This summer will be my second anniversary of working with my current writing group. These three authors have been by my side through thick and thin. They’ve helped me edit my second book and get it ready for publication, and they continue to work with me on my third. I’ve come to learn so much from them and value their feedback as much as any editor’s. I’ve also come to truly love reading their work.
Beyond that, though, they have become my friends. They’ve stood by my side at book launches, helped me write book blurbs, been willing to catch my clichés and repeated words, and put eyes on my writing while it’s still naked and swaddled in the loose writing of its infancy stage. They have been doulas and midwives to the birth of any of my writing projects.
For me, as far as strengthening my writing is concerned, a good writing group is worth more than emeralds.
Recently, I attended a session on how to put together a writing group. The session gave us some best practices and then provided an opportunity for people to mingle and potentially connect with future group members.
The best practices were very helpful. I found I’ve followed most of them myself, so I thought I’d share them and include some of my own.
Best practices for starting or finding a writing group:
Know Yourself and What Your Needs Are
At the session, they used the term writing group instead of critique group. My group calls itself both. But you can have a writing group without doing any critiques. It simply depends on what you want to call it and what your group does when they meet. (It’s like a book club can sometimes become a book and wine club!)
The following are questions to ask yourself to assess yourself and your own needs. The more clear you are with yourself, the easier it will be to find what you’re looking for.
What are your goals as a writer?
This can be:
- the form you’d like to do: short fiction, poetry, novels, or all types.
- the genre of writing: memoir, non-fiction, fiction: children’s, literary, historical, romance, thrillers, mystery, sci-fi, fantasy, etc.
- the audiences you’d like to reach: Children’s (picture books through middle grade and young adult fiction), New Adult, Adult.
- the writing skills you’d like to master: to get stronger in dialog, to get stronger in prose, to master epic iambic pentameter, etc.
It should also include:
- the word count you’re aiming to write (or one short story or how many poems) and how often you’ll be writing.
- your publishing goals. (Are you writing for publication under contract? Are you writing for submission to agents and editors in the near future? Is your publication goal more distant? Are you entering writing contests? Are you writing for the pure joy of it and to master the craft?)
What do you hope to get out of a writing (or critique) group?
This would be why you’d like to join a group and what you hope the group can help you with.
Where are you at in your writing process?
- How often do you write? How much time do you have to contribute to a group and give feedback.
- List a few of your strengths as well areas you know are weaknesses.
- List five adjectives to describe yourself as a writer.
Once you know your own strengths…
Look for Members with Similar Goals and Complementary Strengths
One of the things I’ve found truly works is that the colleagues I work with have similar motivations to mine:
- we write regularly
- we’ve been published and are writing professionally to be published again
- we frequently upgrade our writing skills by attending workshops and courses, or by reading books on craft.
This isn’t how it has to be for everyone. In fact, there are many reasons to join a group. Here are some I’ve heard:
- to reach out and talk to other writers to feel less alone (definitely a benefit)
- to set deadlines that would motivate yourself to write
- to meet and write in cafés (this would be primarily a writing group versus a critique group)
- to brainstorm ideas, seek friendly advice, and learn more about the craft.
At a session I recently attended, I was the only person in the room who was writing to a publication deadline.
However, someone working to a publication deadline might not be well-suited to work with a newer writer who hasn’t written in over a year and simply wants a group to hold them accountable. The energy of the group may dissipate.
The same might be the case if you mixed children’s picture book writers with writers of erotic fiction. Sometimes, there are cross-over skills, and sometimes not.
Complementary strengths is about finding people who are strong where you are not. In turn, you are strong where they need help. When you find this, it is a gift indeed. In my group, it just happened. We all found ourselves looking at different things, and sharing what we had learned so far on our writing journeys. A synergy happened where we were each inspired to learn more from each other. Somehow, it all worked out but it came from….
In my group, we had an initial meeting where we talked about the kind of feedback we wanted. How we needed to hear both good and bad, and yet, we wanted the truth.
First and foremost, we needed to have each other’s best interests at heart.
The topic of building trust is a big one. Each of us had unpleasant memories from some groups (especially open groups). But we found that agreeing to act from this core belief in helping each other and wanting the best for each other was a good start.
Everyone has different trust levels, so sometimes it’s a good idea to talk it out and find out what each group member needs.
Agree Upon Guidelines
It’s important to decide on some details up front. You don’t have to organize everything, but a few things do best if you’re organized, such as:
- Where to meet (in person, via Skype, only via email, etc.)
- When and how often to meet
- How much to share and how to share it. (Some groups stagger the sharing, others allow everyone to share at each session)
Some groups meet and read aloud their pieces and people critique on the spot. Others, like ours, submit their work ahead of time. As a group, decide on what everyone wants to do, and what works.
For example, our group meets once a month and we would send our pieces to be critiqued four days ahead of time. We set a word limit (guideline) of approximately 2,500 words or a chapter. We mark up each other’s work and share it with each other by speaking to it, versus just sending that marked up document to our colleagues.
Learn How to Communicate with Each Other
This topic is a bit of a wiggly one. We all know how to communicate, right? After all, it’s what we do.
We met in person, so we could read each other’s cues and body language. We soon discovered ways to highlight the things we liked in the piece – sometimes it may take more work. However, if you’re lucky, you’ll find people’s work you love.
Here are some other things to consider:
- Find out what boundaries exist for group members and how they like to be communicated with.
- Lead by example: show others how you’d like to be treated (probably with respect and kindness) but also stay open to different communication styles.
- Be mindful of reactions. Learn to read body language and non-verbal cues.
- Take time to discuss what is working and what isn’t for the whole group.
Learn How to Give Feedback
I could write an entire post on this and still not cover it, but it’s good to start with a few ground rules:
As the person receiving the feedback:
- Remember the spirit in which the feedback is offered (they have your best interests at heart!)
- It is all right to state what kind of feedback you need ahead of time. For example, do you simply need it looked at for story arc, or for character, or do you need a line edit? Etc.
- Listen to all feedback before responding. Do not be defensive. (This can sometimes vary depending on the personality of the group. A writing group can be like a family; some are well-mannered and formal, whereas others are passionate and animated.)
- At the end, ask questions for clarification.
- Everyone sees things differently. It’s okay to filter information. It is your writing, and you can take the feedback or leave it.
- However, if you have several people stuck on the same area of a piece, it may need work.
As the person giving the feedback:
- Ask yourself: Is it helpful? Is it kind and from the heart? (I believe things can be truthful and kind)
- Use “I” language to give your impressions.
- Ask questions, such as: Why did your main character show up for the event 15 minutes early? What did you mean when you said ____?
- Look for the positive as well as areas for improvement and sandwich more difficult feedback between possible corrections.
- Gage the person whose work you’re reviewing. Are they tired or overwhelmed? Vary your feedback accordingly.
- Remember that it is not your story, so do not be attached to someone taking your feedback.
There you have it, some best practices on writing groups. What are some of yours?