Writing groups, if with the right mix of people, working in a positive manner, can be a meaningful tool to getting work ready for public consumption. Writers’ groups can also be extremely negative in spirit, with poor results for their members. There really can be a fine line between what makes a worthwhile writing group and one that doesn’t accomplish much at all. We’ve had a lot of experience over the years with belonging to writing groups, whether they were workshops in progress, belonging to separate groups or even creating one. Most of our experiences have been good, which have helped us recognize when they’re not.
Writers need to spend a lot of time writing, whether alone or with a writing partner/s, so we naturally crave the companionship of other writers. However, when it comes to writing groups, we have to be extremely cautious and protective of our time and efforts, so it’s okay to be picky and guarded, if serious about your work and your time. Some of the guidelines below have been used with students, who are nervous about sharing their work with other students in a classroom setting. By following some the guidelines below (some things couldn’t be controlled like being selective over who joins), the creative environment was incredibly creative due to the support, comraderie and structure that it provided.
Our Guidelines for Writing Groups:
1. Simplify the logistics:
a) Decide how often you will meet in advance and stick to it. Meeting too soon is a killer because writers are often not ready to present, especially if people have other jobs and responsibilities to tend to while breaking in to writing, skill-wise and time-wise. Because of this, we’d recommend once a month to start, then if people are prolific, then once every two weeks.
b) Meetings should be somewhere conducive to meetings–a library with a private room, a local community centre with a private area, a local university with study space. It shouldn’t be at a coffee shop because of lack of privacy. It shouldn’t be at someone’s house because then it turns into something social and the host has to get things ready in addition to concentrating on the writing. Pot-luck? Even worse. Presenting your work or participating in other’s work, and worrying about having to run out to get food to bring over to someone’s house while staying as fresh as possible becomes exhausting and difficult to sustain over the long-haul of a project. If people want to socialize, they can go out another time, but to confuse the critique part with the social is a disaster. You will probably not want to go out after the critique because the critique should take the bulk of the evening, although if you meet in the afternoon, you might want to socialize over dinner, when the critique is done.
c) Be selective of who you let join in. At first it might sound undemocratic to be selective over who you let in, but it’s crucial to the success of the group. You need to find people who share your passion for writing. You don’t want any bitter, negative nellies. You also don’t want people who are completely dillusional about their abilities or yours. In short, you want people who are on the same page as you–who have the same philosophy of critiquing as you. Avoid at all cost the significance others of people unless they have their own track record, and you’d allow them in on equal footing. There have been instances when significant others are talented and professional, but there have been instances where it has also sunk a group because of sudden alliances and also by having members whose talents are not at the same level.
d) Equalizing the talent. You should only let in people who write as well as you, or better. You might also want to consider someone who is good at one particular thing. It’s great to have someone who is a stickler for good grammar. It’s also great to have someone who writes amazing dialogue. Most writers are good at more than one thing, but if someone is really good at one aspect of writing, and less good at something else, it might work well too because it’s a win-win relationship. They might help you with dialogue and you might help them with characterization.
2. The Group Itself
e) Privacy. What we share and say stays in the room and doesn’t make the rounds.
f) Comfort level. No one should be coerced into sharing something that they’re not ready to.
g) Everyone needs everyone to be present. Distractions are a way of life now, but they have no place in a serious writing group. Calls should only be taken for emergencies (children’s calls should always be taken, of course). Everyone should be wholeheartedly listening and jotting down notes as we go along.
h) Think of having other people read besides the writer. A writer reading is good too, but sometimes it provides good perspective to have it heard from someone else. If you have a play or a screenplay, cast it and don’t include a part for yourself. Use highlighters to help others find their place. When we studied with Nika Rylski (who is seriously the best writing teacher we’ve ever had), she doesn’t let the writer read their own work. That way, she said, a writer can really listen. It does work. You can tell a lot about how your work is going by hearing how it sounds.
i) Commit. Get everyone to agree to something like the following (used well in a Writer’s Craft class): “We would like to hear and share our appreciation for other’s works with such things as positive feedback, explaining our likes, clarifying what could work better, giving only constructive and positive critiques.”
j) Remember to respect what the writer wants. If the writer want to achieve something with the writing, but you prefer something else, you must give up what you want and support the writer’s vision. People should do the same for you.
We’re not part of any writing group at the moment, but they have been instrumental in helping us become better writers, so we would strongly recommend it to anyone in the beginning to mid stage of their career if all of the above criteria are met.