When we writers spend hours alone at the keyboard, that isolation can get to even us introverts.
The solution is to find a writers group—populated by like-minded fellow strugglers.
I belong to three—one that meets in person and two that interact online, and I encourage Jerry Jenkins Writers Guild members to find one or form their own.
If you’re serious about your writing dreams, a writers group can help you fulfill them.
Writers understand each other.
You can look to family and friends for support, but unless they’re writers, they’re not likely to really comprehend what you’re going through.
You want someone who’s been where you are.
Whatever your challenge, someone in your writers group has experienced the same and gained insight they’re happy to share.
Late motivational speaker Jim Rohn said we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with.
That’s why I enjoy spending time with writers.
Before Joining a Writers Group
Know what you hope to gain from it.
A writers group should help you become a better craftsperson, not serve only as a cheerleading squad for you. And neither should it be the opposite—a gaggle of critics that leaves you feeling low after every meeting.
Rather, seek (or form) a group that includes at least one member who has succeeded in the business. Ideally, the leader should be someone who has published two or more books, has an agent, and knows how to work with editors at publishing houses.
Most important, be sure the leader allows both praise and constructive criticism. Otherwise you could wind up in a writers group where everyone praises everyone else’s work, yet no one gets published. Or one in which everyone criticizes each other’s writing but no one learns how to improve.
Guidelines for Joining a Writers Group
Choose as specific a writers group as possible. Some have writers of all sorts who write in a variety of genres—fiction, nonfiction, children’s, sci-fi, fantasy, memoir, you name it.
That isn’t all bad, but such assemblages tend to discuss what applies to all—the business side of things, like agents, contracts, promotion. If you’re looking to specifically improve your writing, look for a writers group made up of others in your genre.
How to Find a Writers Group
Finding an online writers group is as easy as publicizing your interest. Google or announce in social media your desire to interact with other writers in your genre.
In-person groups offer more dynamic interaction, but you may find online groups easier to form by genre.
If you can’t find a writers group that seems the right fit, consider starting one. Word Weavers offers a great model.
Even if you don’t live near other writers (don’t assume that till you’ve sought others in your area online), you could meet using video conferencing tools like Zoom and sharing manuscripts through email or via collaboration tools like Google Docs.
The #1 thing to remember when searching for a writers group:
You’re not alone. And you have plenty of options to find out who’s out there with you and for you.
The right writers group can help improve your craft, motivate you, and give you confidence. Finding one is worth the search.
Are you already in a writers group you love? Tell me about it in the comments.
Description: Crucible and the Barton College Department of English welcome all writers to submit original, unpublished poems and stories. Writers are limited to 5 poems and stories no longer than 8,000 words. Entries must not be entered in other competitions.
Description: Due to a donation from the family of veteran and antiwar author, Jeff Sharlet, The Iowa Review is able to hold The Jeff Sharlet Memorial Award for Veterans. Note: Only U.S. military veterans and active duty personnel may submit writing in any genre about any topic.
Description: Every year since 1970, the Association has honored newly published writers with an award for a first published volume of poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction. Note: Publishers (not the writers) are invited to submit works that “emphasize literary excellence.”
Description: Each Spring, the Library gives a writer 35 years old or younger $10,000 for a novel or a collection of short stories. This award seeks to encourage young and emerging writers of contemporary fiction.
Description: Current or former residents of the American Midwest (or authors whose book takes place in the Midwest) are invited to submit to the FAW Literary Award. Published novels or non-fiction books are welcome.
Description: The Award seeks fiction, poetry, and nonfiction books published the previous year “that contribute to our understanding of racism and our appreciation of cultural diversity.” Self-published work not accepted.
Description: Recognizes excellence in fiction or creative nonfiction on the topic of serious physical illness. The award is presented annually for a completed manuscript that has not yet been published. It was founded in honor of Audible employee Chris Doheny, a writer himself, who was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis as a baby and passed away on February 20, 2013. The winner of the award must demonstrate both high literary standards and a broad audience appeal while exploring the impact of illness on the patient, family and friends, and others.
Description: Seeking inspiring articles or practical mini-guides that also provide in-depth descriptions of your experience moving, living, and working abroad (including teaching, internships, volunteering, short-term jobs, etc.).” Work should be between 1,200-3,000 words. All writers welcome.
Description: Wallace Stegner was a student of the American West, an environmental spokesman, and a creative writing teacher. In his memory, the University of Utah Press seeks book-length monographs in the field of environmental humanities. Projects focusing on the American West preferred.
Description: Seeks short fiction collections. Writers who have published a novel or a book-length collection of fiction with a traditional book publisher, or a minimum of three short stories or novellas in magazines or journals of national distribution are accepted.
Description: To make American history accessible to general educated readers, the Trust seeks American historical novels published in the previous year. Novels should take place in America before 1950 (split-time novels accepted). Novels set outside American but including American values and characters accepted (such as about the American military). Self-published novels not accepted.
Description: Awarded to the most promising and innovative literary nonfiction project by a writer not yet established in the genre. Accepts memoirs, essays, biographies, histories, and more, but emphasizes innovation over straightforward memoirs.
