Story Talk: Writing Groups for Screenwriters—Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid!

Recently, I got into an argument with a screenwriter who was raving about her screenwriting group. She waxed poetic about the support she felt, the valuable input, the feeling of connection she felt and all the other warm fuzziness that comes with being with like-minded people.

What was there to argue about? Well, my response to her was, “Quit the thing immediately.”

That kind of set her off, and so the argument began. Now, granted, I can be a bit snippy and self-righteous when I get all in a tizzy about something. I tried to cool my jets, but her effusive love affair with her writing group pushed too many of my buttons. So, we argued, and in any such argument, there are never winners, just losers. She wasn’t bad or wrong in her devotion, nor was I in my criticism. But, that got me thinking—was there some happy medium between her “true-believer” mania and my “file for divorce” pessimism? What was the bigger picture here?

I found myself reviewing all the reasons why I hate writing groups (screenwriting or otherwise). In a nutshell, I find them to be anything but helpful to writers. Most of the participants are bad writers to begin with and have no real experience or expertise to offer other writers. Members typically are unpublished or unproduced, unschooled in screenwriting craft themselves (that’s why they’re in a group), and they almost never know how to give constructive criticism (i.e., “make the Mercedes a pickup truck”). Input from group members usually falls into three categories: empty praise, vicious critiques, or banal suggestions. I also find that, over time, familiarity within the group between members begins to undermine any real advice that might be offered, as cliques form, power struggles arise and rivalries fester as the “good” writers battle against the “bad” writers. After a year or so, the group inevitably resembles more “Rome before the fall,” rather than some harmonious group of supportive and objective writers.

And then there is the simple logic of it:  members of any writing group are normally on the same level as other members, when it comes to craft. Some members may be more talented as writers, but when it comes to nuts-and-bolts craft everyone is usually on the same level of competency (I’m talking about knowledge about story structure, pacing, etc.) It’s rare that you ever get one or two members who are “stars” and know more than the group as a whole.  So, what is the point of being there?  Do you really want to get story feedback from people who are at the same level as you, when they don’t know substantially more than you, or don’t have any more expertise than you?  Again, what is the point?  If you’re looking for positive feedback, call your mother.  If you want real story feedback, call a professional; groups won’t deliver what you really need: insightful, experienced, and objective input. (Now, obviously, there are writing groups that work. But, I believe these to be rare and anomalies of freak chance.)

There is, however, an even more fundamental reason why writing groups should be thought of as crimes against nature. Screenwriting is not a group sport. Movie making is, but not writing. Screenwriting is a solitary and isolated process. Every screenwriter I know who has any success in the field has complained to me, on their Facebook page or through other public forums, how miserable they are during the writing process; how lonely, how despairing, and riddled with fear and doubt. Well—welcome to the writing life! Joining a group to avoid this reality is simply not going to work. Writing process, as I have often said, is the literary equivalent to water boarding. A writing group will not save you from the sensation of drowning that awaits you when you leave its warm and fuzzy folds. Just deal with it and know that it will not kill you and that you will come out the other end. The group will only give you misdirection, premature or undeserved praise, and ultimately prolong your torture.

So, I guess, for me, there is no middle ground, no bigger picture that might serve as a basis for feeling okay about writing groups. For me the issue is productivity and process. I think you are just on your own when it comes to both. What should you do instead, if you are truly looking for useful input and advice? There are several more productive and realistic alternatives to writing groups:

  • Readers: Develop a group of trusted readers who will not tell you what you want to hear, but who will tell you the truth. Preferably people who love to read and who you don’t know, or know very little. Give them specifics on what you are looking for with input and let them go at it. This will be real-world advice you can use.
  • Story Editors: Find a great editor who knows development. Line editors clean up your basic grammar, spelling, punctuation and usage. They also conform your text to proper style conventions. Story consultants give you the story and structure feedback most writing groups are clueless about. These are people who may not be good writers themselves, but they are great storytellers and they will help you become a better storyteller (writing and storytelling are different skills). Worth their weight in gold when you find them.
  • Classes: Read everything you can on how to write and take every screenwriting class you can afford. This can be a black hole of your time as well, if you are not careful, but there are some great story and writing teachers out there who can arm you with new tools and help you with learn how to survive the water board. But be careful not to trade one co-dependent love affair with another.  People LOVE giving their power away to so-called experts.  Story gurus and consultants (like me) are just resources to be leveraged.  Don’t hand your power away and drink anybody’s Kool-Aid.  My mantra: Listen to everyone, try everything, follow no one! You are your own guru. Many may poo-poo classes and consultants, but I say try them, you might like them. How are they different than writing groups? Classes end and consultants can be fired!

