Writers in the Storm

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April 29, 2019

Leaving a Writer’s Group: 5 Reasons it May be Time

by Kathryn Craft

I’ve written here before about the importance of community in carrying our writing careers forward and I stand by that advice. You’ve only gotten where you are because of the hands you’ve held. But no one community may be able to carry the upwardly mobile among you all the way to your goal.

Is it time for you to leave your communal nest? Consider the following.

1. The organization may no longer be a fitEverything about the publishing industry is in flux, so why not writing groups? The group that supported you during the decade you sought an agent may now advocate for self-publishing. The programming on story craft you signed on for may now be devoted to marketing talk. If majority rule means you are not progressing toward your goals—and especially if your needs feel sidelined, or belittled in any way by the people masquerading as your comrades—the culture of your organization has become a poor fit. It’s time to get out and try another.

2. Your critique group may be holding you back. When critiquers are secretly flummoxed about what a writer is trying to accomplish, they’ll often focus on minutiae when the root problem may be weak story architecture that a one-chapter-per-month analysis won’t allow them to identify, even if they knew how. The writer walks away from the group relieved that the session has gone so well—but carrying a well-worded, perfectly meaningless story. While critique groups can be a great place to gain early workshopping experience, there may come a time when you’re trading your valuable time for advice that is holding you back.

3. Growth happens outside of your comfort zoneThe creative mind thrives on new experiences and alternate ways of thinking, and you can’t acquire those if you stay in the same place with the same people doing the same thing. Your writing organization may feel like home, but there may come a time when you need mentors with more depth in the industry to inform you, challenge you, and open new doors for you. To do that, you must reach up—not back.

4. Even empty luggage causes dragRemind yourself of your goal in joining the group in the first place. I doubt that it was to make friends, even though that may be a valued side benefit. If you find that that marketing cooperative you joined does more drinking than retweeting, it may be time to cut ties. You could try to adjust your expectations and stay—your friends are still sparking joy!—but it won’t work for long. A writer only has so much time in her life, and she needs to surround herself with similarly dedicated colleagues who can help her career.

5. A big fish who stays in a small pond casts a large shadow. Leaving a writers’ organization can be fraught because we worry about hurting people’s feelings. But what if you are hurting others by staying? Others may benefit from the opportunity to fill a leadership role you’ve vacated. Annual contest wins and self-published anthology entries may feed your ego, but may not equal the career advancement you seek. Meanwhile, you’re standing in the way of others who need the chance to shine.

If you are getting all you want or need from your writing group and are satisfied with your career as is, I’m not trying to suggest you leave behind a valued resource.

But if your needs aren’t being met and you think it may be time to make a move, please don’t worry that you’re ditching your friends. In this business, you need all the friends you can get, and those who really care about you will find other ways to keep in touch.

No two writing paths are the same, and you’re simply seeking to further yours—and that was always the point.

Is it time for you to leave the nest? Have you ever had to leave a group that was no longer serving your needs? Did it end up being a good move? Were you able to preserve valued relationships?

Kathryn Craft is the award-winning author of two novels from Sourcebooks, The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy, and a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, specializing in storytelling structure and writing craft. Her chapter “A Drop of Imitation: Learn from the Masters” was included in the writing guide Author in Progress, from Writers Digest Books. Janice Gable Bashman’s interview with her, “How Structure Supports Meaning,” originally published in the 2017 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, has been reprinted in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writingboth from Writer’s Digest Books.

28 comments on “Leaving a Writer’s Group: 5 Reasons it May be Time”

  1. Well said, as always, Kathryn! To the matter of critique groups (which could be a blog post in itself), I think it's important to note that a "critique group"—because it's composed of peers—usually has a strong element of mutual support. The encouraging comments that are so important in the beginning may not be what one needs or wants later. If you're ready for a more "tough love" approach, peers aren't always the best way to go; you may need a group led by a paid professional who's not necessarily your friend. It's a dilemma. Not everyone can afford a group where you have to pay for membership. We do our best to balance membership in a variety of groups. That can change, as you say, depending on the evolving nature of the group, as well as our own changing needs.

    1. Hi Barbara, So true that we all need tough love to push us up over those final hurdles. And I like what you say about balancing membership in several groups. I was once involved with three local groups with different orientations—one creativity, one critique, and one that simply writes together to witness—as well as one larger organization that was craft/career. I treasured them all for different reasons.

  2. Great post, Kathryn, and incredibly true. I think there's huge value in 'mixing it up' when it comes to feedback. Sometimes writing group members who have seen the story evolve chapter-by-chapter lose sight of the whole, and new eyes make all the difference.

    1. So true, Rebecca—even professional editors can get to a point where they're too close, if the work has already been through several rounds with them. For earlier feedback, I know people who capitalize on the varying viewpoints of one "savvy reader" and one "knowledgable writer" for feedback, or add in a subject specialist, or a sensitivity reader, or add in a middle-grade author to make sure their child characters ring true.

  3. Very well said. I recently left a critique group I'd been a part of for ten years. It was all about flow of energy. Too much out, too little in, and my own art suffered the consequences. I still value my friendships with all those writers, but I can't regret the time and energy I took back for my own work.

