Maybe you’re not as good a writer as you think you are. It’s true. We tend to fall in love with our own writing, blinded to our imperfect technique. How do you know? Join a writing group and get feedback – lots of it.
Writers at every stage of their careers from beginners to seasoned best-selling authors benefit from feedback about their work from other practicing writers. In fact, many published novelists will tell you that writing groups taught them how to write – from basic sentence structure and grammar, to sensational characters, pacing and plots. Not to mention learning the secrets of the genre.
As a member of a writing group, you surround yourself regularly with like-minded professionals who come together week after week for a single purpose: give and receive feedback about works in progress.
But not all writing groups are created equal, or exist for the same purpose. It’s important to understand the ground rules before forming or joining a group.
Here are my 15 suggestions:
1. Does the group have a clearly stated purpose?
A writing group should have a written mission statement to stay focused and help new members determine if the group’s purpose is in sync with their goals.
The statement should answer these questions: Does the group get together to critique or for support? How often do they meet, and what’s the workflow? Do writers gather to socialize and network, or to finish manuscripts? What genres are represented? How much writing experience do you need? Is the group stable, or do new faces come and go weekly?
2. Size matters
A writing group should have four (minimum) to eight (maximum) members. Any fewer and you may not get enough feedback. More than eight, and you’re in for a long and tedious evening if everyone is reading. And be selective about who to include. New members should be added by invitation only following a group discussion and consensus.
3. Similar goals and writing levels
Members should generally be at the same level of their writing careers. For example, some groups require that every member be published. Others require that every member complete at least one manuscript, whether it’s published on not.
If you mix successfully published authors with beginners struggling to complete their first manuscript, the group becomes unbalanced. You risk alienating the pros and discouraging the beginners.
Newbies who wish to have their work reviewed and critiqued by professional instructors should first seek out academic courses and workshops.
4. Mixing genres
You can learn a great deal by working with writers of different genres. For example, if you’re a male thriller writer, critiquing and being critiqued by a female mystery writer might help you with characterization and a different gender point of view. Conversely, mystery writers might learn some tips about pacing and plot from thriller writers.
5. Get to work on time
Don’t waste each other’s time by filling the first half hour or so with small talk while waiting for latecomers to show. Begin work promptly at the stated time, and let chronic latecomers take notice.
Once all of the work has been read and discussed, then members can socialize, but not before.
6. The workflow
Each writer should come prepared to read 10 pages or less aloud for no more than 10 minutes. The writer passes out copies to each member on the spot. While the writer reads, members follow along, making notes and suggestions on their copies, which are collected and returned to the writer at the end of their session.
When the writer finishes reading, each member in turn offers several minutes of critique. Some give line-by-line suggestions, while others are better at offering general impressions. It’s acceptable for another member to interrupt with a comment appropriate for that discussion, as long as it’s brief and on point.
7. Who moderates?
Determine who’s in charge at each meeting. This can be the same person, perhaps the group’s founder, or you can rotate the responsibility.
The leader makes sure the meeting starts on time, stays focused, the rules are followed, and intervenes if the discussion veers off-topic or turns into a debate. In large groups, the moderator uses a timer to limit each reading to 10 minutes, and gives each member two to three minutes of critique time.
8. Critique, yes … criticize, NO!
There are two types of people in this world: those who find fault to hurt, and those who offer suggestions to help build something better.
Put-downs and attacks are out of place in a writing group. This is a critical rule that must be enforced, or you risk alienating members, or worse. One mean-spirited comment can cause a talented beginner to lose faith. It’s stupid and pointless.
Keep in mind that the reason for giving feedback is to help the writer improve, not wound him. Every member should feel safe sharing. Good critique is specific, constructive, sincere and helpful, and inspires the writer to do his or her best work. Be honest and tactful, keep your language positive, and give encouragement and praise when appropriate.
Focus on three things:
- Start with the positives – what works
- Point out what isn’t clear, what doesn’t work, and what could be better
- Offer suggestions for consideration
9. Shut up and listen
Some writing groups actually have rules that prohibit writers from defending their work. The reason is obvious: any attempt to invalidate a comment about your writing subverts the reason why you’re there in the first place – to get reaction from readers.
This isn’t a debate club. You came to get feedback to improve your work, not to explain what you intended to do. While you’re explaining and defending, you’re not listening!
When you push back on someone’s comment, you close off any chance of benefiting from constructive feedback, and your writing will suffer for it. It’s okay to answer a question about what you’ve just read to the group. Otherwise, shut up and make notes about how others reacted to your work.
If you receive a comment you don’t agree with, keep quiet, listen with an open mind, and learn something. Writers who want to do their very best will consider everything they get.
10. Be open to possibilities
A critique is one person’s opinion. You are still the author of the work, and you can choose to ignore something you don’t agree with.
But be open to all possibilities.
You never know when a rogue comment will inspire you to come up with something new and exciting to improve your story. But if several reviewers point out the same issue, you should make changes.
Keep in mind that nice, superfluous comments are great on the ears, but they won’t necessarily improve your writing. Put your ego aside and encourage hard discussion about what you’ve written. It can be emotionally exhausting. But that’s how you learn.
11. This isn’t a book club
Don’t confuse your fellow writer by stating how one of your favorite authors, or a movie you’ve seen, or your workshop writing instructor might have better handled the scene or characters. This isn’t helpful.
A critique group is not the appropriate place to drop names in order to gain clout. Be honest and speak from your heart and experience rather than lobbing jabs while hiding behind someone else’s work.
12. All members should be working on something
You should write every day. Depending on your schedule you may not have a scene ready to read each week, but you should be working on at least one project that you’re comfortable sharing.
Reading your work to a group can be a humbling and often humiliating experience. Members without work to share keep their hearts and souls safely hidden. They don’t risk humiliation or rejection.
I’ve seen non-sharing members become arrogant and even contemptuous toward the working writer. They’re more apt to criticize than critique.
But when each group member puts his or her heart and soul on the table each week for scrutiny, the circle of bonding is complete.
Remember that the purpose of the group is to give and receive feedback about your work in progress. So, if you attend weekly writing groups only as an observer, perhaps you should stay at home and write.
13. Read each member’s work … all of it!
Every member should agree to read each other’s work. Not parts of it. Not whatever is convenient. ALL OF IT!
It’s hard enough to follow a novel one scene at a time, week after week, over the course of a year or more. A member who misses some of those readings becomes hopelessly lost. And asking too many questions trying to catch up becomes disruptive, counterproductive and deprives members of good feedback.
If you miss a week, agree to read and critique what you missed before you attend the next meeting. And expect others to do the same for you.
14. Remove troublesome members … quickly!
Working with a group of writers is a privilege that should be sacredly guarded. That’s why you need a removal rule. If your group has a Writer From Hell who ignores the rules, attacks other writers, hogs discussions, won’t listen to criticism, and generally creates a negative and unproductive environment – he or she must go.
The group should agree in advance what behavior merits grounds for expulsion. And act quickly.
15. Online writing groups – a last resort
One final thought: If your only option is to join an online discussion group, then go for it. Getting feedback electronically from people you may never meet in person is better than getting no feedback.
However, the benefits of regular face-to-face meetings with serious writers you respect and trust can yield golden opportunities that just aren’t possible with an online community.
And who knows what network connections and long-term friendships may develop over time from people you’re in the same room with week after week.