I know that there are many writers who will read all of this and feel compelled to come to the defense of their writing group. Feel free to do so. I have great respect for loyalty. But, consider that for all the time you will wast driving back and forth to group meetings, kibitzing before and after meetings, listening to other peoples stories and self-absorbed criticisms you could be writing at home and getting pages done. Maybe bad pages, but so what. Your first draft is always crap anyway. Everybody’s first draft sucks. Join a group if you must; just know that it will take more than it gives and, in the end, may leave you feeling like you need a shower.

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25 thoughts on “Story Talk: Writing Groups for Screenwriters—Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid!

  1. Pingback: Writer’s Groups – To Join Or Not To Join? | A Writer's Discrepant Memoirs and Other Tales

    1. freeze

      I’ve just read your excellent description on writing groups. I am a published author as well as a produced screenwriter but perhaps a little success can be a dangerous thing. I developed a serious writer’s block after I was nominated for a screenwriting award. For some strange reason, I didn’t feel proud, I felt unworthy. (even though I didn’t win in my category). I joined two different writing groups for over a span of two years but now, thanks to your article, I am facing the truth about why I joined them. It wasn’t for the help with writing, it was for the “comfort” and “support” of not being able to face the “tyranny of the empty page” alone. Even though, for the most part, they were nice people, and some of them gave me helpful critiques, the greater majority of them were not good writers and eventually it became too painful to listen anymore. I have decided to cut the umbilical cord and get back to facing “it” alone once more.

  2. Willow

    THANK YOU. I’ve just posted this to my Facebook, saying “People ask me why I don’t join a writer’s group. Because this.”

    Writing, for me, is a very personal journey. I am not a social person; I’m the one hanging out by the snacks until the appropriate time has elapsed before an excuse to leave doesn’t seem like such a blatant escape attempt. When I write, or read, or make jewelry, or do anything else, I’m extremely focused and cannot work any other way. I enter that world completely, and no one else can see it but me.

    It does my unfinished work no good to put it on display in front of a group of people with little or no experience so they can make “helpful suggestions” which truly aren’t. I know exactly what this world’s rules are, I know what these characters are like to the last detail, I know what the end goal is, I have an outline that I’m following. Why would I derail that?

    I can’t help but think of NaNoWriMo, where everyone’s a “winner” if they manage to barf out a certain number of words in a month. It’s extremely social, with everyone acting as everyone’s cheerleader, and it drives me right up the wall. Now I know why–it’s nothing more than a world-wide writer’s group for the month of November.

    Perhaps these things are helpful to people who always put “aspiring” in front of “writer.” I’ve been a professional paid writer for 20 years. There’s only one way to get the training wheels off and go solo, to leave the safe echo chamber of approval, and that’s to actually do it.

    Be a writer, not an “aspiring writer” stuck in kindergarten, no matter how safe it feels or how good the cookies are. Ships in the harbor are safe, but that’s not what ships are made for. Same goes for writers. Take chances. Make a mess. Go all Jackson Pollock on it and create something amazing. Remember why you started writing in the first place.

  3. Jeff LyonsJeff Lyons

    John-Arthur: Thank you for taking the time to be considerate and thoughtful on this. You are quite correct, this is not what it appears on the surface… though one could easily make assumptions on a first read. Managing expectations yes, yes, yes. 🙂

  4. John-Arthur

    Wow. I have to admit, my first reading of this was like: “Holy Shit. This guy REALLY hates writers groups and believes EVERYONE should stay away from it. There’s some really blanket statements against these groups. Yikes!”