    1. Good for you, Samantha. Thanks for sharing your experience. So often we are using a pry bar to create room for our writing anyway, and if the group no longer feeds you, adding a little breathing room can help in and of itself.

  4. Great article. I've been in groups that share only a few pages, and you're right, that doesn't help with structure. Plus I only learn if some of the members are above my level of expertise. It's hard to find the time these days for the group that shared 20 pages at a time. It's good to re-evaluate our groups as our work evolves. Nice reminder!

    1. Hi Linda, thanks for weighing in. There may very well be a wonderful kickback to being the most experienced person in a critique group, as long as your own work is challenged elsewhere. I think you hit the nail on the head—just be aware that periodic reassessment is a good idea.

  5. I know people who dragged their feet on leaving, when they knew they needed to. I get it, I really do, but sometimes it is the best thing for all involved to walk away. We can feel like we're leaving something behind, but it's better to embrace that our journey involves many destinations and well-met people along the way. Great post, Kathryn!

    1. Love this: "...it’s better to embrace that our journey involves many destinations and well-met people along the way." That's a great way to think about it, Julie! There are others who will benefit from the opportunities you are leaving behind.

  6. I agree 100% but I'd one more qualification: Do I feel GOOD in this situation? So much of writing is inviting yourself to suffering. That's how art-making is, at least in this moment in this country. I've seen a lot of MFA grads come out of their crit groups so beat up they think they should always be treated this way. Then you read their toil and misery on the page (and not in a good way). The best groups I've been make me challenged but full of energy and capability.

    1. A wonderful caveat, Kelly. I almost said something similar in response to Barbara's comment above, when she said critique groups can be a source of mutual support—because I've also seen situations that border on abusive. You're right, our best interactions feed us, not drain us.

  7. I had to leave a long time writing group and it was painful. It wasn't as graceful of an exit as I would have wished, but it needed to happen for me to move on as a writer. Cutting loose from the group ended up becoming addition by subtraction for me. A step forward but not without some remorse and feeling lost for a little while.

    1. Rose, a spaceship that has remained comfortably in orbit for a long time needs a lot of extra energy to make a change—and when we do the same in our lives, that energy can manifest in many forms that aren't too pretty. Glad you made use of it, though, and have no remorse. "Addition by subtraction"—I like that. You know I"m a fan of your writing, so you seem to be doing right by yourself!

  8. Thank you Kathryn. I appreciate your wise thoughts.
    I do some marking of aspiring and emerging level contests and I find those snippets of involvement are enough to keep me interested. Otherwise, indepth association with other writer's stories and genres seems to detrimentally affect my own work. I enjoy your posts here and am a staunch WITS reader.
    Thanks again, Wendy

    1. There are many writers who have to watch what kind of fuel they put in their tank while writing, Wendy—you're definitely not alone in that. Some have strong defenses against other voices; other barriers are more permeable. Thanks so much for being a loyal member of the WITS community!

  9. Such a hard thing. The writers group I've been a part of for 10+ years just closed because our needs and skill levels had become too diverse. When we broached the idea, we found those who had fallen a little behind also felt it was time to end things -- but we'd all kept attending for months because we didn't know how to bring it up.

    1. Hi Lisa, thanks for sharing your experience. Ironic that you kept it going past its natural expiration date when it sounds like everyone felt the same way. Many novels are driven by the inability to broach difficult subjects—it's universal.

      I have a feeling that in most groups, someone key will just start making excuses as to why they can't come, again and again, and eventually others will perceive the lack of group commitment. Your approach was more honest, I believe, even if cautious.

  10. Kathryn, thanks for writing about a subject few writers want to talk about. Looking back at my writing group experiences, natural life events provided the timely end of my groups, from members moving away to major health concerns of family members and group members, to members giving up their aspirations to become authors due to family finances. I have struggled with those losses, though, because they were pre-emptive rather a consensus decision.

    1. Thanks Fae—I like to write novels about difficult subjects as well, so it must be deeply ingrained! How beautiful that you struggled with those losses—clearly, they were valuable to you. I hope you'll be able to find new compadres to move your writing forward.

  11. It's trickier if the writing group you need to break up with is a party of two. I have this writing friend...and she's draining and a sapper of energy...can't seem to learn anything for herself. We write in different genres, and she doesn't get that she has to do some things for herself.

    1. Yes Deb, I've been there and it is a tricky one. Of course you can always say you need to get fresh eyes on your writing and go elsewhere, but if the expectation is that you'll still be over-providing for your critique partner, that isn't a solution. You may have to have the hard conversation that starts, "I think our writing projects would benefit from new alliances. I really value how far we've come together, but in some ways I think I may be holding you back by doing too much for you. And I think my writing is in a place where I would benefit from deeper connections in my genre." Good luck to you!

  12. […] Once we’ve got a draft, the editing begins. Richard Bradburn teaches the basics of editing terminology, Mary Norris and Benjamin Dreyer talk grammar and style, Kyle A. Massa tells us how to identify sticky sentences in your writing, and Michael Gallant has tips for the final edit. Writing groups can be a great place for feedback. However, Kathryn Craft gives us 5 reasons it may be time to leave a writer’s group. […]

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