This is the latest of my essays about being an author, brought to you by my Patreon page.
One of the most common questions I get from amateur writers is "how do I know whether my writing is any good?" It's a great question because, in my experience, writers tend to fall into one of two camps when it comes to self-evaluation; either nothing they produce is ever good enough, or they think they are the second coming of Tolkien. Even if they're right one way or the other, it's always good to get some outside perspective on this sort of thing. But you're going to exhaust the goodwill of your friends and family pretty quickly if you're frequently asking them to read your work-in-progress.
This is where writing groups come in. It's a fairly straight-forward concept; you and a group of peers get together and critique each other's writing. The reciprocal nature of it means that not only do you have people telling you whether your writing is worth pursuing, but you also get experience on the critical side of things that might aid you in your own writing.
Creating/joining a writing group, especially in this age of online communication, is really easy. It might be a good idea to start with real-life friends that share your interests or, if that's not an option, to check with your local library to see if they host a weekly group that might be looking for a new member. A writing class at your local college will probably force you into writing groups; a lot of people I know still use the same group they met through class decades ago.
If you're more comfortable with the ease and not-having-to-talk-to-people-face-to-face of the internet, there are tons of forums and websites dedicated to this type of thing, where you're going to have a much easier time finding people who write in your same genre. The impersonal nature of an online group might get you better, more honest critiques, but it might land you with a couple of trolls too, so beware.
Once you're settled in, you'll have to set rules (or abide by those of an existing group), which include frequency of meetings, weekly word limit, negative vs positive feedback ratio—all the stuff that comes with organizing a new group of people. Be warned that it can end up as an enormous headache. I said that getting a writing group is really easy. Getting the right writing group is difficult as hell.
I'm going to take a moment and stress just how important writing groups are. I learned huge amounts from my writing groups through college—I learned how to give and take criticism, and how to be realistic about my own failings as a writer and how to make myself better. There was also the confidence boost that came with it. A big part of why I'm a full-time author today is that I took a writing class when I was seventeen, and a cute girl told me I was the best writer in the class of twenty or so kids—and then everyone else agreed with her. That may sound stupid, but increments of positive reinforcement like that over the years kept me going, helping me believe I was actually good at something.
Now I'm going to tell you why I can't particularly stand writing groups. Keep in mind this is my own personal experience—mileage will vary.
As I've alluded, there are a lot of problems that come with a writing group. Egos are a big one. Even the most open-minded, introspective people will get prickly when you're dissecting their baby. If someone says they can handle constructive criticism, spend ten minutes telling them how terrible their dialogue is and see if you're still friends. Now imagine doing the same with strangers who may be vain, overprotective, or just looking for the confidence boost without the criticism. It gets real old, real quick.
This may sound like me being a stuffy old man and believe me, it is. But it's more than just me not having the patience to deal with the people. I quickly found after school (and sometimes during it) that people in my writing groups were not on my level. Not in a skill way, though sometimes that was the case, but in a "I want to make this a career" way. That's not a bad thing, of course—you can have whatever ambitions you want with your writing, large or small—but it meant I was coming to group each week with 10K words of prose, constantly editing and devouring feedback, while they'd bring in a tenth that and understandably didn't want to have to slog through all of mine.
I also don't like the repetitiveness. Someone (including me) would get critiques on a chapter, rewrite it, and (again understandably) want to see if they'd done a better job, so resubmit for the next week. Everyone would have to read the same chapter, rewritten, four or five times and then a month has passed and what do you have? A single chapter. That speed works for some people, but I can't handle moving along that slowly.
Thing is, whether they want to admit it or not, people don't always come to writing groups for the reason you'd assume (to get better). They come for the social aspect, for an echo chamber, to get out of the house on a Tuesday night; sometimes just to find something new to read. And that's all fine. But you have to be honest with each other so no one has false expectations and that doesn't happen very often because human nature.
I'll reiterate, writing groups were immensely useful to me. I met awesome authors and good friends—people I still keep in touch with today—through my writing groups in Brandon Sanderson's class and OSC's Literary Bootcamp. But I eventually dropped writing groups all together. They weren't, at the end of the day, worth my time.
Hopefully that doesn't sound too arrogant. Writing groups are important because of the outside feedback they provide and thankfully I've been able to find that elsewhere. Since college my wife has been my first reader on everything, so she could tell me whether or not I was going to embarrass myself submitting to an agent or editor. And now that I'm a reasonably established author, I have a fanbase and professional friends I can ask for beta-reads even before my agent or editor sees a piece.
Don't get me wrong; the right writing group may still come along some day. I don't have experience working with a long-term, pro or semi-pro writing group, where everyone has serious writing credentials and a career at stake. Given the chance to join one of those I may very well change my mind about the "worth my time" thing. Or maybe I wouldn't. I'm a bit of a fuddy-duddy.
At the end of the day, most people don't have the benefit of an established fanbase, a professional editor, or someone literally in-house who can tell them to fix a chapter or work on their dialogue. Despite the misgivings about writing groups I mentioned above, I still think they're an absolute necessity for newer writers. You need some kind of outside input if you ever want to get better. That means dealing with egos, trolls, and even your own social anxiety to get it. But it's worth it. No one ever gets better without being told what they're doing wrong.
Brian's previous Patreon essays: