15 for Fifteen

A Pen In Each Hand

By Beaver

This month we’re celebrating 15 years of Toasted Cheese. As we look back on some of our proudest moments from the past decade and a half, we invite you to do the same.

Day to day, progress can sometimes be so slow, it feels like you’re not moving forward at all. Pausing and reflecting from time to time is a good way to not lose sight of the big picture.

Make a list of 15 things you’ve accomplished writing-wise since January 2001. Big or small, anything you’re proud of can go on this list. If you have a writing buddy or group, this would be a great exercise for all of you to do and then share with each other.

Celebrate your accomplishments. Write a blog post or share on social media. (When you hit a low point you can look back on your list to give yourself a boost.) Invest in your writing life. Get yourself some new writing supplies or that software you’ve been meaning to purchase (if you don’t have it yet, Scrivener is well worth the investment). Do something fun! Freshen up your writing space, go to dinner with your writing buddy and toast your successes, throw a party for yourself and your writing group.

What’s next? Set 15 new short- or long-term writing goals. Tuck it away somewhere safe and revisit it in a decade or so to see how you did. Happy writing!

So, You Wanna Start a Writing Group?

Absolute Blank

By Erica Ruedas (pinupgeek)

So you’ve decided that you no longer want to be a writer in solitary, locked in your room and scribbling madly away. You want to start a writers group. A writers group is a great way to help your writing, from getting past your writer’s block, to finding out if something is ready to submit, to just getting the motivation to write. Maybe you’ve already got a group of writer friends who want to join you—so it should be easy to just meet up regularly and write or talk about writing, right?

Background Image: Andrew Forgrave/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

Recently, members on the Toasted Cheese forums chimed in with some advice on starting a new writers group, and how to keep writers coming back. TC Editor Boots started it off with this: “I just have a very simple advice—humility.” After that, there are a couple of things to think about when planning your new writers group.

First, decide what kind of group you want to be. Do you want to have a group of people meeting regularly to just get together and write? Do you want to have prompts at each meeting or just allow people to free write or work on their own projects? Do you want to have critiques on writing? Do you want to have writers bring in their work to read to the group for critiques, or email it beforehand so that everyone can come prepared? Planning out the basic format of your writers group will help new members get a sense of what to expect when they are considering joining your group.

Next, decide on where you’re going to meet. A quiet place is best, but make sure you’re allowed to talk and read out loud. A library is not a good idea, unless they have a meeting room. Coffee shops can work but can get crowded at certain times of the day, so make sure you figure out when it’s quieter. Sometimes even a restaurant will work, and can encourage people to keep coming back and stay longer if they can get food and drinks. Keep in mind, too, that some writers are shy and may not want their writing overheard by others, so make sure you accommodate or allow for them to submit their work by email before the meeting.

How often are you going to meet? And for how long? You can meet once a week, once a month, every other week, or something in between. Bob from the TC forums has a writers group that meets once a month, but for two to three hours. If you’re only going to meet once a month, a longer meeting works. However, if you’re going to meet more often, such as every week, a shorter time period is best, depending on everyone’s schedules.

How many people are you going to include in your group? And if you are critiquing, how many pieces can be read? It can be off-putting to members when the group is so big they have to sign up to bring a piece in, and spend most of your time critiquing without getting any feedback on their own work. It’s usually best to keep a new writers group small in the beginning so that people can participate every time. And if you have an eclectic group of writers, TC Editor Beaver has a tip: “Make sure your reading tastes are compatible… I’d suggest potential group members make a list of genres they don’t like to read.” Not everyone will want to sit through every style of writing there is. Additionally, you can also limit yourself to just short stories, or just novels, or just poems.

You’ll also want to decide if you want to admit new members. Several TC members have seen new writers come to a writers group only to never return again. And if someone brings in a lengthy piece, such as a novel, that they’ll read over several meetings, it can feel tedious to have to explain the novel’s premise every week to any new members. Do you want to make rules about attendance as well? Beaver says: “[I]f you’re not going to show up to a scheduled meeting, it’s nice to let the others know. It’s sad to show up to a meeting place at scheduled time and wait and wait and eventually realize no one else is coming.”

If you decide you’re going to admit new members, where will you advertise? Where will you stay up-to-date with current members? Facebook works well for a private group and is free. Craigslist is good for advertising but not for getting a discussion going. And Meetup.com is great for attracting new members, but costs money to start a group and can end up with a lot of members who don’t ever come to meetings. Decide on the format that’s best for your group—it may be that just email works the best.

And finally, harpspeed has some great advice about starting a writers group: “The best advice I could give would be not to be too fussy about rules.” While you want to get a good idea of how you’ll run your writers group, don’t be too strict on keeping it that way. It may not always go the way you planned, and could even evolve into something entirely different. It could end up changing for the better or fading away. No matter what, remember that your group will help you learn and grow your writing.

Final Poll Results

Fresh air and verbs are good for you: Writing and Summer Vacation for Teen Writers

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By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

Over the summer, you might want to find or create a writing workshop or writing group. What are writing groups and writing workshops?

