Writing groups are invaluable. They may provide critiques, encouragement, inspiration, friendship, brainstorming, and beta readers. Maybe all of these.
Some people may not live in a place with easy access to a physical writing group, but in this day and age, the computer solves that problem. There are online critique groups, Yahoo! groups, forums, Facebook pages, team blogs, editor blogs (like this one), writer blogs, agent blogs. There's even an author, Donita Paul, who holds weekly chats on Mondays (and I just learned that she's presently discussing Power Elements of Story Structure!) If a writer wants to find a community, one is out there waiting to be found.
Some writers may think they don't need a writing group because they have lots of support and encouragement from their family and friends. Which is great! The problem is, our family and friends may not be as hard on us as we need. And they also may not be as educated in writing techniques as we need.
Why should they be?
Most lawyers don't ask their sister or cousin to critique their brief, do they? Not unless those relatives are also lawyers who have studied the law and know what they're talking about. So why should writers expect their friends and relatives to know fiction techniques?
Yet we do. We act as if anyone is able to give knowledgeable feedback.
Of course readers can tell writers what they like, and that's always helpful. But to learn what needs to improve--how to make an argument flow logically, how to structure a story for maximum impact, how to correct passive voice, what point of view is strongest, and a hundred other particulars--other writers who have and are studying the craft will give what non-writers cannot.
Writers are essentially on a continuum, some just starting out and some working on the crowning project of their epic career. Wherever we are in between those extremes, there's someone we can help and encourage, and there's someone from whom we can learn and find inspiration. Consequently no one should shy away from a writing group because they think they have nothing to offer or nothing to learn.
I remember years ago attending a local writing workshop. I had considerable insecurity about being there--until I started talking to the people at my table. As it turned out, I was the only person who had been to a writing conference before. I'd talked to agents before and to editors. I knew some things about formatting manuscripts and following guidelines. In other words, I had things to offer those who were just starting out. Of course, as the day wore on, I learned a great deal too, from others more experienced than myself who had signed book contracts and had agents.
That's the way writing groups work.
Mind you, I'm not saying a writer can't work in isolation. For years, that's what many writers were forced to do. But even before the Internet, writers sought each other out. See for example, English writers such as Byron, Keats, and Shelley during the Romantic Period or the Inklings in the twentieth century or Americans Emerson and Thoreau during the early 1800s.
Today, with so much information available, and with self-publication on the rise, it seems more necessary to me, not less, that writers take advantage of the opportunities writing groups afford. After all, traditional publication "gatekeepers" aren't there to tell writers that their work isn't ready. And honestly, many of us think our work is ready to be in print much sooner than it actually is. That's because we don't know what we don't know.
Other writers, however, might know what we don't know. And they just might have the unbiased guts to tell us. That's what you hope to find in a writing group, though it may hurt at times. But honest feedback is the road to better writing, and better writing is the best road to publication, whether via traditional means or through self-publishing.
Originally posted February 2014 at Rewrite, Reword, Rework.