Connective Writing

by Ricardo Teixeira
by Ricardo Teixeira

by Pauline Masurel

Is there a collective noun for writers? If so, I’m not sure what it is. Over the years I’ve belonged to a number of writing groups, both online and in person. I have always found the experience of interacting with other writers a valuable one. For starters, I think writers generally make good company. They often have interesting views of the world and are enthusiastic communicators. Most of the ones I’ve met also have a good sense of humour. Of course, this may be self-selecting. Perhaps the dull, misanthropic, humourless writers tend to keep themselves to themselves rather than “joining in” with anyone else.

I’ve found that writers groups are really useful for sharing information about possible markets, competitions and other opportunities. Writers can also offer support and prompts to encourage each other to take up some of these. Some writing groups may even go on to publish or perform their work together or form fruitful writing collaborations.

Usually another of the key elements of such groups is the opportunity to workshop pieces of work and get writerly feedback on what I’ve written. A couple of the groups I’ve belonged to effectively sprang from taught classes, such as university evening classes and contacts that I met when studying for my Creative Writing MA. This obviously has the advantage that members of the group have probably already read each others writing, are familiar with the process of giving and receiving feedback, and are familiar with the groundrules.

Workshopping in an online environment, though, with people you’ve never met face-to-face can be an altogether dicier business when group members come together with different expectations. It is almost always easier to offend someone online than it is when you’re in the same room as them. However, I would argue that such an environment gives access to a much broader range of writers operating within all manner of writing genres and traditions, and even no traditions at all.

The frequency with which groups get together also varies. Some meet weekly, fortnightly, monthly or simply occasionally. How often individual members receive feedback on their own work, if at all, will also vary. Some distribute pieces to read in advance, others may read extracts of each other’s work on the day. Online groups can be available continuously for as much or as little participation as individuals wish to contribute. This, in itself, can present a problem. How do you deal with a few hyperactive individuals when other members of the group have numerous outside responsibilities and competing draws upon their time?

One advantage to writing short stories is that they are a lot easier to workshop within a group, particularly one which has a fluid or irregular membership. All but the longest of short stories can usually be read and discussed at a single sitting, whereas novelists or dramatists may find it difficult to workshop anything other than isolated extracts of their work, constantly having to explain the context to newcomers.

The group that I currently belong to is open to anyone. We advertise in an online directory of writers’ groups and have sometimes simply left flyers in the library and local bookshops to recruit new members when numbers were dropping. We don’t have any formal selection procedure and simply leave new recruits to decide whether or not the group is for them. It seems as though it could be a recipe for disaster, but so far we’ve been lucky in attracting a range of interesting people who are happy to gather together socially to discuss each other’s writing.

My rationale for wanting such an open door policy is that it’s all too easy to end up spending time with those who write within one’s own parameters rather than widening that range. I want the challenge of reading outside my comfort zone, although this means it can be difficult to offer constructive feedback if I’m not really the natural audience for a piece of writing. I can understand why, for example, romance writers and horror writers might find that they don’t gel in a single group. But there’s a part of me, perhaps whimsically, that still chooses to believe there are things they could learn from each other. There is no greater compliment than someone saying, “I don’t normally read this sort of thing, but I really enjoyed your story.”

There are some potential downsides to belonging to a writing group. For example, what happens when you find that a lot of your valuable writing time and critical energy is being channelled into forums, or into reading and critiquing other people’s work rather than creating your own original fiction?

I heartily recommend the act of gathering together with other writers if you can find a group that suits you. And if you can’t, then what’s to prevent you from starting one?

I’d be really interested to hear from other writers about their experiences of writing groups.

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5 thoughts on “Connective Writing

  1. Oh Pauline, don’t get me started! I can think of several groups that didn’t work for me. Mostly to do with the motivation of people within the group; I include myself as part of the problem (don’t get me wrong!). When I’ve been part of a course, we’re all there with similar motivations and for me that’s been brilliant whether MA or evening class or day course or weekend etc. They’re usually structured sessions and we all know where we stand and how far we can go. We read and offer constuctive feedback etc etc. In other words, there’s a professionalism about it. One writers’ group I joined simply left me feeling bored. Another was too busy with minutes and protocol to actually read. In another someone had a massive tantrum which was actually quite interesting and consequently various people tried to get others on their side which of course didn’t work because there was loads of back stabbing which meant that eventually the group dissolved. It was dramatic though and since I wasn’t one of the main evildoers, I actually quite enjoyed the whole thing. I’ve also been to a group where it was mostly wine and nibbles which was lovely. Perhaps the worst group I’ve been to was where one knew exactly what people were going to say to particular people, flattered perhaps or where a writer of Romantic fiction was patronised for writing genre fiction, or the general opinion convinced a poor writer that if only agents had the insight and imagination to see the truly creative wonderfulness of the writing that particluar writer would have been taken on and published to international acclaim years ago! How ridiculous. Not helpful and ultimately very annoying. But that’s my opinion. It’s possible that those writers belonged to that group because that is the kind of feedback they wanted to receive. They felt good. It worked for them. It doesn’t work for me. Do you want more? I can get very angry on the subject! Heehee!

