Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Rant Against Writers' Groups

When I opened my copy of the Autumn issue of The New Writer earlier today ( I was rather surprised to see how many times my name appeared. It was nine times if anyone other than me is interested, even beating the great Simon Whaley (Hi Simon!) who was only mentioned seven times, although I'm happy to accept a re-count if he insists on one.

On a more serious note, the reason for this unusual proliferation was because a while back, I had a piece published in the open "rant" slot of TNW explaining why, in my opinion, professional writers shouldn't belong to writers' groups. I admit I had my Polly Toynbee hat on at the time and was trying to be a bit controversial but nevertheless, I stand by everything I said in that piece.

Much to my surprise, someone agreed with me. Someone also strongly disagreed with me, saying I had been"extremely patronising" and expressing great relief that I wasn't a member of their writers' group (I'm a pussy-cat really!) but isn't that the point of good journalism?

The someone who agreed with me was Roger Harvey who wrote a full page in response to my "rant", beginning by congratulating me on having the courage to speak out against writers' groups and TNW on having the courage to print my views. I realise I wasn't being congratulated on having the courage to speak out against apartheid or illegal phone tapping but it's the first time I've ever been congratulated for speaking "the truth" so thank you very much for that, Roger.

Anyway, the reason I'm blogging about this is not to boast (honestly!) but because I think the question about the use and validity of writers' groups for professional writers is a subject that should be up for "healthy debate" just like any other topic. Yes, there will be many people who disagree with my views especially as, in my opinion, the writing trade magazines seem keen to promote the idea that belonging to a writers' group is definitely the thing to do if you want to become a writer.

I don't actually disagree with that, as I said in my original article. It's just that I totally agree with Roger when he says that membership of certain kinds of writers' groups is definitely not "a reliable route to publication and success". In fact I would go one step further by saying that it can even hold your writing career back or keep it "stuck" in a less than desirable place.

So my (controversial!) view is that by all means join a group to help kick-start your writing career but once you've made it onto a respectable rung of the ladder, don't be looking to the cosy confines of a writers' group to help you move up even further.

If you still think I'm wrong, ask yourself if you honestly feel that it is a good idea to mention in a covering letter to an editor or agent that you belong to a writers' group, unless you are writing about writers' groups, of course. And if that fails to change your mind, try the litmus test for all writing-related questions. Would JK Rowling belong to a writers' group?

I'm off now to hire a handsome bodyguard to defend me against any brickbats that might be coming my way but I'd love to hear your views on "the truth that dare not speak its name" so do get in touch. (Oh, and to make up for having a little bit of fun at Simon Whaley's expense, here is a link to his excellent website                


  1. Hi Melissa,

    Despite my love of writing groups, I don't disagree with you. I go to two groups, not really to learn (although we have guest speakers from time to time, so I always benefit from what other professional writers have to say), but because I enjoy meeting up with other writers generally.

    Perhaps I'm lucky in that both of the groups I go to don't take ourselves too seriously. (They dressed up as pirates, the other month!)

    I have always said that a writers' group is not a writer's panacea. Always try before you buy and never stay with a group if you don't get anything out of it. I still go because I still get something out of it. One of the groups I go to sets regular homework - often a short story or an article. I have often gone on to sell those short stories and articles (and yes - the rant in the latest issue of TNW was originally a piece of homework for a writers' circle). Other 'homework' has been published in The Weekly News, That's Life Fast Fiction (in Australia) and Writing Magazine.

    Writers' groups are not for everyone, but I enjoy going to the ones I go to, and I consider myself to be a professional writer. I don't go specifically to learn my craft, I go to have fun, meet friends, and be inspired with ideas.

    And, of course, a writers' circle is a great place for some healthy discussions!

    Best wishes


  2. Hi Simon. Great to hear from you. Thanks very much for your in-depth comment. I like the idea of the pirates! It's good that your groups work for you and who am I to disagree? Hope that more of your "homework" brings you success. All best, Melissa

  3. I don't subscribe to TNW so I haven't seen your article, Melissa, but you obviously started something there! I have never belonged to a face-to-face writing group since they are thin on the ground around here and I have a feeling that it might not be for me.

    However, it is a lonely life being a writer and sometimes you need the security of knowing that others face the same issues. I do belong to a virtual, online writers group, which is just for expats. It has brought on my writing in leaps and bounds and, in fact, is what got me started writing short stories about 18 months ago.

    I have learned a huge amount from other members' critiques and comments generally. We've also published 2 anthologies, which has been a learning curve. However, the moment I feel I no longer get anything out of it will be the time to say goodbye, but I'm not there yet.

    You don't have to be in a writing group of any kind to get those benefits, of course. Having a writing 'buddy' might also be a good thing, although you only get one person's views then. No doubt there are other ways of interacting, too.

  4. Thanks for joining in the debate, Vanessa. As I said to Simon, it's good that you've found a group that works for you and has helped you to be more productive. I agree that interaction (virtual or otherwise) is certainly very important for writers but I still feel that the professional writer needs to learn the discipline of working on their own and only interacting with readers, editors and publishers.