    Then I took a deep breath and looked again. I believe it’s all about managing your expectations. If a writer approaches groups the way that you describe; seeking validation, then you’re right to warn that person to stay away. Anything that prevents positive productivity should be avoided. Every writer should evaluate their motives for joining.

    So yes, you’re right in sending out this warning to all writers about joining groups. However, the suggestions you give about a trusted group of readers, an editor, and classes can be found in a group too. Like someone else mentioned, some writing classes are just glorified versions of a writers group. You should approach choosing classes the same way you would for groups.

    I am fortunate as well to find a very productive writers group with working professional writers, with different levels/perspectives, but talented nonetheless. This makes for some great debates and challenges too! However, I’m not limited to the group, nor is anyone else. I do my own research and reading/writing too. I might even join a class or workshop eventually too. Also, following blogs like John August and Scott Myers are priceless resources; and FREE;)

    Essentially, use all the productive tools you can grab. I just don’t think there is ONE formula for every writer to be productive. Manage your exceptions, motives, and productive levels, then adjust to improve accordingly…

    Thanks!

  5. HMMMMMM

    Jeff Lyons: No vitriol towards you, since I don’t know you. I just know that one who speaks ill of something he DOESN’T know about in order to turn others on to his services is not the most magnanimous person in the world. Your motive is money as much as you tell yourself it’s to help other writers, otherwise how would you really make a living? Maxwell Perkins helped Fitzgerald, not sure who F. Scott Fitzgeralk is. Spell check never hurts. Especially by such a exalted “story consultant” as yourself. And as mentioned by several of the commentors above, a good idea can come from anyone. It’s not only relegated to “story consultants”. I’m not sure what produced writers you’ve helped (if any) but I do know that ANYONE with enough practice can be a story consultant. There’s so many of them that are so in love with their own ideas (check out Amazon.com for how many books are authored by “story consultants”) that they tend to shoot down things they have no clue about, such as writer groups. You might be BRILLIANT, I’m sure you think so, but you are someone who profits by “lending” your brilliance to other writers. Perkins was an editor, which meant that he was not paid by the writers to edit. Usually an editor is paid by a magazine or a publishing company. But you are not employed in such a fashion. You solicit funds from those who are desperately seeking answers and that reeks of all kinds of shadiness. So…yeah. Writer groups can be good. I’ve found them to be helpful, once I’ve tested the group out to see what skill set the contributing writers posses. They’re free. You on the other hand…uh…who are you again?

  6. Caroline Leavitt

    Great discussion. I’m a NYT bestselling author and a writing teacher at UCLA and Stanford, with private clients. And before I was either, I went to writing groups, and took classes. And here’s what I think.

    I actually agree with Jeff. Every writer on the planet needs readers, but you need the right kind of reader, otherwise you may as well give your pages to your spouse, who usually can’t be objective enough to really push you. A warm, fuzzy group isn’t going to push you to be better (though it will make you feel safe and supported.) Too often, these groups become writing by committee. Still, that doesn’t mean they are bad. It depends on what you are looking for.
    1. If you are looking for support and structure and a push to produce pages, then they’re not a bad place to start.
    2. IF your writing group has at least a few people who genuinely know about structure and can help you figure out what works and why and what doesn’t and how to fix it.–then it’s worth it.
    3. If you are not just supported, but challenged, then it’s worth it.
    I agree with Jeff that a better option is to find 2 or 3 or 4 readers, all of them with different strengths. I also agree a class can be a better way of improving your skills. (Yes, a teacher who has published novels or had scripts made into films does know more about the process than someone just starting out.)

    And for the record, I loathe National Novel Writing Month because all it does is get you to put words on the page. It tells you nothing about structure. It doesn’t give you tools to get better.

    Writing is hard and glorious, so why not get the best tools you can?

  7. Jeff LyonsJeff Lyons Post author

    Nett: Yes, you sound like you are one of the lucky ones as well. A good mix of skill levels in the group helps. And you sound like you have a healthy attitude toward it all, especially about using it as a learning tool. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I still think there is a faster way to get where you need to go, but I think you know by now what that is :). You’re right, there has to be some happy medium, or perhaps better, some threshold where everyone gets where they decide they have to do soemthing more. Maybe they never leave their group, but they decide to get more professional input at some point. I think when people do this enough, they realize that they really don’t need the group anymore and can trust in a new way of doing business. But, I liked very much what you had to say…very thoughtful.

