittedly it’s a big college town), during NaNoWriMo there are regular gatherings of writers who sprint together. Not a way to start a group, obviously, but maybe a way to meet the folks in your area who are writing. From there you might could socialize the idea of getting a group going.

      Any independent bookshops in your area? I bet the staff there know who’s writing and where existing groups hang out.

      Good luck! My writing group has been a wonderful encouragement and boost to my craft.

  6. I’m so happy to hear of such love and positive energy for critique groups! Mine has been active for a few years, spun out of a writing class – a common thread in these comments. My group is down to four members from our starting number of eight, and we ponder sometimes whether we should increase our number. It’s good to hear that four is regarded as a good size, but I wonder if anyone has advice on how to go about adding people to a critique group?

    Is there a consensus on whether groups that specialize in a single genre work better than ones that don’t? My fantasy writing has been a heavy slog for the thriller writer in my group, and conversely I practically have to tie myself to my chair to read the romance writing of another member. Yet I know that we do encourage one another, and my writing is better for the feedback I get.

    Last question. I cannot recall ever getting what I would say is “brutally honest” criticism from my pals. We’re very nice to each other. Are we being too soft? Have others found that, rather than crushing the tender flowers of their creativity, critique groups shelter and overfertilize (with praise, not by flinging you-know-what)?

    • Good question. In my opinion, you’re not doing a writer any favors by withholding honest criticism. That defeats the whole purpose of the writing group. The best attitude to take is a professional one: we’re all grownups here, we all want to see each other succeed in the writing business, and the best way to do that is to point out all the things in the manuscripts that aren’t working. I don’t think dismissive or mocking criticism is ever helpful, and even in a manuscript that’s confusing and/or boring I can usually find one or two things that the writer is doing well. But if by “brutally honest” you mean disappointing a writer who believes his or her manuscript is wonderful when it clearly isn’t, then yes, I believe in being brutally honest.

    • Adding new members to a writing group can be tricky. If the group is doing its job well, then the writing skills of its members will improve over time. The group’s meetings will naturally evolve like a college curriculum, progressing from Beginning Storytelling 101 to Intermediate Fiction 201 to Advanced Novel Writing 301, etc. If the skills of the new member don’t match the abilities of the longtime members of the writing group, there could be some impatience and frustration. It might make sense for the group to look over a sample manuscript submitted by the prospective member to see if he or she would be “a good fit.” (These days I’m visiting college campuses with my daughter, and this is the euphemism that all the admissions officers use.)

      • This is how I was “welcomed” into my first critique group. They were all published writers; I was the newbie. I worked a bit with one of their members, just the two of us, and then she showed them a sample of my work, and they let me in. I had already done some reading about the craft on my own, so I suppose my sample wasn’t too horrible. (Compared to my very first attempt to write fiction, which I’ve saved for posterity, my submission to the group wasn’t anything like that first, cringe-worthy attempt.)

        I am so grateful that they tolerated and even encouraged me. I learned so much.

  7. I tried two writing groups. One group of people was much more interested in talking–sports, town gossip, politics, national affairs. In the middle of one of their discussions about the latest Flight 800 conspiracy theories (not that I’m not interested in of the subject because I’m not all that trusting of federal law enforcement and intelligence monoliths), I walked out; never went back.

    The other group was actually an agenda-driven group of the person who formed it. He happily furnished all the coffee and doughnuts and soft drinks, and would even send his son to pick you up if you needed a ride. Turned out, the wanted us to evaluate and his psychological/sociological theories rather than our own work.

    So I haven’t yet actually participated in a writing group. But the experiences I’ve had in trying to, have not been great.

    • Don’t give up! A good critique group is worth its weight in gold (and they’ll tell you not to use that cliche, too.)

      I’ve traveled a lot, so I’ve been in some doozies, but none as apparently useless as your two.

      The main problem I’ve run into is groups of newbies who think they know everything but when they’re the only game in town, they’re not totally useless because they can be good beta readers. I wouldn’t call those groups critique groups, however.

  8. I was part of one writing group a while back. We were online friends who would spend a weekend at the beach (two of our members lived at the beach). It was a great group. Most were mystery writers. I was writing a Civil War trilogy. Someone else wrote poetry and short stories. We were of different ages, different backgrounds. Over the years people moved away. If all of us liked something, we knew it was good. If all of us hated something, it needed fixing. Good times.

    I like to do Nano Write Around DisneyWorld. It’s fun, you get your exercise, and I always get a lot done. Where else can you experience Cinderella and her Prince waltzing through your writing area?

  9. It’s amazing the number of weaknesses I notice in my work when someone else cold reads it out loud, as they usually won’t insert emotions that aren’t on the page.

  10. I loved my critique group. They helped me write my first book, and now with the motivation of monthly meetings, I’ll finally get through my second book. I may not always agree with the critiques, but often their fresh perspective is very helpful and they catch things my biased eye misses.

  11. I’m an “adjunct” member of a group that’s been ongoing for at what must be close to 25 years now. It meets in a local library and is on its third leader. I used to be a regular member until I moved about 40 miles away and now it’s just too hard to get to more than a couple of meetings a year. I can’t begin to list all the things they helped me with over the years, including encouragement and leads on workshops and local conferences.

    The one downside I see now is the size. The group took on a life of its own and how has 12 – 15 members in attendance on any given night. Not everyone reads each week, but as Mark said, I think that’s too many to give each person a chance to properly express opinions. Four-to-seven sounds about right.

  12. I have belonged to two critique groups: one in Las Vegas (which was way too large) and one in Key West, which was the right size (5-6 members). The Key West group lasted about 3 years, meeting at my home every week, until one of the members took a criticism too personally and stormed out. Another member, who thought she was the best writer in the group and thinking the group was nothing without her, also left in order to show solidarity. Result: group gone.

    I think critique groups can be invaluable given the right members.

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