Writing as a Not-So-Solitary Pursuit: Ye Olde Guide to Wryting Groupes

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

We got our first computer in December 1999 and one of the first things I did was look for an online writing group. I’d been working on a novel on our old word processor and I wanted to keep working on it and get some feedback on it as I went. Plus I wanted to do exercises, meet other writers, and do the things I’d done in college workshops.

I found one with a lot of great people (some of us went on to form Toasted Cheese). That site was among the 101 Best Websites For Writers in 2000 but, like any community, it had its flaws. We started asking each other “If we could make the perfect writer’s group, what would we include?” Password-protected forums were atop our list because many people asked if the work they offered for critique would be considered “published” and expressed concern about others “stealing” their stories.

We also wanted to provide a real-time chat, to give the feel of in-person writer circles. Of course we wanted a page of links and resources but we wanted to be sure to include other writing communities, since we knew that no one group is right for everyone. We also wanted to create an atmosphere where members of the community would feel comfortable posting links to contests, journals and other publishing opportunities. We wanted to eschew the idea that writing communities were in competition for the writer’s attention and embrace the idea that they were tools to help us succeed.

So in January 2001, we launched Toasted Cheese. We had nothing but word of mouth to get us going. In March 2002, our literary journal had a write-up in Writer’s Digest’s “Zine Scene.” By the time we were chosen among their 101 Best Websites for Writers for the first time in May 2002, we had a healthy following. I think the success of our writing community came in part from the fact that we knew what we wanted as writers and we provided that for other writers.

In the years since we created Toasted Cheese, there have been many wonderful writing communities created on the Net. I’ve also noticed an increase in the availability of in-person critique groups. But how do you know when a group is for you? Here are some questions you might want to ask yourself if you’re thinking of joining a writing community either online or offline.

Background Image: Tim Ellis/Flickr (CC-by-nc)


What does a writers group do?

At their cores, online and offline writers groups operate in the same way. You present your work and other writers offer constructive feedback. You also offer feedback on work that others present to the group.

There are certain characteristics of both that may be advantages or disadvantages, depending on what the writer wants/needs. For example, I’m a mother to two young children and it’s difficult for me to arrange childcare to go to a group for a couple hours. An online writing community is available when I am so if I don’t have a free minute until midnight, I can “go to the group” then. And I can wear my robe and slippers while I go.

The flip side of that is that in-person groups provide face-to-face contact. Some people might feel more comfortable looking a critiquer in the eye, for example.

What do I want from the group?

Your main objective is probably that you want feedback on your work. Communities get a fair number of people who “post and run,” meaning they put their own work up for feedback, don’t give any feedback and then are never heard from again. Writing communities generally try to enforce the “give and take” aspect of critiques. At TC, we work on the honor system (our critiquing guidelines ask that you critique two pieces for every one you post). Other communities have come up with clever ways to ensure that members give feedback as well as receive it. Critique Circle works on a “point” system:

You pay three credits for submitting a story, and receive 0.5 – 2 credits for giving a critique.

If the crit is (150-)300 words you always receive 0.5 credits, no matter how long the story is. However, if you crit a story that reaches 3000 words, you receive 1.5 credit for a crit over 300 words. If the story reaches 4000 words you get 2 credits for a crit over 300 words.

When you’re approved to join Critique Circle, you get 2 credits. Therefore, before you can post anything for feedback, you have to participate.

Writing communities can also serve as a get-together spot, like any group of people. You’ll find familiar faces, people with whom you “click,” etc. You have a built-in commonality: you’re writers. By its nature, a writing community provides social interaction when we talk with other writers about submissions, rejections, story ideas, characters, etc.

How much can I or do I want to participate?

Some groups require participation for your user ID to remain active. If you’re not comfortable being in the midst of the group, you can “lurk.”

For example, let’s say there’s an in-person group that meets at the local bookstore. You can browse books (or pretend to) near where they’re meeting. Listen to what’s happening and determine if you might want to join them at the next meeting. Some offline groups do their reading at the meeting so be prepared to eavesdrop on silence. Other groups ask people to bring photocopies to hand out at the end of the meeting, the stories are critiqued in the interim and then the following meeting is devoted to discussion. In a group like this, you might feel left out during the discussion but you can always jump in with general advice, impressions or suggestions.

TC is a small, laid back community. Other communities are intense, with dozens of stories waiting for critique. The size and activity level of the community can dictate your comfort level.

Do I have to give feedback?

If you want feedback on your work, be prepared to give some. Your chances of getting constructive feedback increases with your participation. If you feel iffy about doing feedback, check out our articles on giving and receiving critique. Also, be honest with the group. We’re all just writers here. Tell them you’re anxious about giving (or receiving) critiques. If you haven’t done many crits, let them know. Remember: if you can read, you can crit.

What will I invest in a writing group? (money, time, “self”)

There are two main things you’ll invest in a writing community: time and yourself.

You’ll spend time reading other people’s writing, whether you’re critiquing it or not. If you’re attending meetings of an offline group, there’s also travel time, social time (usually after the meeting), and possibly “homework,” like reading articles or doing crits outside of the meeting time. Some groups also ask members to bring an edited version of a piece the group critiqued, so editing time is also a factor.

