The Value of Writing Groups


Last December I posted about two different types of writing groups. That brief overview was related to a couple of columns I wrote for a private writing group’s newsletter. Even then, I didn’t feel as though I’d said all I wanted to on the subject.


An expanded how-to guide, with suggestions for getting a group started, identifying your group, and setting some rules, for starters. I included some prompts and other tips, all based on years of experience as a member of both creative groups and critique groups.

Now you can get that 8-page guide FREE. Just click here.


Oh… and in the critique group section I include an idea for making those groups even better — something I’ve never seen in practice before.

What do you think makes a great writing group? What have your experience been? Do you agree with the ideas in the guide? Let us know what you think!

Is a Writing Group a Waste of Your Time?


Quick answer: they can be. Or not. Depends.

Don’t you love answers like those?!?

But seriously. Much does depend on what the group’s purpose and who’s attending it.


Though types of writing groups vary, two primary categories are critique groups and creative groups.

Critique Groups

There’s no one way to organize such groups, but the members should all have one thing in common: improving their writing, which means being willing to hear honest (though polite) feedback on their writing. Some groups include a variety of writing types while others are specific to fiction or articles or poetry. It’s up to the group, but important to have enough experience among the members to avoid ending up with the blind leading the blind. If only one poet meets in a group of magazine article writers, that poet isn’t likely to get helpful critique.

Creative Groups

More free-flowing, these groups focus on getting together to flex their writing muscles, without necessarily having the goal of publishing, and without criticism. In the latter case, this type of group is 180-degrees from a critique group. Often patterned after Natalie Goldberg’s guideline of ten-minute segments of free writing, the group can use a variety of prompts, focus on any type (or all types) of writing, and include the option of reading what’s writting to the rest of the group. The important things here are to keep things positive: no critique, no judgment, no gossiping outside the group about what was written so everyone can feel free to write whatever pops into their heads.

Which is Better?

Each group has its benefits. Accustomed to many years of critique groups, I was a little out of my element in a creative group at first. I wondered if my Wednesday mornings might have been better spent “doing my own writing” rather than meeting with the group. What I discovered was the group’s insistence on taking a prompt and following it wherever it led opened up my writing heart to possibilities in ways it hadn’t in many years. While drafting my recent novel, “Pea Body,” I found myself “riffing” (as musicians might say) — heading down paths I probably wouldn’t have followed before being part of the creative group. I would have censored my ideas before they even had a chance to express themselves. As a result, writing the book was much more fluid than any other book has been for me, and much more enjoyable. The creative group demonstrated to me how easy it was to trust my writing instincts, and how well it could pay off when I did.

Critique groups have also benefited me, but in more predictable ways: I found more boo-boos, got harder on myself when I was tempted to give my plot or characters the easy way out.

But there’s an underlying advantage to critique groups that many people miss. More on that next time!

Found Prompts

Prompts are everywhere. We just have to be able to spot them and know how to use them. Take receipts, for instance.


Ever pick up a random receipt someone left in a shopping cart or tossed away and give it a close look? You should.

What did this stranger buy? What time of day or night was it? Did they pay cash or charge it?

For a writing group prompt, I collected receipts from all sorts of places — grocery and department stores, bookstores, gas stations…. then handed them out randomly to members of the writing group, set the timer for ten minutes and bam! Away we went, writing whateverthe receipts brought to mind. And the results were — as usual with this group — amazing.

You don’t need a writing group to do this — just gather receipts when you find them in good condition (ignore the ones in parking lots that have been trampled over… nobody wants cooties…!), stuff them in a pocket for writing time, then pull one out to get your creativity flowing.

Stuck in a current project? Wondering what move a character should make next? Use that receipt as a way to get your brain moving in another direction: What if the character goes someplace where they’d get this receipt?

*What did they purchase? Why?
*Is this part of a normal routine? If so, did they vary the routine? Why?
*Was it a good idea for them to do this? Why or why not?
*Did they make any other stops? What were they? why did they make those stops?
*Did they bump into anybody at this place or somewhere along the way? If so, did that person influence what they bought? In what way? Why?

Can you see how this can lead you in a lot of directions?

Well? What are you waiting for! Go find a receipt! Okay… here are a couple to get you started….

receipt1 receipt2 receipt3 receipt5

Using Prompts

Usually prompts are used to generate a new piece of writing — often through a timed, free-writing exercise. For example, you set a timer for ten minutes and write whatever pops into your head using the prompt. Fiction, real-life memory, poem, country music lyrics, recipe… whatever rings your bell.

In the writing group, we have a lot of laughs — and our share of serious moments — when we go around the circle and read what we wrote (anyone can opt out of reading if they wish, and the two rules of the group are that we’re always positive and whatever is said or read in the group stays in the group).

On your own, you can just keep a writing journal of what you’ve generated, going back through it for odd character descriptions, to remember things for a memoir, whatever you want.

Business People 96

Using Prompts When Your Current Work Needs Help

You can also use a writing prompt when you’re stuck in something you’re working on. Let’s say you’re writing a novel and you need a new secondary character and a bit of side-bar action to keep your readers a bit distracted while you drop them a clue in your murder mystery… but you’re stumped about what to do.

