These are a few observations from experience over the years with several different arrangements for writers to get together in person to support each others’ authorship prowess.
There are some inherent limitations of volunteer writers’ groups that self-aggregate to meet. I have found a key one to be that much of what we each write may not actually resonate with others in the group. While this is not surprising given the huge range of styles and genres that exists today, getting useful points for improvement can be a challenge if you rely on people who do not choose to write or even read in the subject areas of your prose. That said some authors do have a deep enough understanding of the craft of writing that they can contribute valuable commentary on almost any type of writing. However, especially where both genre and category (fiction, memoir, poetry, etc.) lie well outside most of the other group members’ interests, my experience is that there is limited value to be got from reading our work to them.
Writers’ groups that meet in person are of necessity locale-based and so, while potentially desirable, separating out, say, a fiction sub-group, a poetry cadre, a playwright’s forum and a place for memoirists to meet may not attract a critical mass of writers in any single category. Plus personally I do get something from listening to good prose from writers in genres and categories that I am unlikely to ever venture into (e.g. poetry). Good writing transcends genre.
Motivation is another trait to watch out for. For myself I want to consort with folk who are serious about their writing being read, and are not just writing as a pastime. Some members of writers collectives are essentially hobbyists and either lack the desire or are unwilling to put effort into the ultimate test of quality writing, getting paid to be read. They do however enjoy both the act of penmanship and the companionship of others like them. If you fit this profile, most writers’ groups can accommodate you; indeed some may not go any further towards publication than encouraging their members to occasionally send material to writing competitions. For me a wide variation in desired result among the members of a writing group is more of a problem than the differences in quality and style.
It is common for groups like us at Writers’ Ink to propose a topic as a prompt for members to employ for their writing to be read out at the next meeting. I work with such prompts where I see that they can be employed to help build a portfolio in my chosen space – memoir and essay writing. If not, then I have to be a passenger during this agenda item, and this is probably true for other members, as not every one of us has sufficient craft and experience to be able to comment wisely and in depth on material lying well outside our own writing and reading preferences. Thus I do not find this format to be one that normally enables detailed and highly relevant critiquing. Every ‘writer-craft’ book that I have come across says that one should build a small circle of committed critics to fulfill one’s own needs for feedback. Joining an already self-assembled open group will often not prove a forum sufficient in itself to push us towards publishable excellence.
Instead the value of writers groups for me has been in appreciating more fully the many routes that exist to saying something well and interestingly in print, and the variety of personalities, personal histories and national origins from which great stories can derive. Also that it truly is a craft to be a good writer and one that can be learned. These fellow member writers are our ‘tribe’, with whom we need to powwow every so often, so that we get away from our keyboard to see what lies beyond!
by Ian Keith Anderson