If writing is a hobby or a social activity for you, stop here. If you want to write work you can sell, or simply write write work that strives for excellence, keep reading.
Writers groups can be an essential tool. They can help you hone your craft and discover new ideas that never would’ve occured to you on your own, but only if you keep them limited to five people max. And while we’re at it, no more than three hours per meetup.
Because at the core of any successful writers group there is discipline, focus, honesty, and trust. Those things slip away as the group gets too large.
Honesty goes first. It’s easy, if you listen to your ego, to assume that any room full of people quietly staring at you is an audience there to see you perform. And so, you put on a persona. You put your energy into your presentation, your voice, your pacing, etcetera. This is equally true if you are a “shy person” who gets sweaty and fidgety and small when you have to do “public speaking.” (That’s worthy of a whole separate post, so I’ll stop here.)
Putting on a persona means you don’t put your energy into the writing, and the writing doesn’t improve. Conversely, if you’re in front of two to four other people who really are listening—who are not themselves distracted with their personas—then the performance aspect is pointless. At that point, you might as well get down to the craft.
I should add here that reading aloud is a worthy and rewarding skill, one that can give you an enormous advantage in your writing career. Go practice it in front of a real crowd.
There’s a reason why theatres have all the seats facing the stage and lights that dim when the show begins. If they gave you the option to look anywhere else, you wouldn’t look at the stage. Again, if you want to practice reading aloud, go do it front of a real crowd. Do it in a place that’s designed for that.
In an unregulated crowd, focus flies everywhere. Get more than five writers in a room and they’ll all swear that they’re paying attention and that they’re there to work on the craft. By the time they get to the second reader, they will instead be mentally rehearsing their performance. Said performance will include both their critique of the other readers and their reading of their own work. It will have little to do with the craft and much more to do with establishing status within the group.
Understand that this has nothing to do with those writers being selfish or stupid people. It’s a function of the size of the group. You can recreate this same effect with anyone, regardless of skill, experience, or background. I’ve been in large groups and I’m as guilty of these things as anyone else.
Most people are not disciplined. This is because being disciplined is hard. For writers, being disciplined involves an enormous amount of emotional labor—an amount that takes practice to deliver and prohibits the uncommitted from doing the work.
You especially don’t want an undisciplined writer in your group. Not even one. They’ll drag down your own level of discipline by providing you excuses to slack off or outright attacking you for trying to bring sincerity to the work.
If anything, you should seek out writers who are more disciplined than you and try to group up with them. Find the ones who have published more than you have, do more research than you do, write more words per day than you do, or spend more time at the keyboard than you do. Yes, you will feel embarrassed at first for not keeping up with them. You may even feel like a fraud. That presents you a wonderful opportunity to prove yourself wrong and level up.
Trust takes time to develop. Trust is dynamic—it survives only by keeping alert and adapting to the moment. You cannot cultivate trust with another individual in the middle of a crowd. Cultivating trust requires the very things that crowds take away: honesty, focus, and discipline.
Tell someone the brutal truth about their work in the context of a large crowd, and you will be labelled “the jerk.” The crowd will ignore the content of your argument so they can instead judge your performance. Even if you manage to avoid offending them, they’ll get caught up in classifying your persona as “the tough love coach” or “the jerk with a heart of gold.” Fine roles to play, but save them for the stage.
In a small group, you can go around to each person and develop trust with them. You can give them your full focus and honesty for a solid fifteen or thirty minutes. Then you can take a breather and move on to the next one, staying discipline about how you use your time and the time of the other thoughtful, diligent people at the table.
And, of course, the best group mates to start with are the writers you trust already.
Go out, find them, and keep them close.