Background Image: 826CHI/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

Writing circles and buddies

A writing group (sometimes called a “community” or “circle”) is an informal get-together where writers get together to talk about what they’re writing, to get advice and to share their writing with the group so they can get feedback. Feedback is a reader’s opinion about the writing: what the reader liked, didn’t like, would change, would keep, etc. The purpose of getting feedback is to make your story or poem better, to increase your confidence in your writing skills and to create a personal connection with your readers. Examples of feedback are movie reviews and book reviews, like you see on Amazon, GoodReads and Library Thing. Sometimes the group has a leader who guides the discussion, like a teacher would. Every group is different.

Writers’ circles may be in person or online. Circles may be found at high school or college campuses, bookstores, libraries or community centers. Sometimes groups meet at members’ houses. Some groups require membership (Pennwriters is an example in my area), complete with yearly conventions, monthly meetings and more. Barnes and Noble’s “Writer Within” series is free and meets in their stores once per month, a good option for bringing an adult along (she can browse and give you privacy while you participate in the group). The size of writers’ groups varies. Just because you live in a small town doesn’t mean your local writing groups will be dinky. If it’s the only game in town, it might be huge!

I recommend that young writers look for free groups with minimum posting and writing requirements. Find out if you like meeting with a group before sinking one cent into it. Put your writerly money toward pens, ink cartridges, your own laptop or some technique books.

Chances are good that your local writing group won’t have a lot of people your age unless it’s a group specifically designed for young writers. This can mean a lot of things for you. A good group will let you get comfortable, encourage your participation at your pace and encourage your work. Some writers automatically believe that young writers aren’t good writers. This isn’t true. No matter how much experience you have or how old you are, you can write a great story (or you can write junk). Don’t let anyone in a writing group make you feel that your writing isn’t worth pursuing. You might feel you have to leave a group because of prejudice and that’s fine. That’s not quitting. It’s experimenting. You found one group. You’ll find another. If you can’t find one, make one.

Creating a writing circle

All you need for a writing group is a couple of writers who want to become better writers. Trade files and do some feedback (you can do this online as well as in person). If you have a writing mentor at school (an English teacher, for example), let her know you’d like to create a writing group and ask if she thinks other students would be interested. It might become an extracurricular activity complete with a supervisor. If not, you can get a few leads of who might be interested in getting together a couple of times over the summer (or online) for a writing group.

Before you set up your group, decide how often, if at all, you want to meet or chat. Summer is full of vacations, visiting relatives, stuff like that. The fewer structured get-togethers you have, the greater your chance of success.

Figure in the time and hassle of travel. If you don’t have a way to get to a writing group (or if your friends can’t get to yours), online groups might be a better alternative, even if it’s a group you create.

One way to create an informal online group is to make a Facebook group that’s invitation-only (to keep your work somewhat private; read Facebook’s privacy policy for more information). I suggest you share your work in another way, on a free private message board or via e-mail, but the “meetings” can happen on your group’s wall. You can make a quick, free private forum at sites like proboards.com. You can also create a Tweet Chat by using your own specific hashtag. If you do any of these, invite a TC editor so we can congratulate you on taking the plunge!

For some advice on giving and receiving criticism of your writing, we have articles about those topics. There are more articles online if you search “fiction (or poetry) critique how to.”

Writing alone

If you need some feedback, writing circles and writing buddies are great. But you don’t need anyone else to read your writing. You might feel more at ease keeping your work to yourself right now. Keep practicing the basics. Try new things and if they don’t work, try something new.

Writing books and websites are also essential (and easy) reading. I’ve included a suggested reading list of some books and websites at the end of the article. If you’re feeling bold, you can enter writing contests that give away writing books or bookstore gift credit as prizes and earn your writing books through your writing.

Writers work alone. Even writers who collaborate primarily work by themselves. And not sharing your work doesn’t mean you’re not a writer. You know the definition of a writer? Someone who writes. That’s it. You don’t need to be published. You don’t need to write a certain number of words, pages or lines of poetry.

Stay Motivated

Write for fun. No one writes because it’s a chore. Writing is a passion and a delight. Enjoy it!

Allow “shitty first drafts” (see Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott in our suggested reading list) It’s okay to produce junk. It’s like getting lost to find out where you are. It’s practice. And yes, I used the s-word. Sometimes a word that gets bleeped on TV is the best word for a situation. The entire English language is there for you to use so use it. Pick simple, straightforward words.

Everything you write is worth a second draft. Even if you hate it, that’s okay. It’s practice. No one expects a novice athlete to score on her first time on the field. Don’t be embarrassed by what you write; the best cure for embarrassment is practice and everything you’re writing is practice. Don’t be afraid to fail; failure is subjective anyway.

Writers do not magically know everything once they hit 18. Or 21. Or 30. Or 50. Age means nothing. Publication credits mean nothing. What matters is experience, a writer who writes, who continues to learn and who shares with you what he’s learned without insisting it’s a Great Truth.