Prize: $2,000 and publication ($1,000 for the Honor Award winner)
Sponsor: Lee and Lowe Books
Description: Seeks a children’s picture book manuscript by a writer of color or a Native/Indigenous writer.” Only U.S. residents who have not previously published a children’s picture book are eligible. Fiction, nonfiction, and poetry accepted that addresses the needs of children of color and Native nations by providing stories with which they can identify and which promote a greater understanding of one another.” Work should be under 1,500 words.
Description: Named for the abolitionist and author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, recognizes a U.S. author whose work has made a tangible impact on a social justice issue critical to contemporary society. Can be for a single work or a body of work (fiction or nonfiction) within two years of submission.
Without a deeper meaning than just its plot, your story remains a shell of what it could be.
A story with a theme answers, what does this mean?
That’s the kind of a story that resonates with readers and stays with them.
Need help writing your novel? Click here to download my ultimate 12-step guide.
Getting Started: What Is Theme?
Plot is what happens Theme is why it happens. Why you’re telling this story. It’s the message you want readers to take away.
In fact, I urge you to determine why you want to tell a story before you even begin. Know why you’re writing what you’re writing. Don’t just write to write. That’s not a good enough reason to be a writer. Write because you have something to say.
What will this story teach my reader about life?
If you write to merely entertain, don’t expect your stuff to be memorable.
Clear Theme Examples
Aesop’s Fable The Tortoise and the Hare (The danger of overconfidence)
George Orwell’s 1984 (The beauty of individual freedom and the danger of absolute power)
Lord of the Rings by J.R.R.Tolkien (Love and mercy overcome evil)
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (Endurance and perseverance know no age)
The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry (The timeless beauty of sacrificial love)
The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum (The dearest things to us are often found at home)
Allowing Theme to Speak for Itself
Resist the urge to explicitly state your theme in the story. That may have worked in a quaint way with Dorothy at the end of The WIzard of Oz, but readers today don’t need the theme writ large. Tell your story and it should explore your theme and make its own point.
Readers are smart.
Subtly weave your theme into a story and trust readers to get it. Don’t rob them of the experience.
In my own novel Though None Go With Me, I wanted to explore the question of whether there was any payoff this side of heaven for a life of complete surrender to God. At a young age my heroine decides to make the rest of her life an experiment of obedience to God.
Her reward? She becomes a modern-day Job with everything she cherishes ripped from her. In the end we experience with her a Mr. Holland’s Opus type ending, answering the theme’s question, but letting the reader come to his own conclusion.
Know your theme and explore it through your story. Your writing will never be the same.
Need help writing your novel? Click here to download my ultimate 12-step guide.
How I wish I had known as a teenager what I know now!
At 19 I worked full-time as a sportswriter for a daily newspaper.
I loved my job, but I was ambitious and wanted to see if I could sell a story to the Features editor. I worked hard on one, on my own time, and submitted it with photos.
The editor’s response crushed me.
In red pencil at the top of the first page, he’d scribbled:
“Great pictures. Bad story.”
Humiliated, I forced myself to approach his desk.
“Sir,” I said, “could you tell me what’s wrong with this so I can fix it?”
“Sure, Jenkins,” he said. “It’s sh–.”
I staggered back to my boss, the Sports Editor, and told her what had happened.
“Did you have any misgivings about the piece?” she said.
I mentioned several things I could have done better.
“There you go. Anything you thought you should have done is what you ought to do.”
I rewrote the piece that night and resubmitted it the next day. The Features editor immediately accepted it.
My mistake? I had submitted a piece of writing that was less than my best, and I knew it. I vowed to never do that again.
The thought of being able to tell my younger self what I know now prompted me to ask 40 of the best authors, writing coaches, and publishing experts I know:
“If you could go back to the beginning of your writing career and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?”
And I added one of my own to make it 41.
Crucial Writing Advice for Beginners
1. Lisa Cron, author of Wired for Story
I’d tell myself that what grabs readers isn’t beautiful writing, a rip-roaring plot, or surface drama; what grabs readers is what gives those things their meaning and power: the story itself.
And so first you have to create the story, which doesn’t start on page one, but long before it. Because the story is not about an external plot-level change. The story is about an internal change — a change that the protagonist enters the story already needing to make. Thus the protagonist walks onto the first page with a long standing driving desire — an agenda — that she hasn’t been able to achieve because an equally long standing misbelief (about human nature) stands in her way.
And here’s the last thing I wish I’d known: backstory is the most fundamental, present, and meaningful foundation of the story. Or as Faulkner said, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”
Establish a reading habit that matches roughly what you hope to write and publish. Make it as important as anything else you schedule in your day, and never allow busyness to crowd out the time you devote to consuming other good works.
It’s fine not to finish books or to abandon authors you don’t like, but never stop consuming the genre you want become known in. It raises your writerly IQ and ultimately lays the foundation for better literary citizenship and networking with other authors, editors, and agents. A non-reader is soon outed and left behind in this business.
