Kindness is probably the most important quality. But a writing group is not just about “being nice.” Your mother or partner may give you “nice” feedback, but what you want are people who can read your writing, tell you what works, and tell you how to improve.
The most important thing you “get” from being in a writing group is feedback on your writing. And the most important thing you “give” is the same: feedback to others on their writing. This takes strong communication skills. Look for qualities like:
– A good listener. Someone who talks when they have something to say, and knows when to listen.
– Balance. Too much praise doesn’t help us grow, and too much criticism makes us shut down. Find people who know how to give a mix of feedback and who can address both “what works” and “what could be better.”
– Sensitive, but not too sensitive. A sensitive person can give thoughtful feedback. But you also don’t want a delicate flower who cries at your slightest critique so you spend the whole time bolstering that person’s self-esteem.
– Brings a different perspective than you. If you only get feedback from people just like you, your work may be too narrow to appeal to more than…well, you. Look for people who see the world differently. You might learn something, if only about communicating with different people!
– Open. This means people who are willing to share and read possibly sensitive material. Avoid people with judgmental, arrogant, or self-centered qualities. Go for open, humble, and group-oriented people instead.
How to Find the Right People
OK, now that we’ve described the Dalai Lama…how to go about finding these magical people? Some writing groups suggest that you see a prospective group member “in action” before jumping into a group with them. This allows you to see how that person gives, and receives feedback. This is important because someone might be nice, charismatic, or a great writer – but could turn into an egotistical nightmare in the delicate setting of a writing group! So how to observe someone giving feedback? Take a writing class, or if that’s too much of a time commitment, attend a single-day workshop. (See Writing Resources.)
No one is perfect. Everyone deserves a chance to grow into these skills we have described. We tend to communicate the way we were raised. If you had to interrupt in your house to be heard, you may tend to interrupt people. If you created an inflated sense of self to counteract a negative parent, you might not be able to hear suggestions for improvement. We especially fall into these patterns when we feel vulnerable, like when our writing is being critiqued by others. It’s OK…we’re all flawed people (that’s why we’re writers!). What’s most important is that we try to develop an awareness of the root cause of our behaviors, and put ourselves in situations, like writing groups, where we can evolve and become more sensitive, effective communicators.