or want to write a book, a writers' group may be for you!
Many new authors are afraid to go to writers' groups because they are new to writing and don't know what to expect; they are worried about criticism; they feel their work is personal, and so a criticism of their work is a criticism of them; or other worries. However, whether you are a new author or an established author, a writing group may be just what you need--not only to help you refine your work, but also to give you a variety of reactions and a support group who will help you achieve your goals. It's also a great place to test-market those ideas you have rattling around in your brain!
Most writing groups meet informally and have few rules. Usually these are the best kinds of groups for new authors, because the loose structure will allow you to build up a relationship with others in the group that will make new authors more at ease. If you are new to the group, you should always bring your contact information and a pencil or pen and some scratch paper. Not only will you want to exchange email or phone information with a few people in the group, but you may get ideas from someone else's work for your own.
Groups usually begin by having everyone who wants to read sign in. Readings are usually limited to ten double-spaced pages. Typically, readers will bring copies of their work to pass out, so that other writers in the group can make corrections on printed copies. (This is where that pencil or pen comes in handy!) Writers don't all have the same strengths: one might be great at catching grammar or spelling errors, or words that sound alike but mean different things; another might concentrate on "tone" or "voice"; another might spot continuity errors; and others might contribute valuable information on general language use, tightening up plotlines, dialogue, or have other specialties. Each writer has strengths and weaknesses, and by harnessing everyone in the group's strengths, everyone's writing will be the better for it.
When you are given a copy of a work to correct, don't be afraid to speak up! If you see problems, mark them down for corrections. If a person reads their work aloud, and you notice differences between the spoken and written versions, note those down and decide which version is better. Writers who have been coming to the group know whether they are weak in certain aspects of writing, so they will appreciate your help in those areas.
Sometimes it's better to wait a while, to see what criticisms others make of writers' works. You'll know who is the grammar geek, and who is the spelling authority, and what each writer's strengths are, and you'll be better prepared for what is to come.
When you read for the first time, you may want to bring a work you're not too fond of. That way, when you receive criticism, it won't hit so hard as if you bring your best piece of work ever and it gets abundant amounts of criticism. (Remember, a lot of criticism is good--not getting any won't help you get better. This is not a popularity contest, but a resource to fix what's wrong with your writing.) It's customary to bring a number of printed copies if the work is fairly long. Take the criticism without defending your work, and go home and think about whether the criticisms are fair. Look at the notes people made on your printed copies, and try to distance yourself from the work and ask yourself whether the criticisms are helpful.
As you get more comfortable with the group, you may want to bring works you're having real problems with. Remember, you are all there to help each other, so those criticisms of your work are not of you personally. Sometimes, an idea is just not salvageable, and other times, something you originally wrote in one form (like a short story) may work better in another form, such as a blog post. And you're not alone--even best-selling authors have ideas that they just never can develop.
In every group, from time to time, there are people who want only to tear down others. Don't worry about them; they don't usually last long, and after a few meetings will get tired of bashing people and not getting a reaction, and go elsewhere. If you can't tell whether something is constructive criticism, call up someone in the group who is not involved in this particular issue and buy them coffee some time, and talk about your work with them.
So regardless of whether you are experienced at writing, or just getting your feet wet, a writers' group may be the ideal place for you to strengthen your skills and hone your craft. Regardless of whether you write fiction, short stories, essays, non-fiction, poetry, or something else, a writers' group will ultimately help you sell your work and improve your writing!
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