You think you’re pretty talented. You think you’re pretty smart. And you are. But the best way to fail at being a writer is to spend all your time proving you know what you’re doing rather than learning from the people and resources around you.
Start your email list as soon as you can. I spent a couple of years not doing an email list and I can’t help but wonder how many thousands of readers I lost the ability to reach out to because I didn’t start it sooner.
There is no greater book marketing kickstart than sending a new book launch email to your already raving fans.
They’ll buy it, and even leave those crucial reviews. So, if you decide you’re going to write more than one book, setting up your email list as soon as possible is key to growing your success with each book you write.
Getting published is really exciting, but it’s not the point of writing.
The actual writing is what it’s all about — the daily joy in sitting down to a blank page and crafting something beautiful or funny or heartwrenching or even just blah (depending on the day).
While getting a book (and articles, and stories) published is a great ego boost, the real meaning in writing comes from the words flowing out of your fingertips — and the sense of achievement in a finished project.
You get good at writing by following these three simple steps:
1) Write a lot. The more you write, the more you’ll tune in to your unique voice and the better you’ll get.
2) Get critiqued occasionally. You should never pay any attention to what your mother says about your writing, or what anyone who loves you says about your writing, because all those people are liars. You should pay attention only to people who know what good writing is and who also know how to critique bad writing. Many who know good writing don’t have any idea how to critique bad writing and will not be able to help you.
Also be aware that many people who know how to critique bad writing would not recognize good writing if it stabbed them in the eye. This is tragic, but deal with it. You are looking for somebody who has both of these skills, and those people are rare.
You need to be told when your writing is bad and why it’s bad, because when you start writing, your work will be awful and you will imagine it’s brilliant. You also need to be told when your writing is brilliant, because by the time your writing is brilliant, you will have been told so many times that your writing is bad that you’ll imagine you are the worst writer who ever lived.
It’s just a fact that all bad writers think they are amazing and all great writers think they are terrible. And that’s why you need to be critiqued occasionally. Don’t do this every day. It hurts too much. A little critique goes a long way.
3) Study the craft of writing in books, lectures, or wherever else you can learn it. You most especially need to do this after getting critiqued.
You can’t figure it out on your own. Find a book that explains in clear words how to do right what you are doing wrong. When you finish the book, you will again believe in yourself enough to go back to step 1 and write a bunch more.
And have fun!
Need help fine-tuning your writing? Click here to download my free self-editing checklist.
7. K.M. Weiland, novelist and writing coach
I would want my younger self to realize that as wonderful as publication is, it isn’t the point of the writing process.
It’s just a stop along the road. Writing is more about the journey than the destination. As award-winning author Anne Lamott points out, “Being published isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Writing is.” So don’t let your non-published status get you down. Just enjoy where you are right now.
I’d say start publishing your work online and showing it to people even if it’s not ready or perfect.
I spent years writing short stories and trying to get my sentences just right. I rarely showed them to anyone and I didn’t get the feedback I needed to improve as a writer. Instead, I stuffed my drafts in a drawer.
It was only after I started writing online that I discovered I’m better at — and prefer — writing non-fiction. If I’d learnt that lesson ten years ago, I would have saved myself a lot of time.
Still, sometimes you have to make mistakes to fall forward.
Simply take action and don’t overthink where this might end up.
Think of something scarier than writing your piece, and it’ll be a breeze by comparison.
Instead of feeling scared to take action, think of everything you do as a writer like it’s a science experiment. “I’ll write this and send it off and see what happens, mwahaha.” Then, learn from that and do better.
You spent your 20s believing what so many told you, that you can’t learn to write. But then you tried, and you discovered you CAN learn.
Keep learning. Keep writing.
Want to write a book but don’t know where to start? Click here to download my free guide: How to Write a Book: Everything You Need to Know in 20 Steps.
19. Debbie Ohi, children’s author
Don’t use your introversion as an excuse.
Yes, you may prefer to hide out in your creative cave, dreading learning to network and talk to people you don’t know. If you get out and starting practicing now, then your path will be that much smoother.
Start by joining the writers groups and getting to know others in the community.
It may be terrifying at first but it will get easier, and you’ll be surprised at how much fun you’ll have, the friends you’ll make.
I would tell my younger self to listen to the wise elders who told me that I could make a career in the writing world.
I spent so long doubting myself, and making excuses, and waiting for someone to roll out a red carpet, and circling around the actual writing by doing jobs that were “writing adjacent.” All that delay and doubt cost me.
I recently launched a book coaching company, and we inspire writers to believe they can actually do it, and help them take the steps toward making their dreams a reality.
It feels like I’ve come full circle.
21. Chris Fabry, novelist and radio host, author of Under a Cloudless Sky
I would actually go back to my childhood and encourage myself to pay more attention to details.
Listen and observe more closely.
You think sitting at your grandmother’s kitchen table and listening to your uncles tell stories is fun.
These are seeds being sown into your soul. Soak up everything. You will use all you’re hearing, seeing, touching, tasting, and smelling.
When you’re an author you will draw from these holy moments. All great storytelling begins in childhood.