At the same time, don’t tune out well-intentioned writing advice. Even blowhards might have a valuable tip you can use. Writers love talking about writing. Come up with a couple of open-ended questions for writers (these can come in handy at writer group meetings). In the book you’re writing, what does your main character want? What poets inspire you? What were the first things you wrote?

Feel free to imitate your favorite writers. Think not only of stories, poems and books but songs, TV shows, movies, vlogs, blogs, anywhere you feel moved by characters, story or other aspects of writing.

Review with writing in mind. Why did you like it or dislike it? What worked? What were your thoughts about the characters or setting? What can you use for your own writing? You can post at sites like GoodReads or start your own blog (or create a category in your existing blog) for your reviews. It’ll be a good way to preserve your thoughts and can inspire you later.

Read a lot. Not just your summer reading lists but for pleasure as well. This article counts. Blogs count. Read news articles, sports recaps, TV reviews, graphic novels, fanfic, anything you can get your eyes on. This can help you learn things like structure, pace and word choice without hitting you over the head. Notice style differences among all the things you read. The copy on the back of a shampoo bottle is different from the “program info” on your TV menu.

Maintain a journal. You can do it online via a blog, which is an easy way to stay organized (set your privacy settings when you begin). You can keep a journal on your computer (consider password-protection for your file). You can also keep a longhand journal. You don’t have to write true stories. Include fiction, poetry, whatever you’re into writing. Write using collages.

Write songs. If it helps, think of yourself as a collector rather than a writer. Collect bits of writing, pieces of inspiration, a sentence or paragraph as the mood strikes. You can piece together later.

Try wild things. The only limit is your imagination. Writing is a creative pursuit. Challenge your creativity! Express yourself and who you are.

Use timers. Fifteen to twenty minutes is a good place to begin. If you find yourself zoning out, you’ll learn to snap back to attention. If you find yourself on a roll, you’ll learn how to leave off in a good place for your next writing session. Try not to stop your session without knowing what will happen next.

Keep an idea file. Keep all your abandoned pieces in it. Jot down writing prompts (check Twitter for free daily writing prompts from a variety of sources).

Eavesdrop. Pull inspiration from what you overhear. A good trick is to go to a busy place and pretend you’re listening to your MP3 player (or listen with the sound low) and write down snippets of what people are saying. You can also write down how they look, their body language, their action, anything that might come in handy for future characters.

How-To Basics

There are a lot of resources out there to help you with your basics, like how to punctuate dialogue or what the parts of a story or poem are called. You’re here because you’re ready to move beyond that.

For stories and poems, you need structure and organization of ideas.

You’ll need a narrative voice. People seem to think a narrator is obvious in fiction but not as obvious in poetry. You don’t have to write poetry as yourself any more than you would fiction. Give yourself the freedom to be someone else on paper.

Keep your dialogue realistic. Read it aloud (or whisper it or mouth it) and think, “Do people talk like this?” Dialogue can be fragmented, interrupting, incomplete and incoherent. The attribution tag “said” is your friend and it doesn’t need an adverb to go with it.

You can set your story anywhere geographically or anywhere in time. Don’t discount your own backyard.

There are lots of kinds of fiction and poetry you can write. Check out our Writer’s Glossary for more on genres (and try the exercises).

You don’t have to finish everything you start. If it’s not going anywhere or doesn’t feel right, shrug it off, put it in the file and start fresh.


Create your own prompts. Set them aside in your idea file or get writing immediately. Trade prompts with a writing buddy or post in your group for everyone to write something based on the prompts.

  • Find five images to use as visual prompts
  • Write or copy five text prompts (like on our calendar)
  • Write five opening lines.
  • Write five end lines.
  • Create characters and build stories or poems around them
  • Write five random lines of dialogue. The more detailed or weird, the better.
  • Make five lists of five things each. Five things you touched the last time you went to a grocery store. Five smells in your school’s hallways. Five things that irritate you when you’re in a crowd. Five people who make you curious. Five jobs you’d like to try.

Getting unstuck

It happens to everyone. If you feel stuck but aren’t ready to quit the piece, here are some things to think of while you work:

  • What happens next?
  • What happens if…?
  • What’s something bad that could happen here?
  • What’s something wild that could happen here?
  • Who could come into the scene?
  • Have a character do the opposite of what you would do.
  • Give your main character a best friend or romantic interest.
  • Use a character from one of your favorite stories. Change the name and a feature or two to make the character fresh. You can change more when you rewrite.
  • Set your story in a different time.
  • End the scene and begin a new one.
  • Write something based on a dream or give your story a dream-like twist.
  • Start with your ending in mind and write towards it.
  • Write in a different place. If you usually write in your room, go to the kitchen or a cafe. If that’s not an option, sit in a different spot or position in the room you usually use.

Now go write something already. Then play outside. Or both.

Suggested reading:

Final Poll Results

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:

Final Poll Results