When writing groups go bad

Writers do not need drama, manipulation or flakiness

For every successful, healthy writing group, there are a dozen that are mean, manipulative and unhealthy and this website was created as a handbook for health. As I was completing my Masters in Creative Writing, my own lecturer, a very respected and prolific writer, gave us a final piece of advice: Never, ever, ever, join a writers’ group.

I’m glad I didn’t listen to her but there are reasons why many writers refuse to engage with a writers’ group and I want to cover them here. Many of these points will come up again later as we discuss ways to manage unhealthy or controlling behaviours and we look at ways to protect our groups from unhealthy tendencies that may creep in.

Upsets happen, we’re all human but writers’ groups that are arenas for constant power struggles and conflict are not productive, safe or supportive places. Issues of control can spring up at any time and can often be driven by one person who insists on carving out more time for their work or by venting their personal problems inappropriately.

Another criticism of writers’ groups relate to structure or lack of one. Many writers seeking a group often complain that the groups they attend are not structured so as to give all writers equal time. This kind of lax leadership allows dominant personalities to take over and set the agenda.

Some writers are worried about others stealing their ideas. I’ve heard this myself, often. Whenever there is no trust in a group, these concerns will arise and may not be completely unfounded but there are strategies to deal with these kinds of concerns. A group where trust has been established and a professional and respectful mode of operation is in place, will often take care of these concerns. Many writers worry about this issue and it is not just related to the group. They worry about sharing at pitch festivals, in class and with their friends and this indicates a deeper problem. Writers who carry around a constant suspicion of being betrayed in this way may feel comforted by the fact that it is extremely difficult to take an original idea and recreate it. A writer is more than just their ideas or plot twists. It’s the execution, the very voice of the writer that imbues a work with brilliance. Saying that, we’ve all heard of instances where this has happened. A leader can address this issue and guard the group against this kind of thing.

Finally, another common issue with writers’ groups is related to the dreaded ‘communal writing’. Giving and receiving feedback is a learned skill and unhealthy writers’ groups are not concerned with training themselves on how to provide feedback without being pushy or taking over. A writer is concerned about the integrity of their work and in a group where there are no boundaries, a writer can often feel ambushed and coerced into changing the story to suit the rest of the group. This is dangerous and crushing and doesn’t reflect a true writers’ group.

A dynamic, safe and vibrant writing group is a positive support network in any writer’s life but it takes intentionality and a strong leader to nurture trust. It’s worth it to have writers leave each meeting buoyed and appreciative. I’m a writer, they’ll share afterwards, and I’ve found a community that gets me and wants the best for my work.

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