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.