William Ryan, author and course leader of our new writing course Your Novel, explains the benefits of writing groups...
I’m occasionally asked by aspiring authors whether I think writing groups are a good thing and my answer is always an unequivocal “yes” – and here’s why.
Writing can be a lonely business but the good news is that a writing group is often a great source of support. If you think about it, allowing someone else to read your work requires a lot of trust. You hope, very much, that the reader will be helpful, and careful, in their response. And when other members of the writing group show their writing to you, they are trusting you in exactly the same way. These mutual bonds of trust mean that pretty soon the members of the group become invested in each other’s success. They become supportive, both practically and emotionally. And, when it’s just you sitting in front of a blank screen or piece of paper, knowing you are not alone in this endeavour is very reassuring.
I suspect I’m not the only writer who diverts energy into tasks that are less – err - rewarding than writing. Only today, I've found myself looking online at camping barbecues for an hour and a half, and I don’t even like camping. Or barbecues for that matter. The many deadlines I currently face haven’t cured this behaviour, but they certainly temper it. And writing groups, because of their cooperative nature and peer pressure, provide very sticky deadlines – as in ones which keep even the most easily distracted focussed on delivering a certain number of words by a certain date.
There is nothing more valuable for a writer – whether aspiring or more established – than receiving an objective view on their work from a careful reader. It’s gold dust. It’s not only what the reader notices, it’s the fact that they've read it. Suddenly you read what you've written with detachment - and that detachment is in itself invaluable. What’s more, while good readers will point out, delicately, the flaws, they will also point out the strengths. What they may also do is make suggestions for improvement. Some of the suggestions will probably be more useful than others but, in any event, they’ll force you to challenge your story and the way you've told it. All of which is incredibly useful.
There has to be a balance, of course. Writing requires confidence and a good writing group strives to encourage rather than discourage its members. Criticism should be constructive rather than destructive and if faults do exist, the group should try to help the individual author address them in a positive rather than a negative way. Perhaps most importantly. each member of the writing group should take the other members’ writing as it is, and try to encourage the other members to achieve their vision of what they’d like their writing to be, rather than impose their own style on someone else.
Another key advantage to being part of a writing group is that you learn to read in a completely new way. When you read for a writing group you are looking to make that piece of writing better. In order to do that, you look at it on a word by word basis but also take a wide-angle view – you try to identify what works, and what doesn’t, and do your best to spot inconsistencies and grammatical errors but also to applaud fine writing. These are excellent skills that are easily and valuably applied to your own writing. A breakthrough moment for me as a writer was the realisation that I was writing for me as a reader. In other words, I want to enjoy what I’m reading when I write and be excited by it and impressed with it. However, I also know I can almost always improve it. When I finish a novel, it’s generally the case that I can’t improve it any more. And I wouldn't be able to decide what that point was if I didn't have the reading skills that I developed reading other people’s work in a writing group.
The secret to a successful writing group is that it is enjoyable. The members all have something in common, their writing, which is a good starting point. Then because of how the writing group works, they develop trust, which is important. After a few meetings, the group will have shared experiences and have exchanged ideas and thoughts on each other’s work – often of great value. Before long, inevitably, the group will be based on friendship and mutual respect as much as anything else and the social side of it develops apace. In short, writing groups are fun. And sometimes there’s wine, which makes it even more fun.
So, having explained why writing groups are a good thing - what are you waiting for?
William Ryan’s novels have been shortlisted or longlisted for numerous awards, including the Theakstons Crime Novel of the Year, The Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award, the Crime Writers Association’s Steel, Historical and John Creasey Daggers and the Irish Crime Novel of the Year (three times). William has taught on the Crime Writing Masters at City University in London and he will be a Teaching Fellow on UEA’s Crime Fiction MA in 2017/18. His latest novel, The Constant Soldier, was described by The Daily Mail as “Subtle, suspenseful and superb and as “a modern classic by a master storyteller” by the Lancashire Evening Post It is currently shortlisted for the HWA Gold Crown for Historical Fiction.