Pick a prompt that includes the elements you need — character profile, setting, conflict, etc. — then set your timer, write freely (forgetting about your current longer work for the moment), and see what happens. You might not find a magical answer, but give it a bit of time, try again with another prompt later, and see what possibilities you might open up.

Here’s One to Get You Started!

  1. Write the name of each of your characters on a separate index card (to save paper, you can use 1/2 or 1/4 of an index card… you won’t need much writing space on them).
  2. On another batch of index cards, write nouns at random, one noun per card (orange, submarine, kitten, elm, Paris, sofa, hamburger… you get the picture). Write as many as you can think of. Don’t edit your ideas. If you’re having trouble, get someone to start naming things for you.
  3. On yet more index cards, write every color you can think of, one on each card.
  4. Finally, write “memory,” “dream,” “wish,” “fear,” “discovery,” “denial” on each of six more cards (once you see where this is going, you’ll probably want to add your own).
  5. Shuffle each batch of cards.
  6. Select one card from each batch. Select another card from the noun stack.
  7. Write the scene: this character is experiencing this memory or discovery or fear or wish (whatever that card was) — and it includes the color you selected and the two nouns.

Keep writing. Don’t edit yourself. Don’t tell yourself what you’re doing will have no place in your book (how could you know that now?).

Maybe you won’t use what you just wrote, but maybe it will get your mind working anyway, even if it’s on another track completely. But, then, that’s what a prompt is all about isn’t it?

A Fortune in Writing Prompts

Fortune cookies, that is! Let me back up and start at the beginning. I recently started leading a weekly writing group after its founder passed away. She’d established a great group that meets weekly for two hours, doing ten minute free-writing activities. I was honored when asked to continue the group. I’d been taking different ideas for writing prompts to the group for awhile, and had been looking forward to sharing with Alice the ideas I’d come up with while away. Though I won’t get a chance to do that, I can bring those activities to the group anyway, knowing her spirit is cheering us all on.

One idea was to use those fortunes we get from cookies at Chinese restaurants:

I started collecting the fortunes and eventually had a dozen or so that I took to the group. I handed them out randomly, just as you’d get a random fortune in a restaurant. “Write something about this fortune,” I said, and set the timer for the usual 10 minutes.

Wow! What fun! Some wrote about a character getting that fortune and how it fit (or didn’t) into that character’s life. Others wrote about the fortune itself. Another wrote about the fractured English translation that rendered the fortune nearly unreadable. Still another chose to write about the lucky numbers on the back.

The only thing I’ll do differently next time I do this activity is take the cookies 🙂

Try this — and let us know how it goes.


What better way to start a brand new blog that suggest a unique way to get that creative writing motor primed? To start it up with a blustery howl?

“Pecha Kucha,” a phenomenon that swept the professional world a few years ago, shook up otherwise boring PowerPoint presentations by demanding the presenter use just 20 slides and spend just 20 seconds on each slide.

Now we have “PechaFlickr” — a wild and fun combination of the “Pecha Kucha” requirements of 20 slides/20 seconds each with a randomly-selected set of 20 images from Flickr.

Oh… how cool is that?!?

Of course I couldn’t resist trying, and typed in the word “fluffy” to start with. I’m not keen on “fluffy” as a word, to be honest, but it was a recent word from a group writing activity I participated in a few weeks ago and thought it would be a great comparative exercise. I didn’t get 20 slides, and of course you can imagine the types of images that generally came up, but still… for a quick-start writing activity, it was one of the best I’ve experienced.

Here’s the piece of “fluffy” writing I came up with (with just a few edits to translate my shorthand into something readable):

Mountains of white snow, maybe a foot and a half, on a picnic table… the blue puffy clouds overhead threatening to smile away that snow…. Inside, a brown-faced cat peers out the window, maybe imagining cold. A leopard hugs itself in the zoo downtown, its blue eyes unyielding. On the farm a black rooster stares you down while the snow starts to fall, gently, again. The white cat inside, perched on its paisly tablecloth ignores plea for it to get down from the table, trying to keep it away from those brownies, their green speckled candy or something green you don’t want to think about. Feeling ignored, the white cat jumps into your arms, while a third cat, fat, proud of it with its “I’m not fat I’m husky name” tag watches while a brown all-over cat watches from the couch. Outdoors, the pale pink strands of a seed-filled flower pod soak up the light from the pale blue sky and its spackle of white clouds. The neighbor’s black dog, a spot of white beard on its chin, looks longingly at you. And you? You’re dreaming of a flight over the clouds, the sun setting or maybe rising in pale orange along the horizon. The song sparrow sings for you on the stoop of its birdhouse, and when that pale pink, seedy pod has grabbed your attention again you see it has transformed into a strong, thin bloom with loud, bright colors.

Type fast! Twenty seconds isn’t long for capturing all that will swarm through your head like the buzzing of a million bee-like ideas.

Ready? Type any word into the pink bar and see what happens. FYI… I opened my computer’s “Notepad” option so I could type along while the images came onto the screen.

Here’s the link.

Let us all know how it works for you!