Friday, July 3, 2015

Writers: To Group or Not?

I'm often asked if I'm in a writers' group, if I think they're a good thing, and if I know of any good ones to join! 

All good questions, and the answers are: sometimes, if you're diligent, and sorry, wish I did. But for those who are out there searching, or who have a group that may not be functioning as well as you'd hoped, I do have these guidelines for creating successful writing groups.

Really, there are different kinds of “writers’ groups,” and you must first decide what you want your group to accomplish together:

 -Writers’ support groups meet to help each other stay emotionally afloat during the process of writing and submitting work for publication. Wine is often involved. Hugs. The sharing of wisdom, books, quotes, and encouragement. Members’ writing is not generally shared, not for the purpose of critique, anyway. Sometimes for encouragement, but when critique becomes involved . . . issues may arise because there are no guidelines in place.

 -Writers’ critique groups meet to apply the collective knowledge, wisdom, and sensibilities of the group to each writer’s work, distributed evenly and fairly among members. All members must be actively writing and sharing with group. Guidelines are established and followed.

-Combo groups work when the critique portion of each meeting follows established guidelines and happens at the beginning of the meeting. Social time follows for encouragement, kvetching, wine, etc.

-Online groups work well for isolated or too-busy-to-meet writers. You may choose to do critique in written form and send by email, or to have Skype meetings.

How to have a successful writers’ critique group:

1.    Establish group guidelines
a.     Minimum and maximum size of the group (small is best)
b.    Regular meeting date, such as third Tuesdays at 7pm
c.     Regular location
1)    Neutral, library or coffee shop
2)    Rotating homes
d.    Format of meetings
1)    How many critiques per session
2)    Written or oral presentation*
3)    If written, how long in advance to be sent
4)    How many pages per piece
5)    How many minutes spent on each piece (use a timer)

2.    Establish critique guidelines
a.     All members agree to read each submitted piece in its entirety and provide sincere, helpful feedback that is specific, constructive and positively phrased.
b.    Steps for providing feedback
1)    Start with an overall statement of what works well in the writing.
2)    Point out what you feel isn’t clear, what pulled you out of the story, what doesn’t work as well as it could, or could be improved. (Not “liking” something is not constructive feedback, and not everything in a story is meant to be liked.)
3)    Rather than “fixing” another’s writing, provide an example or two of what you think might work better. Offer it as a gift. If you have no ideas, it’s fine to simply say, “This felt unclear, took me out of the story, stopped me, felt like it needed more” etc.
c.     Steps for receiving feedback
1)    As the writer, your role is to listen and take notes, without participating in the conversation.
2)    If you have questions, wait until the end of the critique to ask for clarification, further detail or thought.
3)    Don’t defend your work. It’s normal to feel defensive during critique and for several days afterward. Take a deep breath and listen, and withhold objections. It’s your work and you get to do whatever you want to with it.
4)    Thank your group members for the thoughtful reading and critique.

NOTE: If one person points out something you feel is not at issue, you might decide it’s just one person’s opinion and not worry about it. If several people point to the same problem, you must figure out what the problem is, even if it is not what they’re pointing to. (You may not have given a detailed enough introduction to a topic earlier, for instance, or clearly shown the character’s motivations.)

3.    Avoiding the writers’ group from hell
a.     Stick to time limits and established guidelines.
b.    Save social time for afterward; get down to business first.
c.     Wine is not your friend during critique sessions. Loose lips hurt feelings. Again, hold off until afterward to celebrate, kvetch, support, catch up.
d.    Don’t allow toxic members to poison the group. No member may dominate the conversation, create a negative environment, attack another writer emotionally or verbally, consistently ignore constructive input, regularly go off topic, regularly arrive late/leave early/miss all together.
e.    Agree as a group to hold to these guidelines, and if a member goes rogue, you must act in a timely manner to remove her/him from the group.
f.      If all else fails, consider leaving the group. There are many writers in the world who will want to work together productively.

Oral Presentation
The writer being critiqued brings hard copies for each member to write notes on during the meeting, and reads the piece aloud. Then discussion begins, and members make notes on the printouts to give back to the writer. This works best for monthly groups who want to move through a piece of each members’ work (10 pages max) at each meeting. While no one gets in-depth time to study the piece, it is akin to a real-world reading of the writer’s work. Lends itself to longer, less frequent meetings.

Written Presentation

The writer being critiqued (usually one per session) sends the piece (up to 20 pages) to members ahead of time (establish how long is required as a group) by email or by posting to a private online group such as Facebook or Google Drive. Members print, read and make notes on the piece before arriving at the meeting. Discussion begins right away. This method works well for working longer sections in a weekly group, as each member will get a shot approximately once per month or so. Lends itself to shorter meeting duration as well.


  1. This is super helpful, Jennie! Thank you for taking the time to write this up and share your experience.

  2. Good stuff, Jennie. I feel ever so fortunate to be a part of my dream of a critique group that also offers the emotional support. Our process developed organically but we all come from the same writing discipline and share the same lexicon for feedback. I wish all writers a good writing/critique group.