How can you tell if your writers group is toxic?

For writers, getting feedback is a valuable way of improving what we do. There are different ways to do this. One popular method for novels is to have beta-readers. This is great for checking consistency, readability, plot holes and anything that seems problematical. It’s probably less useful for developing your skills as a writer. Writer’s groups can be great for this though. It can be a case of the sum being greater than the parts. When you get several people together, they will tend to notice different things and have a range of skills that you can learn from to you extend your own.  However, sometimes writers groups can be toxic, by which I mean they can cause damage to one or more of the members. But how can you tell?

Well, first up, how do you feel when you go home? If the answer is ‘great’, then it’s probably not a toxic group. If you go home feeling inspired, energised and ready to get on with some hardcore editing, pat yourself on the back for finding a great group. However, if the answer is ‘ripped to shreds’ or ‘oh, what was I thinking, I’ll never be a writer’, take it from me, that’s a little clue. Likewise, if you dread going, also a sign. If the group session leaves you feeling just a bit icky, continue reading.

Warning Signs of a Toxic Writers Group

Is one of the group games ‘Trash that writer’?

Ok, writers aren’t as bad as actors, but they aren’t lacking in bitchiness when it comes to talking about best-selling authors who appear to be lacking talent, editors or the ability to write a convincing sex scene. Nor are they short on opinions when some great writerly sage (read, writing celebrity) makes huge pronouncements that might just be a little stupid. However, there’s a difference between analytical criticism, which can improve writing skills, and plain old putting the boots in. Especially if the writer is someone people in the group may know. If your instincts are telling you the discussion has tipped over from analysis to envious, it probably has.

Do people in the group play the Monty Python game?

You know the one I mean – ‘well, I used to sleep in shoebox in middle t’road’. ‘Shoebox? You had a shoebox..?!’ If you have achieved something, does someone pull out the tattered memory of their last achievement rather than congratulating you? Whether it’s an up or a down comparison, the effect is still the same – to draw attention away from you and back to them. They may compare your successful funding grant application to the time their grandmother predicted their gift book on chihuahuas in bow ties would be a best seller (hang on, it probably would – give me a minute while I write that in my ideas book…), or they may talk about how your shortlisting for an award reminds them of the time they won first prize in various prestigious literary competitions. A good group is one that allows everyone their chance to shine.

Is everyone expected to play ‘oh great guru’?

Does the group exist to prop up the ego of one person? Do people wait to see what this person’s opinion is before putting forward their own? Does all conversation stop when this person opens their mouth? Sometimes it’s not quite that obvious – sometimes it can be a tug of war where that person believes in their guru-ness a little more than others, but it still makes for a difficult group dynamic. Every member of the group should be equally valued for their contributions and writing ability.

A final word…

Writers groups can be really valuable, if they are supportive and nurturing. Basically, trust your instinct. It can take a few tries to find a group that really gels, and where you can feel safe. Good writing requires a baring of the soul. When you find a group where you can comfortably do that, you will thrive.

* Note to the pedantic – the missing apostrophe is deliberate – it is a group OF writers, not a group belonging to writers!

Post Author: Rachel Nightingale

Rachel Nightingale is an author, playwright, educator, and re-enactor. She considers stories and creativity to be fundamental to being human.