I see a lot of posts about the joys of writing groups, or classes, and on fewer occasions, workshops. Like a lot of writers, I have my experiences with those, but they often conflict with what others have said. I think it depends on what kind of writer you are and where you are in your writing journey. Because of this, I thought I’d add my two cents to the clamor.
Who are they for? People with little or no experience writing who are doing this for the first time. If for example, you have an English degree, don’t take a writing class unless you really love doing prompts and sitting around talking to other people about what they wrote for their prompt. If you’ve done any writing at all (advertising copy, reviews, essays, the trifold info guide to your company, your church bulletin) you don’t need a writing class. If your grammar is bad, a writing class will not help you unless you are taking a writing class in high school. If you need to brush up on your grammar, get a good book and then pay a copy editor to check your manuscript before you submit it to agents. Although, chances are if you’re taking a writing class, you’re a long way from that point. That’s not a put down and it’s not meant to discourage you, it’s just writing is a lengthy process.
Who are they for? More experienced writers who are looking for people to read and critique their work, which sounds like a good thing and sometimes it is, but often isn’t, and here’s why. First of all, it’s difficult to find a good writing group that has people interested in reading and critiquing what you’re writing. Even the Inklings were notorious for being sick of each others work. I believe “not another damn elf” was said to J.R.R. Tolkien on more than one occasion by his writing group. It’s also difficult to find people who are on your skill level, or better yet better than you, who are committed to the publishing process. A lot of writing groups are really more social clubs and their commitment to the work can be minimal. That’s not a problem if that’s what you’re looking for, but if you’re seriously looking to publish, it can be a real problem. For example, if you find a writing group on Meet Up that has fifty members, avoid it. If you actually critique the work of fifty other writers, you won’t have time to write your own stuff. Of course, fifty members aren’t going to show up for every meeting, so you never know if the person you gave your partial to last week will be there this week to critique it. Smaller is better when it comes to writing groups. Serious groups are usually closed though and by invitation only. Finding and working your way into one of those can be time consuming as well, and you have to ask yourself if it’s the best use of your time or should you just be writing. Most of the time, the answer is stop procrastinating and go back to writing. That said, there are some stellar groups out there and certainly literary history is peppered with some famous ones, but most professional writers aren’t in one.
Who are they for? Very serious writers. Or they should be. Workshops are money making ventures, so keep that in mind when you’re looking at them. I’m not against making money. I love money, but I’m picky about where I spend it. If you don’t have to submit a manuscript to be accepted into a workshop, it’s not worth your money. I learned this the hard way when I took a novel workshop that didn’t have a manuscript requirement only to discover that they pretty much accepted anyone despite what it said in the brochure. One person actually said she was hoping to come up with an idea for a novel by doing the workshop. Why was she accepted? Her check cleared. I went a couple of times and then bailed on the whole thing, because it was not all what it was supposed to be. I’m even pickier about my time than I am about my money, so it was not the place for me.
What most writers need is a handful of people that are willing to read their work and give them an honest opinion. And they need one person who is getting paid to give them an honest opinion. Then they need an agent and an editor and a publisher. All of whom will definitely give their honest opinions. Since it’s difficult to get the last group, it’s important to cultivate the first group. It doesn’t have to be a formal group, but it can be. Just keep in mind as you go through the writing process that there is money to be made on people’s dreams. Lots of things will take your time and your money and give you very little in return. Publishing is a business not a dream factory. If you want to write, write. Like any of the other arts, practice is the only thing that really makes you better. Like any other art, some people are better at it than others. Like any other art, some forms of it are more marketable than others. Write because you love it. Write because it’s what you do. Don’t expect to be J.K. Rowling and don’t assume you’re Shakespeare and then the rejection that is an inevitable part of the process won’t crush your soul. Then go back to writing.