Pitfalls of Online Writers’ Groups

Online writing workshops have a lot to offer. Writers join in search of feedback for their work and information on all aspects of the writing and submissions process. What they find is so much more. Writers from all over the world learn from one another without having to leave home. Even after a writer has outgrown a specific workshop, he’ll often keep going back for the camaraderie, commiseration, and information trading. However, there are a few pitfalls to watch out for.

Writers’ groups have a strong sense of community. The writers get to know each other both personally and professionally. This creates tight-knit groups which can become insulated and cliquish, particularly in smaller workshops. In order to break into some groups, new members need to have a strong and determined voice. Even in workshops with hundreds of members, such as Zoetrope or Absolute Write, there is a core group of participants who set the tone for the entire site. Unwanted members are sometimes labeled and ridiculed. The experience resembles that of a high school hierarchy. To get the most out of workshopping, it’s important for a writer to try out several writers’ groups to find the one that best suits her personality and goals.

Most online writing workshops have general discussion boards where members can talk about art, politics, family, and life in general. Some of these boards are moderated and some are not. Such discussions contribute to the sense of community and help spark ideas. They can also be intense, particularly on unmoderated boards, and turn into flame wars. Even when discussions are amicable, they are time consuming. If online discussion boards interfere with productivity, the writer may need to moderate his time on the boards or find a group that is more focused on writing.

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Perhaps the biggest problem with online writing workshops is that stories sometimes get written by committee. The original writer posts a draft of her story and receives feedback from her peers. She then revises the story according to this feedback. Generally, that’s a good thing. Writers often don’t see the flaws in their own work and feedback helps bring stories into focus. However, when a story is over-workshopped, it loses its raw power and becomes a product of the workshop community rather than a product of the individual writer’s imagination. When sifting through feedback and revising a story, the writer needs to be sure to follow her instincts and not stray too far from her original vision and voice.

Online writers’ groups can be beneficial if the writer is careful of the pitfalls. He can learn more quickly in a workshop than she would on her own. He is also introduced to other aspiring writers he may not have otherwise known. These writers challenge each other and the result is often better stories and better writing.