Writing groups are a great way to grow your skill with the craft, network with other writers, and see definite progress on your projects. Meeting with others who share your passion for writing can be one of the most beneficial ways to spend your time outside of actually writing—if done correctly.
Some writers complain that their writing groups have caused more harm than good, and like any tight-knit family with behavioral issues, we call these groups dysfunctional. A dysfunctional writing group will not only stunt your growth as a writer, it could also drain your ambition—a key ingredient to a professional writer. Bad writing groups do things like attack a writer personally, have members who don’t submit work most meetings, and use their opinions rather than expertise when critiquing.
Being in a healthy writing group can dramatically change your handle on the craft in a positive way. Check out this testimony from my dear friend Christi:
In college, I joined a hobby writers’ group, thinking that it would help me get serious about my writing. We called ourselves the Writers at Large Society, or “WALS”. For years, none of us actually got around to finishing our projects. Writing groups, I thought, were supposed to provide constructive criticism. WALS didn’t. It was an idea-sharing group disguised as a writing group. Discussing ideas was encouraging, but often not helpful to improving my writing or sticking to my writing goals. Instead, my writing fell by the wayside.
After college, I found a friend willing to commit to our writing like I wanted. In one year working alongside her, we set deadlines, submitted our chapters to one another, and I was able to finish the first draft of the novel I had been working on since high school. Her help opened my eyes to the true benefit of writing groups.
Without further ado, here are 6 ways you can make your writing group more productive.
1. Set goals and deadlines for your meetings
If you don’t know what’s expected of you each meeting, you may often come unprepared. As a group, decide how often you all will meet and what you will submit each meeting. Some groups meet in-person and read their drafts aloud to everyone, while others submit their work online and meet to discuss the critiques in depth.
Another factor to consider is the volume of work each member will have to read and analyze between meetings. Some writing groups have no cap on the length of their submissions, while other groups comprised of busier people may put a word count cap on each week’s submission to ensure everyone will have time to read everything. Communicate with your group and find what works best for everyone.
When starting a new writing group, I find it’s useful for everyone to set a personal goal they want to work towards and have the other members then be accountability partners for that goal. It could be something grand like, “I want to finish the first draft of my novel in the next four months,” or simpler, like, “I want to write 2,000 words a week.” Use your group’s encouragement to knock out those personal goals, and be an encouragement to others in the process!
2. Include writers with varied but similar skill level
If two writers in the group are published professionals and the rest are “hobby writers” who, regardless of their personal talent, know very little of the craft of writing, they may have difficulty producing criticism relevant to their different proficiencies. A professional is looking for advance, minute techniques while beginners are still learning about natural dialogue.
However, you don’t want everyone to have the same skill as yourself. When starting a business, you don’t ask the CEO of Coca-Cola how he runs his company—while interesting, it’ll be completely irrelevant to where you’re at. Instead, you’d find someone who’s had an established business for 2-3 years who remembers what it’s like to be in your spot and can offer some valuable insight for growth. It’s the same with writing groups. Find people who can show you the way to growth from where you’re at and be a source of guidance for others just behind you. Beware the savior complex—a brand new writer is teachable, but the critique value will be one-sided at best.
3. Assign curriculum that everyone can study, discuss, and learn from
Writing groups aim to improve writing skills in all the members, and a properly balanced group doesn’t have that one person who instructs everyone else how to write. How then do you as a group learn more about the craft of writing? Find a book or other third party resource (my writing group often references the Writing Excuses podcast as an authority) you can go through to collectively learn about the art of writing. After that week’s critique discussion is over, such curriculum can spark enlightening conversations and mini-prompts for the next meeting.
4. Make sure the criticism is constructive
One great way to prevent a dysfunctional writing group from developing is to make sure all criticism is objective by removing personal bias. Things like someone’s opinion (“I loved the part where…”) and personal suggestion (“If I were writing this, I would…” “What if your hero had a pet monkey?”) have no place in a constructive writing group.
THE GOLDEN RULE: I learned from my very first writing group that any given comment on a person’s draft can’t contain “I liked . . .” or “I didn’t like . . .” It’s a little stiff, I know, but it really helps to remove your personal bias. Instead, say things like, “The character wasn’t believable in this scene because . . .” This gives particulars on what is and isn’t working in a submission.
Here are four questions my writing groups at the end of a submitted document to bullet their critiques:
And, a gentle reminder for all you grammar Nazis out there: writing groups are a place to discuss prose, not critique grammar. It’s a first draft, come on.
5. Don’t defend your work against criticism
It’s hard not to get upset when someone dislikes or doesn’t understand your chapter you worked so hard on. Don’t they see the larger vision at hand? But doesn’t this slight nod of foreshadowing on page two make your concerns a moot point?
The thing is, they’re not criticizing your ideas or the story at large, just how it translated itself in this particular draft. If you have to defend your work verbally, then the prose isn’t doing its job.
Most writing groups have rules established that won’t allow the person being critiqued to say more than “Thank you” to prevent arguing. Accept the feedback with grace and make careful notes for revision. But if your group is smaller, they may give you space to respond. If given such opportunity, you can try discussing some visions you had for the piece and some goals you have for the story you were trying to convey and ask for advice on making these things more apparent.
6. Collaboration, not competition
Finally, a reminder. Writing groups are about helping one another become better writers. If you’re in a group just to size up the competition or see someone else attacking another member’s confidence, the group has become dysfunctional. Be sure to build one another up as writers and celebrate each other’s successes. As Dan Wells once put it (in different words), “Be happy if someone in your group gets published first. It probably means your time is coming.”
Also check out this awesome episode of Writing Excuses that discusses critique group etiquette. Lots of wisdom crammed into 20 minutes!