How to Get the Most Out of a Writing Group

In my novel, The Writing Circle, when one member of my fictional writing group does something which betrays another member, the unintended consequences extend far beyond the group itself. Readers often ask whether I belong to a writing group, and if this is a story about my own group.    

I currently belong to two writing groups and have belonged to several in my career, and although the Leopardi Circle, the group in The Writing Circle, isn’t about any of them, I’ve certainly drawn on my experiences to shape the scenes where the characters meet and discuss their work.

Corinne is excited to give away a free copy of her book to a random commenter. Comment within one week;
winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: Nancy won.)


Guest column by Corinne Demas, award-winning
author of numerous books for children and adults,
including two short story collections, four novels, a
memoir, Eleven Stories High: Growing up in Stuyvesant
Town, 1948—1968, and a collection of poetry (find
all books here). The paperback edition of her new
novel, The Writing Circle, came out in March, and
her new Young Adult novel, Everything I Was, was
published in April. See her website here.


Writers, as we all know, are fragile creatures, and we feel vulnerable when it comes to exposing our work-in-progress. So why should we join a writing group and place ourselves in jeopardy? The main reason is obvious: writing is a lonely profession, and the camaraderie of others sympathetic to our struggles can keep us sane. Writers comfort and nourish each other.  The publishing world can seem heartless these days, and it’s reassuring to discover that the rejection we invariably face is not really personal.

Before you join a writing group, though, it’s important to determine what you hope to get out of it. There are different kinds of writing groups, and they serve different needs. Some workshop groups are primarily supportive, others encourage tougher criticism. If what you’re looking for is companionship and a chance to talk shop, join a group of writers who hang out together rather than one where writers bring their manuscripts to the table. Make sure your writing group is a good fit.

My Tuesday writing group has been meeting more than twenty years. We gather weekly—or at least whenever we can get a quorum of four. We begin with news of our triumphs and woes, then we read aloud from our manuscripts and offer each other advice. My writing group heard me read both The Writing Circle, and my new YA novel, Everything I Was, chapter by chapter, and their input was a vital part of my revision process for each book.

My Friday writing group gathers informally in a café. We catch up on publishing news, and update each other on our writing projects and PR labors. We turn out for each other’s books events.

The worst reason to join a writing group is because you want to showcase your work. Writing groups involve give and take; you will spend more time on other people’s manuscripts than on your own. If the group is successful,  you will have the pleasure of seeing your feedback improve a colleague’s writing, and you’ll take pride in their published work. (And be thanked in the acknowledgements!)

Some writing groups are genre specific, but I’ve found it beneficial to be in a group where writers are working in a variety of genres. Poets bring a different eye to things than prose writers, and vice versa. Being in a group that welcomes a variety of genres is important if you might want to try your hand at different genres as well. In The Writing Circle my characters include two novelists, a poet, a biographer, a historian, and writer of thrillers, and I had fun producing a section of each writer’s work, which my characters dissect at their meetings.

Writing groups work best when the participants are clear about the group’s mission and when the ground rules are laid out. These guidelines may need to be revisited if a group’s membership changes. It’s helpful to agree on a general plan for reading order, and the length of time spent on each piece of work. You might also want to decide ahead of time on a procedure for accepting new members.

Even with a group of writers who are well-published and hardened, feelings still can be hurt. In my Tuesday writing group we’ve found it’s helpful to articulate ahead what sort of feedback we’re looking for, especially if our work is raw and we’re not ready for anything more than kindness. We also try to preface critical suggestions with a positive comment.

The most important thing any writing group can have is trust among its members. When you join a writing group, you are entrusting others with something intimate and precious, and the risks are great. The rewards are great, as well. At its best, a writing group can function as a family—a family that understands exactly what it is you do. It will be there to celebrate all your successes and to cheer you on when you are tempted to unplug your laptop for good. A writing group can sustain you and remind you that whatever may come of  what you produce, the real joy lies in the creative endeavor itself.

Corinne is excited to give away a free copy of her book to a random commenter. Comment within one week;
winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: Nancy won.)

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