Joining a writing group can be a great boost to your writing unless you find one that is really bad for you. A good writing group should be a place where your writing is nurtured and the members are looked after.
If you have found a good writing group – great. However, if you have found one that is bad for you, here are ten signs they might be more trouble than they are worth.
1. An abnormally high turnover of members.
All writing groups have some turnover in attendance. Every now and then someone will inexplicably drop out. Just as often, a curious new member will come and join you. It all balances out in the end.
If the group pours all its efforts into an aggressive advertising campaign to balance the steady stream of people leaving, start to worry.
There are two main reasons why a writing group has a high drive for new members (aside from when it is starting up). Either they feel like they have to compete with (instead of co-operating with) other writing groups or they drive away new members as fast as they can get them. If either of those cases is true, that might be a sign to stop and reconsider.
If you learn their main recruitment tactic is to identify members of other groups in order to tell them, “don’t go to that group, come to ours”. Run far away. That is a group that wants power not peers and you can expect a high churn in group membership as a result.
Likewise, a group that starts pressuring you to bring friends might just be enthusiastic but are more likely to need fresh blood because of the rate they burn through new members. The only reason you should bring friends to a writing group is when you genuinely feel they will love it as much as you do. Whatever else they might be trying to do, that cult-like pressure to bring in new members is as bad for you as it will be for anyone you bring along.
2. The same few people dominate discussions.
An otherwise fine writing group can quickly turn bad if the people running it allows the same few people to dominate. All too often, the people running the group are the ones dominating it. The group is not about sharing – it’s their own personal power trip.
It might be because there is a talkative and enthusiastic sharer. There is no problem with enthusiasm that’s why the group’s moderator (or whatever the group calls their organiser) is there. It is a problem when they fail to step in and move things along to the next person.
A dominating clique within the group is a sure fire sign that you should move along to the next one. Especially if you see the next sign that a writing group is bad for you – ego.
3. The longtime members seem to think they are god’s gift to writing.
Despite remaining largely unpublished, the core membership seems to present as if they know everything. They will brook no argument and berate your work if it does not conform to their “rules”. They are right and you will conform.
Challenge this idea and they will cite their one existing win. Like that one time when they came third in a short story competition. Or that one story that a published writer said something nice about. Or the fact that over the last five years, they have sold 60 copies of a self-published book (that’s over one a month).
Groups that lack any humility can quickly turn toxic. Humility is vital for self-learning and growth. Heaven forbid that you should ask such a group why, if they are so good, are they at the group and not at home writing a best seller.
The truth is, struggling writers are generally the worst judges of struggling writing. The core group may have learned a few bits of writing theory; that is not he same as having reached true insight. With all that ego, it is unlikely they have anothering worthwhile to say.
4. All negative or all positive feedback
The feedback that is entirely positive is as bad as feedback that is entirely negative. Both are signs that the group has no idea how to offer a helpful critique.
Only ever hearing what is wrong with a piece will eventually grind down even the most thick-skinned writer. Which could explain a constant turnover of members? Without some focus on what works with our writing, we writers will invariably only focus on our own flaws. For those of us struggling against imposter syndrome, this only enhances our writer’s anxiety.
Groups where any negative is avoided – or worse frowned upon – offer nothing to help us grow as writers. Sure, it feels good to receive some praise but that is not all a writer’s group should be for. It is no good tip toeing around the truth. If a passage does not work, better just to say so than to let the other members think they were the only one who struggled.
Groups that are all condemnation or all praise should study our article: Advice on giving advice.
5. Focus on the Inconsequential
Some groups give feedback that wholly focuses on the inconsequential. Some group can become so obsessed with how often you use exclamation points, miss commas, or miss-spell a few words that they fail to highlight gaping plot holes, weak characterisation, or lack of location.
If this is all that is wrong with the group and you feel they otherwise have potential, you could try asking specifically for feedback on character and only character. Thanet Creative created a series of beta-reading feedback sheets for exactly this reason.
For example, I am dyslexic. Point out one or two glaring mistakes, sure. However, I will only introduce more errors with later drafts. I know this already. The final draft is where this gets fixed – when I am done writing down new words and probably getting one or two wrong.