  2. I’ve been to a few writers’ groups and some work for me and some don’t (let’s not get into that) but I find writing with other writers a real buzz. All that creativity churning around the room, the pencils in mouths staring at the ceiling, gaping jaws or scribbling frantically, the shaking legs, some people sit back from their notebooks like their hand belongs to someone else. For me there’s something a little bit dangerous about it like jumping on a moving train (before automatic doors obviously) and sometimes I catch a really good idea. Perhaps someone else’s.

    1. Amanda, it’s great to read about the thrill of what it’s like when writing groups went well for you. It sounds positively galvanizing. I don’t know if I’m alone in this….but I find myself secretly longing to know something about some of the groups that really didn’t work for you….and to know why. Can you be suitably cryptic in anonymising the experiences to avoid causing offence?

  3. Having had experience of many writers’ groups, I can look back and see which were better in terms of my own development – (speaking from the standpoint of now being relatively well published, some quality comp wins, a couple of collections out there, and so forth). I know I learned by far the best, and the quickest, in a closed online writing forum where the participants were encouraged to treat their own work as gifts to the other learners, allowing them to winkle out the errors. Such winkling was done in a standardised manner thanks to an analytical focus on craft elements and how well they were performing. Or not. We were encouraged not to suggest how to fix a problem in someone else’s work – to respect who was the owner of the story. Never to offer line edits. The feedback on one’s own words was after all, from other beginners, and needed to be treated with healthy suspicion – no subjective statements were allowed – the ‘I like it’ response, without backing up from text, might have been allowed once – a second time and there would have been ructions!

    Not everyone’s cup of tea.Tough and disciplined. But it worked for me very well. I went on to form my own online writers group. It was based on roughly the same lines – but I restricted membership to those who had already been published/been placed in comps. The idea was to keep sightlines level or up. That group is still going. With plenty of successes following.
    I guess it is all a question or horses for courses. What suits me as a writer will certainly not suit everyone else. I think writers should be aware of that, and be happy to walk away from a group if it isn’t working…. not just stay to keep the peace. Writing is far too important to play around with.

    1. Hi Vanessa, thanks for sharing your own experiences of writing groups.

      I tend to agree with you that detailed edits to suggest a ‘fix’ for a problem are less helpful than identifying the problem and lthen leaving the writer to solve it. Although, inevitably, I think conversations about potential ‘solutions’ always seem to arise in a group. Which isn’t, in itself, a bad thing. But perhaps live feedback differs slightly from a solely textual interaction with the writing (as in an online group or one where feedback is given on a marked up copy of the writing). A line-by-line edit of a piece of writing can inadvertently end up as a ‘cover version’ of the work by a different author. Thus infringing the voice of the writing, as well as its ‘ownership’. Whereas, a discussion can throw up some ideas without presenting any single individual version as ‘better’ or ‘correct’.

      Ironically, in exchanges with editors of my work I think I have almost always received suggestions for changes as detailed line edits. There, of course, the power relationship is slightly different. But I still prefer to regard such ‘feedback’ as part of a conversation about how to fix a problem. The editor has just short-cutted some of the discussion and put forward one solution. Being the author, I’m still free to dispute it (just as the editor is free to not publish my work until the problem gets fixed!)

      I think you’re right that there’s a place for more intensive ‘boot camp’ groups, just as there is for more social ‘tea and chat’ gatherings with no workshopping at all taking place. Perhaps it’s a case of writers needing to find their own ‘courses for horses’ rather than vice versa.

      Personally, though, I’ve always thought that writing is far too important NOT to play around with it, at least somehwat…..but that’s just me! I don’t find that a sense of playfulness with writing or even casual, informality in the discussion of it is necessarily an obstacle to taking the business of writing seriously. However, I realise that some people find that making a distinction between ‘work’ and ‘play’ is part of professionalising their writing activity and ‘taking it seriously’. But I believe that one can still have fun with words and also revise meticulously, deliver to deadline and achieve success.

      One of my favourite quotations is from the late Margot Fonteyn, “The most important thing I have learned over the years is the difference between taking one’s work seriously and taking one’s self seriously. The first is imperative, and the second disastrous.”

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