Writing Groups Run for Pay Are Useful…But Not the Same as No-Fee Writing Groups

After last week’s post, in which I explained how to set up and run writing critique groups and manuscript swaps, I got some feedback, and I’d like to address one of the issues that came up.

What to expect if you pay for a professionally-led writing group:

There are many writers/editors, who run critique groups for a fee – and I am among them. Usually, the organizer will do at least some of the recruitment for you, and they have genuine expertise. (Although I suggest you check on this – recently, I came upon a writer who offered advice – for a fee – to a person in a field of writing it turned out they knew nothing about. There’s nothing wrong with asking for a reference even if the person is a published writer of note. Not all writers know all fields of writing, and not all writers are good at running critique groups.) Good writing group leaders are familiar with the “writing group format” and may have a very gentle and efficient way of keeping participants on-task and well-behaved. They will often arrange the logistics of the location/conference call/whatever.

Interestingly, since participants usually pay in advance for a series of meetings, they are more likely to show up. I have a close friend who is a personal trainer, and she says her clients have the same attitude: If you pay in advance, you are more likely to show up, because you know your absence will cost you money, and yet you will get no benefit from that money. For a fledgling writer who really, really needs a fire lit under their tuchas to make them show up regularly for a writing group, this has a big advantage over a free model.

I know many, many people who have enjoyed and learned a lot in writing groups run by a paid professional. A really good writing-group-for-fee is worth the price you pay. However, I don’t classify them with lay-led, no-fee groups for a number of reasons. Examining these will help a writer decide which model will work best for them.

The organizer has authority that gives her opinion more weight than the others in the group. It’s not just that she has more experience and prestige. She is receiving everyone’s money. Usually, the organizer does not bring her own work in for critique – thus she never takes what she dishes out. That lack of equality can be beneficial in some ways – for example, if someone breaks a rule, the paid organizer will deal with it. But it also changes the dynamic and makes the group more formal. Some shy members might feel too intimidated to speak up. If the group leader has a different opinion than someone else around the table, people may take the leader’s opinion more seriously…even if it might not be what’s best for that piece of writing. And, finally, more competitive participants may vie for the group leader’s approval and attention.

You have less control over who is in the group. The organizer might be willing to include people you don’t want (because you don’t trust them, because you find them abrasive…) since they will receive a fee from them regardless of their in-group behavior. There may even be a contract involved! The other members can’t just eject an unruly member even if they all agree that person doesn’t belong.

And, finally, they cost money. I’ve heard raves about many workshops and paid writing groups over the years, led by fantastic writers, but I’ve only attended a few – a very few. Why? Because attending a writing group weekly at a hundred bucks a month is simply not in my budget. And even if I could do it for a short time, long term, I simply can’t manage that. One the other hand, I have friends and colleagues with much larger pocketbooks, and they’d rather spend money on a writing group than on lattes, movies, nails salons, or the like. Be honest to yourself about what you can and cannot afford. If paying out hundreds of dollars is a non-starter, consider a free writing group instead of a paid one.

So, if they aren’t the same as a lay-led, no-fee writing group, what are writing-groups-for-a-fee?

They are graduate-school style seminars.

Like many of the blog’s readers, I attended both college and graduate school. When you start college off, taking introductory or 200-level courses, you attend classes in large rooms teeming with students. I attended a very small, liberal arts college, but Sociology/Anthropology 101 was in a lecture hall, and there were at least 50 students in that classroom. Bio 101 had at least 75 students in it. We met in an auditorium, and I don’t believe my professor knew my name. He stood at the front, collected last week’s homework, lectured, gave us the new assignment, took one or two questions, administered exams, and returned our graded work the following week.

By the time I entered upper-division courses,  we met in rooms roughly the size of my bedroom. (They were actually called: seminar rooms.) Five to 20 students sat around a table. While classes usually started with a lecture, the professor proceeded to engage us in lively debates. No one could sit quietly – you had to voice your opinion. By the end of the course, the professor often knew us as people, not just students. They remained in control of the class, but our feedback and opinions were valued.

In an intro class, people often fell asleep during the lecture. Rarely did this happen in a seminar. We were more engaged, and our skills grew dramatically from week to week.

Graduate school, too, was largely in the seminar-style format. We were expected to participate, not just passively receive knowledge.

Based on this description, I think you can see why I’d consider the professionally-organized writing group like a seminar. It’s also why I think that, for some writers, paying for such a group is really a bargain. If the group has the right dynamic, it’s almost like participating in an MFA program – for a fraction of the price.

As I mentioned, I’ve run writing groups for a fee on a couple occasions. But I teach them as a workshop, for limited number of meetings. I view the people in those groups as students, not colleagues.

What is the atmosphere like in a free writing group?

This differs from the two free critique groups I currently attend. I share my own material, and I’m just one writer among colleagues. The other members write at a similar level of competency as I do. The atmosphere is collaborative. While I do most of the organizing for one of them, keeping track of our calendar and sending out reminder emails, other members host meetings and provide snacks. We’ve met for years, and consistent members can see the growth in their writing. We are friends and phone each other up or email between meetings if we hear about new publications, a writing class coming up, or needs advice on handling a submission. On a few occasions, we’ve paid a visiting writer to lead a workshop for us, but other than those occasions (maybe five times in as many years) the group has been free.

While I’ve organized the first few sessions of my second writing group – it just met for the third time yesterday – I plan to pass the baton after a few months to another hostess. Nearly every other member of that group is also a published author – so we are friends and colleagues. The other members of the group feel free to criticize my piece when it’s my turn to share. No one is trying to impress anyone else – we all just want to grow. And again, we’re getting the benefits of  regular writing, regular feedback, with no fee to pay.

Have you attended either type of writing group? Do you agree or disagree with my assessments of them? I’d love to read what you have to say in the comments!

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