  8. Jeff LyonsJeff Lyons Post author

    Fred: See my comments to Justin. I don’t disagree with most of this, as it applies to what Jenna was offering as well. Any structure that help a writer be productive is a good thing. It’s the critique groups that give me the heebie-jeebies.

    Yes, the garbage man might come up with a killer idea. The universe loves giving us gifts when we least expect it (including from our mums). Be open, be receptive, be willing. Absolutely. What a wonderful thing your group gave you by keeping you on track. Like I said in the article, not all groups are evil and co-dependent (just most of them). You were one of the lucky ones. 🙂

  9. Jeff LyonsJeff Lyons Post author

    Jenna: Thank you Thank you Thank you. This is the professional attitude, this is the professional approach, this is a strategy that will produce results. Groups that audit and manage accountability among writers are not writing groups… they are a whole other animal. I’m talking about critique and criticism groups; those are the problem children. Group’s like yours are exactly what is needed for all of us writers who always manage to do something else instead of writing. I love what you are doing and this is something I can support. Not that you need my approval. 🙂

  10. Jeff LyonsJeff Lyons Post author

    Phil: You make a great point. Why limit your options? Why not just throw it out there and get every viewpoint, every suggestion, every note and then sort it all out? Like I said to Justin, you never know where the gem might come from. The problem is that this approach so often leads to derailing process. You get so much information you get lost in the woods. And if you don’t have strong skill sets for writing or storytelling (the two are different things) you might get sidetracked with confusing or bad advice. Again, not bad or wrong, but what a time killer. Not to mention the emotional drain. I know I’m harping about hiring professionals, but the advantage is that people who know writing or story better than you do can sniff out the crap much more quickly and sort through the bad advice more accurately and save you time, and yes, money. You are buying their expertise, but also their experience. I will use me as an example (no, nothing self-serving about it… I just happen to be a great example of the point). I read close to 250 manuscripts every year, not including scripts. I provide development notes to publishers, production companies, bestselling authors, yada, yada. With all this reading I’ve done you pick up a few things and you develop a scary ability with pattern recognition. I can tell within a couple pages if a screenplay is going to fail, and within the first two chapters of a novel is the book is going to fall apart. I’ve seen it all, literally. There is no story structure mistake or writing problem that I have not seen. This is not hubris talking, this is simply a fact of me putting in the 10-thousand-hours-plus needed to master this thing that I do (read Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers” where he talks about how long it takes to master ANY activity). How many people in your writing group can say they have that skill set? When you get professional feedback from someone who has this level of depth of experience you are buying more than producing credits, you are buying yourself time because they can just cut to the chase and just get to the point. I could go on, but I think I made the point. If you have no pressure and don’t care about how long it takes to “get it right,” then by all means, throw it out there and see what comes back (I know you don’t mean it that haphazardly as I suggest). But if time is of the essence (and I think it is), then why wait?

    Oh, and by the way, I’m nobody! Re your comment about me assuming my friend get no satisfaction in her group. I have no right to say that, and I have no right to tell anyone what they should do. I’m just a guy who writes and teaches and sells swampland from time to time to unsuspecting writers. But, I have opinions and I can be pointed about them. Arrogance or confidence? Hmmmmmm (no I’m not talking to Hmmmmm), I say the latter not the former. It all gets very subjective doesn’t it 🙂

  11. Jeff LyonsJeff Lyons Post author

    Justin: Truth be told, I don’t disagree with you. Doing some “proof of concept market testing” with a group is always a good idea. Like Fred said in his comment, you never know where a good idea will come from. I totally agree with what you said. Especially about the repetitive tripe most story gurus teach in their classes. It’s important to always be open for the gifts that come our way, “out of the blue,” but my question to you would be, “Why bother testing out your material with other writers who probably don’t know more than you do? Why not just cut to the chase and get that professional feedback?” Yes, yes… you never know where the gems might come from. It’s all a matter of degree. How much time do you want to spend testing and what is your threshold for finally biting the bullet and getting some professional help? I say, we all have limited time to write (and live), eat the desert first. Take the dream vacation now, don’t wait. And get the professional feedback sooner than later. Unless you are just not in a hurry. 🙂 Thanx for you civil comments. I know this has been a touchy one. 🙂

