Writers’ Groups


This is part one of a two part writing series. Please click here if you’d like to see the second. 

I’ve taken part in two distinct types of literary community. In the first, people come together, usually at an establishment specializing in $8 variations on Folgers pre-mix, and exchange opinions on each others’ masterpieces. In the second, hundreds of people don’t come together in front of their computer screens or mailboxes to soak up the great wisdom sprinkled from brown magazines and the vast expanses of the netdom.

On the surface, these two groups do indeed share commonalities. They both emphasize sharing, criticizing and improving literary works through the honest exchange of opinions. Both seek to support writers in their quests to finish that book/get published/single-handedly kick Stephen King off the best sellers list.

What they do not share is outlook. Look, for example, at this cover of Writer’s Digest.

Writer's Digest

First, we’ve got a stirring beige theme because beige is the color of passion. Then we see a smiling, elderly woman with no obvious connection to the rest of the cover because that is evidently the sort of person who would be Shakespeare if only they had seven ways to use inspiration. Then, of course, this wildly innovative and avant garde cover design promises to help you, too, get creative.

Look inside and you will find  advice on such pressing matters as “gaining the courage to show your work to others.” There will be help for those too afraid to “deal with being in a classroom again” and great tips for overcoming the dread we all feel (we do?) before starting a new literary project.

As with all great pieces of literature, you will find within the hallowed pages of Writer’s Digest no profanity, no mention of unmentionables, no low-brow references to pop culture (especially the horrid vulgarity that is anything newer than 1961), no politics, no revolution, no sex, no philosophy or violence. In short, Writer’s Digest has lots of stuff which could in no way offend the target audience of conservative, house bound women whose senses of humor sit quietly desiccating beneath obsessively cleaned living room rugs.

I’ve found a similar environment with most of the online critique groups I’ve tried – the same fear of going somewhere new (what if I get lost?!?), fear of experience, fear of failure, fear of everything. The biggest difference is that, shielded by anonymity, the beige crowd feels more empowered to bust out its Gestapo-Of-Political-Correctness side. Did you know, for example, that in an online critique group, posting this picture in reference to a short story means that you are a bigoted enemy to all lesbians? Or, in a crowd where everybody wants to be a novelist, you can get lectures on how writing a compelling villain makes you, the author, morally suspect as well. Don’t rock the boat in an online critique forum because, as we all now, the best writers are always the most conventional.

This is not to say that online critique groups or writers’ magazines are bad. They are usually better than nothing and indeed, you can learn from both. But they are very, very limited and prone to what I shall describe as, for lack of a better word, intellectual constipation.

Take a look at the following photograph, by means of contrast, and imagine what it’s like visiting the Unnamed Writer’s Group (now called High Sierra Writers) I was long member of.

Unnamed Writer's Group

This kind of group is fun. We sit in coffee shops or somebody’s front room and talk about the biggest douchebags we’ve ever met. We swap horror stories about dates, we talk shit. Group leaders have hot flashes and narrate menopause for our edification. Old women try their hands at gangster rap. Yours truly comes jacked up on opiates three hours after an appendectomy and nobody blinks.

Our literary focus knows no boundaries. Do you want to write a more compelling examination regarding racially defined loss-of-culture? Here to help. Do you want to find out how a zombie would pull apart its victim? Bring it on. Do you want to write the most hilariously inept sex scene ever in order to satirize a Kardashian? Let’s bust out the thesauri. No judgment, no fear, no pearl clutching.

And this leads me to my second observation about  in person and online literary communities. The published authors I’ve come across in literary communities are overwhelmingly, hugely active in the face-to-face sphere.

Please stay tuned for part two where I’ll examine why that is.



  1. Katherine C. Mead-Brewer · · Reply

    Thank you so much for posting this! I was a part of a terrific writers’ group when I was younger, but I’ve since moved and am still on the hunt for such a new face-to-face community to join. I always appreciate hearing/seeing/finding others singing the praises of actually getting together (in person!) and talking substantively about writing and topics both known and those still being explored

    1. Thanks for the comment. I am glad you enjoyed the article.

      In part two of this article, I’m going to talk about why I think face to face people get published more than the shut-ins. I think you might like it as well.

      1. Katherine C. Mead-Brewer · ·

        Thanks! I’ll certainly check it out

  2. I have to strongly disagree with you there.

    Each writer’s group I’ve been to has had its own taboos, both online and offline. On the online community I’m in, discussion about how to properly represent genders, races and LGBT groups abound — and I guess racist/sexist/homophobic things are considered taboo.

    In the real life writing groups I’ve been in the taboos are very different but I think more less, or even moreso, damaging. The one I’m currently in it’s very hard to submit and critique work that is trying to be serious and not comedic. In groups previous, I have had the displeasure of ending up in critique groups where anything speculative fiction is absolutely unspeakable. While it sounds like the first one is the PC police, it actually isn’t and often discusses strategies on how to write characters who are not like yourself. These other ones just avoid topics they don’t like all together — the constipation is generally not intellectual but is there nonetheless.

    I think probably what you’re actually seeing as a problem is that your online group is far too large and nobody actually knows each other. This “intellectual constipation” is a function of size and not of the internet being used as a medium of communication.

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  4. I’ve seen the matter of politics worming its way into critique groups on other blogs as well. You’ll notice that I didn’t delve into that subject on my blog post concerning writer’s groups. Why? Because I’ve never experienced that in my group. Although there are times when our views are distinctly present (especially some of my short stories) it will not be criticized on that level. We tend to stick to the writing.

    1. Do you think “sticking to the writing” is a good thing? I personally believe that craft, necessary though it is, is a lot easier to find than an actual topic worth talking about.

      1. Well the writing craft seems to be the whole point of existence for my critique group. The idea is to get a piece ready for the eyes of either a publisher, agent, or reader (if you’re going direct to the e-market). After I’ve worked on a story for several drafts, it is necessary to get the critical eyes of others.

  5. […] Don’t Be a Wimp – Writers’ Edition (bengarrido.com) […]

  6. […] Don’t Be a Wimp – Writers’ Edition (bengarrido.com) […]

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