Writers' Groups - Are They Worth Your Time and Money?

by Greg Knollenberg

Writers' associations, groups and organizations have existed for a long time, however, many of them unknown except to a select few until the rise of the Internet. Many new groups have formed recently because of the Internet's existence. Even before the Internet, there were numerous writers' organizations covering every aspect of writing. There are groups that are formed by high school students, groups that read poetry aloud on Wednesdays, travel writers' groups and national trade organizations for writers, as well as the new Web-spawned groups. With the myriad of choices existing, how does the writer determine which group is best for him or her -- or if any of them are worth joining at all?

This article, a compilation of information, definitions and interviews, will examine the benefits of joining various groups, will provide pointers to some helpful and beneficial writers' organizations and groups, as well as provide a general overview of the ways writers can network with each other. Although one article is too limited in space to describe every writers' group, nevertheless it can give you an idea of what to look for and how to find the writers' group that is right for you. It has been said before that writers should rely upon trusted sources for information; that statement holds true regarding writers' groups. The old names we are familiar with can be found online and many new groups have formed online using the ease of networking the Internet allows. Both the old and the new groups have their advantages. Writing groups fall basically into two categories: Professional Associations/Organizations and Writers' and Critique Groups.

Writers' Associations and Organizations

Many professional writers' organizations are international in scope and are online to enable communication and networking. These organizations and groups remain the best place for professional writers to find other professional writers. Because of the Internet there has been an expansion of group opportunities. The established organizations realize this and have expanded their own services that they offer to members by offering online newsletters and member homepages, promoting their members' books online and staging conferences and awards - the big events of these elite organizations. There is so much information and misinformation on the Internet that these renowned organizations remain the central points for accurate, reliable information relevant to the professional writer.

To find out more about the workings of the professional trade writers' organizations we interviewed three of the largest organizations on the Internet: the Horror Writers Assocation (the "HWA"), the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Inc. (the "SFWA") and the Western Writers of America (the "WWA").

Jim Moore, Vice President of the HWA talked about the benefits his organization offer its members:

"The HWA provides market reports (via Kathy Ptacek, AKA the Gila Queen of Gila Queen's guide to markets), a membership directory and several articles on contract negotiation, finding an agent and examinations of the rights of publishers and writers."

Moore also noted that the HWA provides,

"[A]n exclusive market with the HWA anthologies, and a grievance commitee for situations that might require litigation and for legal advice. Additionally the Hardship fund set up by the HWA offers low interest loans to writers in need of financial assistance."

The HWA also sends out weekly mailings via the Internet covering the most current news. Virtually all of the officers and trustees of the HWA are on the Internet and are available to answer members' questions. For Moore, the HWA is a very special organization:

"I really do believe the HWA makes a difference. I've served in office three times in the last four years for exactly that reason. I know it's helped me make connections and establish myself as a professional writer."

Acclaimed Western novelist Richard Wheeler is the WWA Publicist and former executive board member of WWA. His latest novel is Second Lives, A Novel of the Gilded Age (Forge Books 1997). Wheeler is enthusiastic about all the benefits the WWA offers its members:
"Western Writers of America provides numerous benefits to members. Among them are the Spur Awards, honoring the best work in our field; the Roundup Magazine, with timely information about our field; the conventions, where members get to attend seminars and talk with regional and New York editors and agents, and not least, friendship and collegiality."

"We have aggressively established an Internet home page and also posted an electronic version of the Roundup Magazine. These have greatly magnified our outreach, and ultimately the sales of books of our members. We post all entry information for the Spur Awards (open to nonmembers as well as members) on the Internet, and this is increasing the entries. We are showcasing our members' books on the home page, and these titles are linked to Amazon.com, thus enhancing our members' sales."

"Through our home page, we help people learn about the American West and its history, help students, supply our authors' addresses to fans, answer technical questions about the frontier, and publicize the organization itself. We also offer membership information. Since we are a nonprofit professional society, there are eligibility requirements. We are picking up members through our Internet pages."

"Finally, with our aggressive Internet operations, we are impressing the New York publishing establishment as a group eager to promote our literature, and we believe this ultimately helps our members obtain contracts. WWA is actively helping its members publish and earn money through its Internet operations."

Popular Science Fiction and Fantasy Author Melisa Michaels is the Webmaster for the SFWA. Her latest book Cold Iron was published by Roc in August, 1997. She had this to say about the benefits SFWA provides for its members:

"Members receive useful publications that help keep them abreast of the state of publishing in our genre, including any ongoing problems with agents, editors, or anthologists; information on contracts; market reports; articles on writing and the writing life; and information about the organization itself and its Nebula Award process. Members also gain access to the Emergency Medical Fund; the Emergency Legal Fund; SFWA's attorney; SFWA's agent; and Griefcom, an arbitration committee that has helped solve many very serious problems between individual members and their agents, editors, anthologists, or publishers."

"We have an electronic mailing list to disseminate information of interest to our members; we have private (hidden) as well as public newsgroups on SFF Net (www.sff.net) where we can discuss matters of interest to the membership; and of course we have the SFWA Web site. There we offer free, very basic home pages designed and maintained by our Webmaster, as well as information about the organization, articles on writing, news in the field, model contracts, and much more."