  12. Jeff LyonsJeff Lyons Post author

    Hmmmm: Hmmmm, indeed. I’ll just skip over the vitriol and make a point about something you mentioned that is a great question: i.e., so-called story gurus are profit-sucking hacks that take your money and run. Okay, I’m taking some creative license here—I’m a writer as well as a con man, you see. But, the point being—I agree with you in principle. I hate story gurus; I hate shlockmeisters of any kind who prey on vulnerability. It’s the old “those who can, do; those who can’t, consult.”

    I used to think this myself. That’s why it took me so many years to finally take the risk to put myself out there, knowing I’d be a target for charges of shlockmeister (or con man) myself. But then, I remembered Maxwell Perkins. If you don’t know about him, look him up. He was an editor at Scribners, one of the top 5 publishing companies backing the 30s and 40s. His clients included Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgeralk, Thomas Mann, Ring Laudner and another dozen literary luminaries. What did Perkins do? He was a story guy. He helped these giants of literature write their books. He could do things with story they couldn’t. They were amazing writers, but they were not great with developing story. Perkins was good; he was the best, maybe the best ever. He was, single handedly, responsible for at least two Nobel Prizes in Literature (Hemingway & Fitzgerald). And now here’s the kicker: he never wrote a book or published so much as a recipe in his 40-some-odd years as a book editor. How can that be? Those who can, do; those who can’t: edit, or teach, or consult or whatever dismissive thing you want to add at the end—right?. And yet, here was an editor/story consultant (which is exactly what I am when I’m not writing) contributing to the canon of Western literature through his talent as mentor to the great authors of his day.

    So, my point is that just because someone has published or been produced doesn’t mean squat. All it means is that you’ve written something a publisher or producer thinks they can sell. It doesn’t mean you know what you’re doing or that you know story structure from a steak sandwich. Being a published author or a produced screenwriter is great for the resume, but it is absolutely NOT a criterion for being a good story consultant or developmental editor. The only metric there is should be how many of your clients get published or produced. Nothing else matters.

    And …pssst… I’ve got some swampland in Florida I’d like to sell you! ?

  13. Nett

    My comment isn’t so much about loyalty but just saying what works for me. I have friends (and my mother) to tell me my writing is wonderful and a WGA-member mentor to give me the harsh news. From a group, I want a balance of comments on what works and what doesn’t. And the joy of hearing my words come to life (we do table readings at our meetings). Yes, I have to sort through ridiculous comments (make the Mercedes a pickup truck) and the newbies who just say everything is good. But I feel like sorting through that and learning to know which comments are ridiculous have helped me improve as a writer.
    There are a few people in my group who have taken more classes and workshops and do have a better understanding of structure (my weakness). I really listen to those people. But even some of their comments get tossed out because they go against what I know about the story I’m telling. That happened just a couple of weeks ago and I knew that I was growing as a screenwriter. I may one day outgrow the group. At that point though, I feel like I can repay the karmic debt I owe the group by attending and giving good comments to those just learning.
    I have quit groups before for being far too negative and hostile (usually one or two individuals). I’ve never encountered what you describe, everyone praising everything. I would have to quit that group, too. I usually cycle through lots of meetings and fewer meetings depending on how useful they feel to me. When I leave thinking “Jeez, I wish I had spent that time writing” then I don’t go back for a bit. Usually the group makeup shifts enough in the meantime to improve the experience.
    Writing groups aren’t for everyone but they can work for some people. I like (not love) my writing group but it also frustrates me at times and I have to use my own discernment when sorting comments. Perhaps that’s the happy medium you were searching for.

  14. Frederick Ponzlov

    Well….
    My first screenplay that was produced “Undertaking Betty” starring Christopher Walken, Naomi Watts and Alfred Molina, the first draft was written in a writers group. I needed the deadlines that the group imposed and some great ideas came from the meeting of minds, no matter how developed their individual capabilities were. A great idea can come from a garbage man if you are open to hearing it.

