When I met Lisa Scottoline, I asked her what she thought about writing groups. She said she was against them during the initial writing of a piece because, at that point in the process, hearing negativity would hurt the creative process. I have read that Chuck Palahniuk uses a writing group for feedback at the beginning of projects. I had tried a couple of writing groups in the past, and neither had worked out for me. In the first one, I felt that I was providing some helpful hints, but was not getting anything useful in return. The second group just had so many dropouts that it disbanded. I went to one at a local community college last week, and found the remarks technically useful concerning a first chapter of a novel I had written. I was just wondering about the experiences of other writers with writing groups.

Gus Cileone
A Lesson in Murder

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I was in a great poetry group in Florida for a year or so, 'til I moved out of town. I can imagine scenarios that might be much less useful, though. I think it's really just the luck of the draw: if you work with people who know what they're doing, you'll get good feedback; if not, not.
I've had Jon's experience, but with a group I've been ion for over ten years. Nice people, members come and go around a core of three or four consistent contributors. There are a lot of variables to a successful group experience: your expectations, your needs, your personality, the personalities and experience of the others, their willingness and ability to express themselves constructively, their backgrounds and reading tastes, and probably half a dozen things I'm not thinking of. A good group can be a godsend; a bad group can do far more harm than good.

You'll just have to keep looking until you find a good fit. They're out there.
I totally disagree with Scottoline. Writers who are serious about their craft need to toughen up.

A writers group provides feedback about reader reactions. Sometimes you're lucky and there's a good editor in the group.
My biggest problem with submitting new work has nothing to do with being tough enough. In all honesty, my husband is a writer and an editor and is my best critic and advisor. I never take offense to any of his advice. The fact is that the first draft, as it is in progress, is unedited, which forces the group to focus on the kind of "copy-editing" trivia that an experience writer would immediately correct on the first-go-round. So it is a waste of time for both the writer and the group.

By submitting only completed work that has already been through the writer's own editing process, the group is freed up to focus on more advanced improvements, like story flow and character development. Frankly, I am a strict editor of my own work, and my husband is an editor at the top of his field. In addtion, when I'm ready to publish I have in the past hired a copy-editor. So having an editor in the group is not really a draw for me.
Never underestimate the power of reading aloud before a group of people. There is no replacement. Even if the author doesn't get anything out of what the group says, the process itself is worthwhile.

I've been lucky enough to belong to a great writing group. It helps we meet in an equally terrific coffee house.
Umm, the reading out loud of anything but poetry is too slow and too superficial to get reliable feedback. The group can rarely manage more than a single submission per meeting, and they often don't remember what they meant to say when it's done.
There is one benefit to reading aloud to a group: they will pick up on things you read that are different from what is on the printed page, or things you may stumble over. These are reading error, true, but there's also an implication of awkward sentence structure of less than elegant word choices. These are harder to catch when reading aloud to oneself.
My experience is that Lisa Scottoline is dead-on if the writers group consists of beginners. New writers need fertilizer (encouragement) not pruning. Otherwise they lose productivity. Whatever keeps you writing leads to better writing. Once you get your feet under you, however, with some successes and some higher goals, then it's time for the gloves to come off. It's still useful to hear what's working, but even more to hear what would make the piece better.

My group has been rolling for nine years, with a lot of membership changes. We call it a mystery support group to avoid any tendency to slash and burn, but we are honest. It works best when we are all close to the same level of expertise, but we can accommodate less experienced people and they tend to come up to speed pretty fast. We meet every other week and exchange chapters or short stories by email. No one reads aloud, gave that up years ago when we had an excellent writer who was a lousy reader. Also we are writing to be read on paper, not to be heard, and reading is just too slow. We each print all the chapters (we've gone from double spacing to 1.5 spacing to save paper), mark them up, write our name at the top, discuss at the group, and hand over our copy to the author. Seems to work but I'm sure other methods would also. The group has evolved away from line editing (typos and inconsistencies are marked on the hard copy and not discussed) toward characterization, plot, etc. It takes awhile for the higher level skills to develop and I'm not sure we are there yet, but we're working at it. So yes, unless you are proud that you never join a thing, give a group a try.
Great guidelines for a writers group. I like the idea of sending the stories out ahead of time, so that minor edits can be communicated in writing. Save the discussion for characterization, pacing, tension, things that might never be addressed if the group is arguing over punctuation.
I just want to thank everyone for the responses. I wish I could belong to some of the groups described here. The one I just started to attend has the members read the selections. We then write comments on the pages, but also participate in a discussion. I think sending the selections out ahead of time is a good idea. It allows for more focus. I think reading aloud would work for poetry and maybe pieces which emphasize dialogue. The problem with my group is that is has mostly college students as members. I would prefer an older group. If anyone can recommend a group in the Philadelphia area, I would appreciate it. Thanks again.
Hi Gus, and everyone else,

As Dana said, I think it was him, the best advice is know yourself as a writer. Estimate your strengths and weaknesses with the craft, or a particular project as well. Have goals for that work, and see if it matches the group’s critiques. Critiquing is a skill, so with a new group it’s a huge crapshoot whether they’ll be effective at delivering improvements to your work, craft, or career. Once a core number of members arise, and time passes, they will improve as critiquers. Why, because you’ll be able to identify their strengths and weakness—btw, this is also a skill—and read between the lines. You’ll look to different reviewers for different things. One or two might be your fact checkers, and call you on your BS. One might help with craft, another tell you if the heart and soul of your work is on track.

All that said, if something is hurting your writing, LEAVE. Run don’t walk to the nearest exit.

Here are some things to look for in a potential writing group:
Structure. Make sure they’re serious about meeting dates, and getting down to business once they’re there.
Make sure it’s genre specific. There’s little point in sickening an author of children’s book with your serial killer’s chainsaw rampage through a kitten kennel. In short if the group doesn’t read the genre they’re going to be less effective. (And if they say they’re a crime fiction group but have never read a mystery—run.)
Growth. There has to be a growth element. A writing group is part the larger mystery writing community in their area. Reaching out to that community, developing contacts with locally published writers, industry and crime/law enforcement professionals, bookstores owners and their buyers, and later maybe hosting or putting on events, are all fair game for a serious group focusing on their careers as well as craft.

Lastly, a piece of advice I haven’t seen here so far—one that was given me long ago. Why not start your own group? I did it, and trust me; I’m no rocket scientist, so it isn’t that hard. The Mysterious Writ group turned out pretty well, and you’re welcome to borrow the structure I created to get you started (which is a little different from most groups, and another subject altogether ). Good luck.



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