Online groups have rules or guidelines to read. Many offer links, prompts or message boards, for example. The time you invest in a writing group is usually up to you.

When you offer a piece for critique, you’re putting your work out there for approval and it can be an investment of yourself. It can hurt when someone doesn’t like your favorite character or suggests you cut a section you worked for hours to perfect. An online community can be better in this regard. You can walk away from a critique you disagree with, whereas in an offline group, it can be hard to hide a reaction. If you want to be in a writing community, you should be ready to receive critique, not just praise. It’s fine to admit that you need an ego boost (all writers understand that); the key is finding a community that allows the type of feedback you need.

Some writing communities also require an investment of money. If you want to join a writing community that requires fees or dues, that’s your prerogative. There are many free writing communities as well, some of which offer alternative versions (ad-free, for example) for those who donate for site hosting costs. Running a writing community website isn’t cheap and so many communities (including TC) accept donations. You can also support a writing community by shopping through their affiliate links. For in-person groups, you can offer to host the group (if they meet in private homes), bring refreshments, or donate to defray costs like rental of the meeting space.

What other features are offered by the community?

Every writing community is different. Some groups don’t exchange work; they’re just writers getting together to talk about writing.

It’s really a matter of finding what you like. Maybe you find a level of participation you like but the flashing ads drive you crazy. Maybe you see that there are a lot of posted pieces without any feedback. Maybe the community vibe isn’t friendly. Like any online community or offline group, you need to examine what the group offers and determine if it’s right for you. And no one says you have to only belong to one community. Maybe one group has a higher level of feedback but you really like the people at another group. Go to both. Or maybe you want to be part of an online community but you also want to get out of the house once a month. Do both. Any good writing community will encourage you to do what’s best for you and your writing.

Is a story posted to an online writing group considered “published?”

In almost every case, no. If you’re antsy about this, chose a writing community that’s “members only” or requires a password to access its forums.

Posting a story or poem to an online crit group is akin to photocopying a piece to hand out to your offline writing group. Most editors recognize that stories posted for critique are drafts and encourage people to polish their work before submission.

Fred Sasaki, assistant editor at Poetry says, “If a writer is interested in publishing in POETRY and also wishes to participate in an online critique forum, we recommend that writers use private forums that require password access. This way they can submit the work for print consideration at a later date. Basically it comes down to recognizing the Internet as a legitimate publishing vehicle.”

The submission guidelines of some journals clarify the editor’s definition of “published.” From the submission guidelines at Mindflights:

POSTS TO CRITIQUE GROUPS ARE NOT CONSIDERED PUBLISHED if a password and special group membership are required to read the item. Likewise, inclusion in symposium or workshop collections with limited distribution is not considered published. However, if the item is easily available to the world at large, it is published.

For some journals, you have to read between the lines; note the use of terms like “final draft.” From the submission guidelines at Segue:

We do not accept previously published creative work. “Previously published” includes final drafts published on blogs, personal web sites, etc.

A “final draft” is not one being workshopped in a writing community. Then again, some publishers don’t consider anything found online to be “published.” From contest guidelines for the William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition:

A work will be considered previously published if more than 50 percent has been published in any form. Self published or on-demand works will be considered published if more than 500 copies have been distributed in any way. If there is a question regarding publication by a winner selected in the competition, that person will be expected to offer proof of number of copies of a manuscript actually sold or distributed in any way. Works from which brief sections have been excerpted for quotation in literary journals, news journals, broadsides will not be disqualified. The Society is dedicated to the art of the printed word, and, therefore, works appearing on the Internet or read on other electronic media will not be considered to have been published if they are not offered in printed form.

If in doubt after reading submission guidelines, e-mail an editor and ask. I think the best guidelines were set forth by Jordan E. Rosenfeld in his Writer’s Digest article, “Shades of Gray“:

It was published if…

  • you gave up your first North American serial rights
  • it went through an editorial process
  • it appeared in an online journal, even a defunct one
  • it appeared in a print publication with a small print run
  • it appeared in a literary anthology

It’s unpublished if…

  • it won a prize but was not printed
  • it was workshopped in an online writing workshop
  • it appeared on your blog or someone else’s (though this is changing, so tread carefully)

In my research, I’ve found that the most anxiety about whether a work is “published” or not seems to pertain to poetry published in one’s personal weblog. When guidelines aren’t clear about online workshopping as “publishing” and you’re not confident about the definition of “published,” write to the editor and ask. If the guidelines are hazy enough, the editor might rewrite them to be clearer.

What do moderators or group leaders do and what do I need to do for myself?

Whether online or off, group leaders are the ones who lead the discussions, keep everyone courteous, and they participate in the discussions. Beyond that, it depends on the community. Some communities treat the leaders as mentors, some as equals. Moderators will welcome you to the group, answer your questions, and guide you through the community as you become acclimated. Some communities are very large and are self-sustaining, with little moderator interference. It’s easier to find a community with moderators you can tolerate than to try and wedge into a community with moderators whose approach you don’t like.

How do I know if a group is right for me?