However, if the group cannot get past its obsession with the smallest of details, they are unlikely to ever be able to help you focus on the bigger picture. In which case, it is time to find a better group.
6. Egos and Attitudes
In addition to an inner clique that thinks they are writing masters, ego and a bad attitude can be damaging in other ways too.
- The ones that always argue with your feedback.
- Those that seem to single out a single gender or genre for especially harsh criticism.
- Members who crumple completely if you dare to so much as think a bad thought about their writing.
- That one person who wants to make everything about them.
- The writer that tries to force you to write in the style and genre they do.
Yvonne Hertzberger writes in “Writing Groups and the Toxic Critic” about how it only takes one toxic critic to fill the room with ego and ruin the evening for everyone. She is right too. A single toxic person that is allowed to remain in the group can make the whole group toxic.
Hopefully, once approached on the subject, the group’s organisers will take action. If the organisers are the toxic ones, there is nothing to do apart from say goodbye and wish them well.
7. When the group behaves like a cult.
The worst type of ego is when the group becomes an extension of the “leader’s” ego. You can spot such groups by the vivid “us vs them” mentality. This will be the kind of group where they like to insist that are great and all the others are second-rate.
My advice to you in such a case is: Get out fast. There is no version of this story where things end well. (Unless you like being in a cult).
A writing group that is rumbling towards cult status will almost always exhibit many of the other signs of a toxic writing group. Save yourself the pain and find a group that will help you grow as a writer instead of expecting you to help them grow as a gang.
8. You do not enjoy going.
At some point in the past, you stopped wanting to go. Now you just show up to tick off one more thing from your to-do list.
The right grup for you will leave you feeling energised and wanting to get back to writing. If you leave feeling only tired, run down, or depressed – it might be time to say goodbye.
Listen to that inner voice – if it is telling you that your group is sucking the joy out of your writing – you need to stop going. If, on the other hand, there is some other problem that can be fixed, all the better. The chances are though, if you start to groan inwardly at the thought of going to the group then that group is not for you.
9. The group is too competitive
A good writing group celebrates your successes but a bad writing group constantly has people who try to out-do you. Unhealthy levels of competition are a sure sign of a toxic group.
If you wrote a thousand words this week, someone wrote twice that. If your car broke down, wait until you hear what they went through. You won an award – bet it is not as good as the one they have. You finished your first draft – they are on a second draft already.
Writing is not the Olympic’s where there can only be one winner in each category. With writing, you are the winner if you keep writing and improve as you do so.
10. The group is all about business not about writing
The main focus of a writing group is writing. That sounds obvious but I was once (a long time ago) part of a group that shifted from being about writing to being about making a website about writing.
Thanet Creative solves this problem by having separate meetings for making plans, organising events, and taking care of business. If the purpose of meeting is writing, then the main gist of the gathering must remain about writing.
There is nothing wrong with a small and informal club wanting to do other things. There is, however, a lot wrong with advertising it as a writing group when it has become anything but a writing group.
Case Study: Where the organisers fail to ensure the safety of vulnerable attendees.
When a group is too interested in itself to ensure the safety of attendees, they risk allowing harm to befall others.
One person who came to a Thanet Creative feedback evening told of a group that sounds like a horror story waiting to start.
The group, which will remain nameless, welcomed a young autistic lady to their evening. She said she needed to catch the train early. Rather than let the new member go first (as she had to leave early) the core clique insisted on their work being seen first.
Eventually, the young lady ran out of time and had to leave. It was dark outside and the streets were mostly empty. The train station was five to ten minutes walk away. She made that trip on her own. Her work was unseen by anyone.
The group barely acknowledged her leaving and not one person thought to wonder if she would be safe travelling alone in the dark. I do not know about you, but I feel that when I organise an event that I have a moral responsibility to ensure everyone travels home safely.
This is a classic example of a group dominated by a core clique that does not care about newer members. Fortunately, most of the time I hear about other local groups it is mostly positive things I hear. This one story has stuck with me, though. I can only hope that it was a one-off thing even though I doubt it.
Over to you
That was our list of signs a (toxic) writing group is bad for you. Have we missed any? What other signs do you think belong on this list?
Naming no names, have you experienced a toxic writing group? How bad was it? Share your story in the comments below.