These are just a few of the professional organizations for writers. Others include, Mystery Writers of America ("MWA"), Sisters in Crime, American Society of Journalists and Authors ("ASJA"), Writers Guild of America (WGA), Romance Writers of America ("RWA"), National Writers Union, Children's Book Council and PEN1. The major professional associations and organizations have yearly dues which cost an average of between $55-$75 for a basic membership package, which provides all the basic member benefits of the organization. The membership requirements vary by organization: the admission standards are higher in some of these organizations than in informal groups in order to maintain a professional membership of people seriously interested in the genre of the particular group. Oftentimes, the newsletters of these organizations are available to nonmembers who pay the subscription fee.

Local Writers' Assocations and Organizations

In addition to the major associations and organizations there are regional and local writing assocations located all over the world, many of which are also providing online benefits for their members similar to those offered by the large trade groups. The advantage of these local groups is the person to person contacts one can develop -- it is not possible to shake someone's hand online. The element of personal contact is attractive for many people. Many of these groups meet bi-weekly or monthly and allow personal interaction in a social gathering. Not all local writers' assocations and groups are online yet. Local libraries and bookstores are good resources to assist in finding out information about these groups.

Jim Flosdorf, Webmaster for the Hudson Valley Writers' Guild (the "HVWG") and Professor Emeritus of English at The Sage Colleges, talks about the HVWG,
"The guild provides a place where people can share their experiences as writers and learn from each other. It is a source of information about matters of interest to these writers."

"The HVWG uses the internet to publish its schedule of meetings and other activities, as well as relevant items from minutes of its meetings. It will publish members' work on its pages, and encourages experimentation in internet-related forms, as writing in html."

"This is a rich and exciting area for experimentation and for a writer to communicate more directly with his/her readers. In this regard it lies somewhere between a seminar or reading and the solitary reader. It is at once a way to reach a wider, worldwide, audience and an audience which may be specifically interested in his/her kind of writing."

Local writer's organizations can be found throughout the world. If you are looking for a group that meets locally, these groups are the best way to meet other local writing professionals. Also, be sure to check the National organizations and associations for local branches in your area.

Writers' Groups

Another type of organization is writers' groups and critique groups. Many of these groups have formed online and did not exist offline before they formed on the Internet. Some may consider the OWLs to fit into this category.

Writers' Groups vary widely in the experience level of their membership, which can range from novices to published authors. Jeanne Marie Childe, the site-owner and administrator of Novel Advice, editor of The Novel-Advice CyberJournal and Leader of NovelAdvice on AOL's Writers Club talks about her popular critique group:

"Novel Advisers is an invitation-only group comprised solely of novel writers. It is democratic in that each member evaluates and votes on the acceptance of a new member via an anonymous writing sample sent in the application. The group is meant for experienced and professional writers, primarily unpublished."

"Each member receives his/her own web page for the synopsis of the novel to be critiqued, which may be added to and/or changed at the author's desire. Techniques are nearly complete to allow the use of these synopsis pages as a daily journal, if the member wishes. These pages are private to the membership, a way in which all members of the group can take part in the growth of the novel-in-progress."

"I'd like to comment on the likely question of why we are limiting Novel Advisers to more-accomplished writers, rather than including beginners who would seem to need it the most. The response here sounds elitist, but it is true. In a mixed group of beginners and advanced writers, the latter end up giving very basic advice while receiving little of value for themselves. Most advanced writers have been writing for years, have studied, taken courses, written dozens of (usually unpublished) short stories and a novel or two, have revised, edited, critiqued - in short, they have paid their dues."

Critique groups are a useful tool when led by an experienced leader and when the participants are of sufficient skill level to provide meaningful input. Before choosing a critique group, the aspiring author should research the group. Before sharing his or her creative ideas with a group a writer should make sure that the group is reputable and will not appropriate another members' story ideas. Critique groups are only as good as their members, which is why the best ones may take awhile to get into. For the right group, it is worth the wait.

Choosing the Right Organization

The overwhelming nature of information available on the Internet can make it difficult to know where to begin. For networking purposes, writers' groups and organizations give writers an edge in making contacts and finding out crucial information about the industry. It depends on your skill level as to what kind of group you should join. Begin by looking into writers groups and organizations in your area. Surf the websites of the professional trade organizations. Define your goals for joining such a group. Are you looking to meet other writers, have your work commented upon, learn about a particular genre? Are you looking to meet locals or writers from across the nation or the world? If you are beginner, you may not meet the membership requirements for all groups, but you can at least find out what you will need to accomplish to become a member. If you are looking for internet writers' groups and online critique groups, use the search engines to find listings of writers' groups on writing resource pages and writers' organization pages. When you find the right group for you, it will be well-worth your time and your money.

1 Links to writing groups and organizations mentioned in this article.
Horror Writers Assocation
Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Inc.
Western Writers of America
Hudson Valley Writers' Guild
Mystery Writer's of America
American Society of Journalists and Authors
Writers Guild of America
Romance Writers of America
National Writers Union
Children's Book Council
Sisters in Crime

Additional Info on Writers' Groups and Organizations can be found on these page on Writers Write ®

Writers' Assocations and Organizations
Writers' Groups

Thank you to the following people for their help.
Lawrence Watt-Evans, Author and Webmaster of HWA
Melisa Michaels, Author and SFWA Webmaster
Richard S. Wheeler, Author and WWA Member
Jim Flosdorf, Professor Emeritus of English at The Sage Colleges
Kathleen Carr, Freelance Science Writer

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