1. You won’t like everything you hear. You might think you’re a better writer than others in the group. You might have more experience. You might find whatever someone else is working on to be lame, offensive, or weird. Here’s the thing – it’s their work, and they probably feel as strongly about it as you do about yours. They might not even be writing for the same reasons you write.
Think about how you’d feel if you brought in poetry about the sexual abuse you suffered as a child only to have someone rake you over the coals for being too clichéd. People don’t often share something that personal and want harsh feedback. (They’ll usually ask for it if they really want it.) You can still suggest ways that it would work better for you as a listener without being mean. You might say “I don’t know much about this genre” and then offer helpful comments – on grammar, on things that seem to be missing, or on sections that might work better in a different place.
2. People join writing groups for a lot of reasons. Sometimes they are writing their personal stories. Sometimes they have written poetry for years and have never shared it with anyone. Sometimes they’ve got an idea for a story and have read somewhere that if they want to get it published, they need to join a writing group. Unless the writing group you’re visiting advertises only working with a specific group, on a specific genre, or covering specific topics, you can be pretty sure that there will be a wide range of writers there, from beginners on up.
3. The other people in the group aren’t there just for you. They don’t want to hear how smart you are or how many books you’ve published or self-published. Don’t see them as a market for your work. They are there for the same reason you are – to listen, get and give feedback, or because they like the sense of community they find in the group. It’s one thing to tell everyone about your latest success after you’ve been coming for several months. They will be thrilled for you. It’s another thing to come to your first meeting and introduce yourself by listing everything you’ve ever done and push people to buy your books on amazon.com. That looks a lot different.
4. You want to find the best group for you, which might not necessary be the “best” or most well-known group. If it’s possible, visit a few different writing groups in your area before settling on one. (Libraries and bookstores often either sponsor groups or know where they meet.)
Writing groups have personalities. My writing group is very laid back. It’s a great place for people who love writing and talking about writing in all kinds of genres. It’s not a great place for you if you plan to write literary fiction and are also looking for in-depth criticism from a very specific kind of reader. That’s just not what we do. I always offer new people a list of the other groups in our area. Sometimes they don’t come back, and that’s ok. It might mean they’ve found the right place for them.
You might also consider going to a group and not sharing the first time you visit. It can be helpful to hear others read and see how the discussions flow before sharing your own work. Then you also have a better sense of who is listening to you, and if you want feedback, you might have a better idea of what you’d like the group to be listening for.
5. Be willing to invest yourself and give the group time. We have some regulars who come almost every month and others who show up once in a while. Some of the most insightful comments have come from the experience we’ve had together – remembering something that was written in the past and being able to compare it to what you’ve brought today. Over time, your writing group gets a better sense of who you are and what your strengths and weaknesses are. Other writers are often more than willing to give you honest feedback if the sense of community in the group is strong. Those relationships can be valuable in helping you move forward as a writer, but they’re not always going to happen in the second meeting you attend. Like your writing, being part of a group is a process. It’s not always easy or pretty, but if you give it the right attention, you might end up with something beautiful.