Writing groups - what to look for

(First published July 2018)

Writing groups – good company, but do they help you write? 


It depends on the group, unsurprisingly. A writing group which meets regularly merely to listen, praise and reassure might be good for your ego but it won’t do much for your writing. On the other hand, a group of writers that is overly-focused on one particular type of writing, or purely on avenues to publication may give you useful tips and ideas but might sap your confidence in what you are writing yourself. 


I’m a member of three writing groups, and I love them all. I’ve been a member of one group for about fifteen years, another for three and the most recent for just a few months. 


Here’s a brief description of each one.  


Barmoor writers meets twice a year at Barmoor house on the North York Moors. This group was established by the late, great poet Ann Atkinson. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/jul/29/ann-atkinson-obituary I first met Ann at the Welsh writing centre at Ty Newydd. https://www.tynewydd.wales where Ann had organised a writing retreat. Ann was like a circus ringmaster, finding poets and prose writers she thought would get along and bringing us together, sometimes at her house in the Hope Valley, sometimes at houses she rented around the country. These retreats, which happened three or four times a year, had a sort of magic about them. I always produced at least one short story or a couple of new chapters of a novel during the week, and each evening after dinner and the washing-up we’d sit around the fire and listen to each other’s work. It’s a testament to the power of the spell Ann wove that we still meet twice a year, six years after her death (which still seems impossible to believe) and continue to encourage and critique, constructively but fearlessly.


Part of the strength of the group is the blend of poetry and prose. The poets have a very acute ear for redundant words and inelegant language, and having poets point that out has helped my writing immeasurably. Conversely, we prose writers make good canaries in a cage for the poets, responding to the poems that connect with the unpoetical ear and looking a bit befuddled at those that don’t quite land where they were meant to. 


My London writing group grew out of a Curtis Brown Creative course in 2015 https://www.curtisbrowncreative.co.uk (I’ll do a separate blog about courses later in the year). All fifteen students bonded on the course and ever since we meet once a month at Waterstone’s on Piccadilly to review two or three extracts. With this group much of its strength comes from the varied genres we’re writing – from thrillers and comedy to lit fic. It means each of us sees different things in each other’s writing. We’re from a wide range of backgrounds, connected by mutual respect and our fervent wish to encourage to encourage each other across the finishing line of publication. 


My latest writing group developed out of the wonderful Dorset Writers Network http://www.dorsetwritersnetwork.co.uk It’s grown organically over the past few months, a couple of members having recently finished the Bath Spa Masters in Creative writing. As with the other two groups, the feedback given and received is thoughtful, constructive and precise. It’s given with kind intent without being sugar-coated. 


My advice: find other writers whose work and whose feedback you respect, even (especially) if they are working in a different genre or style to yourself. If you can’t find an existing writing group, it’s not hard to set-up your own once you have met one or two fellow writers willing to give it a go.