Do you feel welcome? Are you comfortable sharing work? Is the feedback what you’re looking for? Are you treated with respect as a newcomer? There are a lot of factors that determine whether the fit is “right.” Treat writing communities like clothing. Try it all on and if it doesn’t fit, don’t feel guilty about leaving it on the rack.

Maybe you’re still wary about writing communities and you hear yourself saying “What if…?”

What if someone steals my story?

It’s possible that someone might swoop in and steal your story. If you publish it, it’s possible that someone could get it from a literary journal. The question to ask is “is it likely?” The answer: “No.” People in a writing community are writers and are busy working on their own stuff. If someone wants to steal a poem or story, he’s more likely to swipe something by a famous author.

If you do find that something you’ve shared in a writing community is published under someone else’s name, contact the editor of the publication. If you find it posted in another community or otherwise incorrectly credited, contact the community moderator or website owner of the site that is using your work without permission. A reputable site will work with you to make things right. If they refuse or do not respond, contact their hosting company and report the copyright infringement. If you find your work on a scraper site, your best recourse is to contact the search engine where you saw it and ask that the page be removed from the search results.

What if the other members are better/worse writers than I am?

It’s a guarantee that there will be writers of varying level of experience and talent in any writing community. Don’t let degrees or publishing credits intimidate or overly-impress you. You can learn from every writer in the community. The more you critique, the better you’ll become at editing your own work as well. You have something to offer to every writer as well. In an editor’s submission pile, the only thing that matters is the quality of the work.

What if someone attacks me instead of my story?

This can happen. A moderator should step in and sort things out, but in larger communities, you might be on your own. Hopefully another member of the group will step up and say something to the attacker. If not or if you want to speak up for yourself, remain professional and as courteous as possible. If you feel you need to continue the discussion, use e-mail or private messages for online groups or one-on-one conversations after the group meeting for offline groups.

What if they hate my story?

They might. They might love it. You’ll never know unless you share it. The important thing isn’t whether the writing is loved or hated. It’s whether you’re offered valuable feedback and the way in which feedback is offered. If someone in the group says, “This stinks,” is it a group you want to utilize? If the overall tone is derisive, can you learn in that environment? It’s okay if someone doesn’t like your story or poem. Don’t let a negative review keep you from using a writing group. Members of a good writing group will help you improve a weak story, not mock it.

What if they don’t give me any feedback?

This can be worse than negative feedback. At least with “this stinks,” you have an opinion to work with. With no replies, you’re left to wonder “What’s wrong with my work?” There could be several reasons that a story gets light feedback or none at all. We’ve found that around major holidays, feedback drops off (US Thanksgiving, Christmas week, Memorial Day). Feedback also drops off in the summer for the northern hemisphere, which is unfortunate since so many young writers join crit groups in those months and then abandon them when there’s no response to their work.

If there’s an option for “e-mail me replies,” select it. That way you don’t have to return to the site to check for feedback. Look at the frequency of posts. Is the group one that doesn’t work often but gives good, in-depth feedback when it does? Do group members reply quickly but not offer much beyond “I like it” in their replies? If you’re looking for a little quick praise or an ego boost, which we all need occasionally, the second group could be a good addition to the first.

What if I’m not good at giving feedback?

Members of a good writing circle will help you with this as much as they’ll help you with your writing. Since everyone is working together toward the same goal, everyone should want the group to be as effective as possible. If your feedback is too light, a more experienced member might ask you questions to help you expand your response. For example, you might say “I liked this dialogue.” The other member might say, “What did you like about it?”

If your feedback is too vague, it’s likely that the author will ask for clarification. You can also learn by reading other people’s critiques.

Remember: if you can read, you can critique. Don’t feel embarrassed to offer your opinion. It has value, even if it’s as simple as “I liked this.” Do your best to offer specific critique, since that’s what you’ll want when it’s your turn to receive. Toasted Cheese has some guidelines to help members create constructive criticism.

What if they want me to give them money?

They probably do. What you’ll need to ask yourself is whether you feel comfortable with what the group is asking for. Do they ask for a membership fee? If so, do they require the fee before you can check out the group?

There are groups that require fees. In researching this article, I didn’t pay to join any writing groups. There are excellent groups that require no money to participate. Often you’ll need to sign up since password-protected forums are the norm for online crit groups. Toasted Cheese is one example of a free group that requires sign-up. None of the groups I joined have sent me any spam either so I wouldn’t hesitate to provide my e-mail address for registration. Many groups have newsletters that you can opt into. I recommend creating an e-mail address just for your writing ventures (submissions, writing group sign-up, etc.); using a separate e-mail address can help you keep things organized.

Some writing groups allow donations. These donations help with site costs, like paying for the domain and hosting fees. It’s nice to support your favorite sites if you have a little extra money but it’s not requisite for you to participate in the group. If you’re not comfortable donating, most writing groups have affiliations (with Amazon, Powell’s, Cafe Press, etc.) that earn them commissions on sales of things you buy through their affiliate links. Best of all, you can support your writing groups without spending a cent by sharing their URLs, telling your writer friends to check them out and by participating in the group.

Some writing groups:

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