  15. Jenna AveryJenna Avery

    I have a healthy reluctance to participating in critique groups because of many of the reasons you’ve mentioned. I prefer instead to work with the group of trusted readers I’ve developed through the classes I’ve participated in and work with a mentor. Once I’ve addressed my readers and mentor’s comments, I send my work for professional coverage. In this highly competitive industry, I believe getting high-level, high-quality feedback is critical to success.

    On the other hand, I adore my online Writer’s Circle, which is strictly focused on support for the PROCESS of writing. It’s not about feedback, or critiquing — in fact we do not review other participants’ work. Rather we log in daily to an online site and cheer each other on for surviving that literary water boarding (love that) each and every day. Bottom line: It’s about doing the work. So far we’ve seen our writers finishing long unfinished novels, screenplays, memoirs, and non-fiction projects. Thrilling!

  16. Phil

    With all due respect, Jeff, that’s fundamentalist poppycock. Your ideas for script and skills development are of course sensible, but who are you to say that your screenwriter friend doesn’t get anything of value from her screenwriting group? A more helpful and less negative/elitist position for you to hold would be to say that we should seek help and inspiration from any quarters. ANY quarters … and that could mean from our mum, too, yes.

  17. Justin Sloan

    I have to be one of those that disagree. On the contrary, I find many of these ‘classes’ to be filled with repetitive analysis of screenplays and movies that we have already seen analyzed in many books. So I would argue the opposite – go to a couple of classes (I was once told that if you have to go more than three and still haven’t learned what you need to learn, give up), then write like crazy and kick butt.

    But the writing groups are where you can test out your material before seeking professional feedback, and I’ve found that even the most unskilled writers will sometimes have the most insightful comments.

  18. HMMMMMM

    So, don’t trust a group where you don’t have to pay fees but trust “instructors” such as yourself that make a profit off of writers trying to break in. Yeah, that’s the kind of flawed logic that works really great with con men like the above “writer”. It also resembles “sagacious advice” given by so called “teachers” who have never produced anything or even worse produced works that are “in development” or ended up being reviewed horribly. Writer groups like screenwriting classes like anything require some research on the part of the writer. I’ve been part of writing groups that were completely useless and now I’m in a few that work because the writers do know craft and do want to push the other members of the group. There are screenwriting classes that work as well but those of course cost money. The danger is to believe someone who says “Come with me and not with them.” Whose motivation is money. We’re in a recession and “screenwriting gurus” (anyone who claims to be guru but has never produced a work that’s impressed anyone, needs to stop their highfaluting megalomania) seem to always make money. Yet, they’ve never made anything that anyone’s seen. Be careful, readers. Writer groups do work but you have to be honest with yourself on why you want to join one. Is it to receive ego aggrandizement that the above “author” is guilty of, or to push your level of craft to the level where you can be a produced writer rather than some wannabe “guru”.

  19. HMMMMMM

    So, don’t trust a group where you don’t have to pay fees but trusted “instructors” such as yourself that make a profit off of writers trying to break in. Yeah, that’s the kind of flawed logic that works really great with con men like yourself. It also resemble the lessons that so called teacher who have never produced anything or even worse produced works that are “in development” or ended up being reviewed horribly. Writer groups like screenwriting classes like anything require some research on the part of the writer. I’ve been part of writing groups that were completely useless and now I’m in a few that work because the writers do know craft and do want to push the other members of the group. There are screenwriting classes that work as well but those of course cost money. The danger is to believe someone who says “Come with me and not with them.” whose motivation is money. We’re in a recession and “screenwriting gurus” (anyone who claims to be guru but has never produced a work that’s impressed anyone, needs to stop their highfaluting megalomania) seem to always make money. Yet, they’ve never made anything that anyone’s seen. Be careful, readers. Writer groups do work but you have to be honest with yourself on why you want to join one. Is it to receive ego aggrandizement that the above “author” is guilty of, or to push your level of craft to the level where you can be a produced writer rather than some wannabe “guru”.

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