Sunday 15 September 2013

Why writers' groups are awesome

I don't know if I'm in much of a place to offer advice to writers, but I do write quite a lot of stuff, and I do occasionally get asked for advice about how to get started. So here's one of the first things I tell anyone.

Join a writers' group. And if there isn't one around, start one.

I've run a writing group in North London at the Big Green Bookshop for over two and a half years, and I ran one in York before that. You can set them up anywhere that is convenient - pubs, libraries, bookshops or, failing that, in someone's living room.

Constructive criticism is one of the most useful things you can hear as a writer, but one of the most frightening things about writing is actually showing it to someone. At the groups I run, we read out what we've written as well, which can be even more terrifying, as it means that you're not only showing your writing to people, but you're being made to speak in public as well.

But you get over that. Maybe not quickly, but you do, and you get better at reading your work out too. What you also get out of it is the chance to hear what you've written, and there are few faster ways to pick up on flaws with your writing. "And then suddenly...oh God, I've written 'suddenly' again...". It's also a brilliant way to get a handle on your own dialogue. If you're writing like no human actually speaks, you'll usually become aware of it quickly.

I usually don't ask people to read what I've written until I've got a mostly-complete full first draft. But reading it out as I'm working through it with a group of like-minded people is a Godsend. Writing can feel like a compulsion, after all (and all I need to remind myself of that is how sluggish I end up feeling if I haven't written for a few weeks, when the need to get the words onto the page feels like I'd do it even if it involved gouging them out of my arm with a fork), and it's comforting to sit in a room with people who understand that compulsion rather than just thinking you're strange.

Not everyone writes with the aim of publication (although we have had some success in that field within the group as well, including publication in anthologies, magazines and websites, along with a handful who have found agents and book deals), but everyone has their own reasons for wanting to do it.

That means that writing groups can be wonderfully encouraging and understanding. None of us are out to tear each other's work apart, and it's not a competition either. The simple goal with each person's work is to try and make it better and to encourage them to keep going.

A little while ago, a member of the group from the start told me that she's taken on board the most common criticism she received, which was overwriting. Recently, she redrafted something, and cut a lot from it. She said she loved doing it, because it felt freeing and once she'd done it, she could see that it made her writing better.

And that's what writers' groups are all about. They're safe spaces while you're working on your story to get a chance to hold it up to the light and get some feedback on it. Of course, not all the feedback is useful, but that's fine as well.

Also, socially, they're fun. There are regularly over twenty in the writing group I run, and it takes up the entire evening. But we do it with some drinks and snacks, and we keep it mostly light-hearted. For example, we literally have a tangent bell, that someone in the group will ring if we start going too off-topic.

And then, after, we usually go to the pub for last orders. A lot of us have made friends (and even relationships) within the group as well. And it means there's usually someone to talk to if you have a specific question.

The most common thing said in the group? "Keep going with it". Because it's all about encouragement, and helping you figure out what it is you're trying to do.

So, if you're looking to start writing, or looking for a little guidance, that's why my first piece of advice is always to get yourself down to your local writing group.

Don't have one? Why not read my guide to starting a writers' group?

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