Tips for a Successful Writers' Group

 PSP shares advice to make your writing group a success.
 To find out about joining the PSP Writers Circle, go HERE.

 

 

WHY?

  • Support. A writers’ group is a source of inspiration and support. Having people going through the same process it helps you better sympathize, motivate, bolster and achieve.
  • Growth. Being in a writers’ group means you will grow as a writer as well as a person.
  • Celebration. Becoming a better writer is something to celebrate. Having others who help you achieve this is a wonderful product!
  • Risk Taking. A safe space to try out new ideas can lead to taking intellectual risks that lead to better writing.

COMMITMENT and PERSONAL GOALS

  • Do you have the time/energy? Some people love the idea of joining a writers’ group but may not realistically be able to commit to both writing, reading and critiquing. Joining a group is a pledge to not only show up but to also do the background work (reading other people’s work) necessary to make things successful.
  • Time pledge. A long-term commitment can make sure that the group gels together and is successful. 6 months? A year? The group should decide the duration and stick with it.
  • If you commit and things change, don’t dawdle. If you find that you can’t give the group the commitment needed, let them go.
  • Written. The pen is mightier than the sword. Have each group member write down their goals as a way to concretize their end product(s). For an extra accountability step, have everyone in the group sign it.

GROUP GOALS/RULES

  • Rules give structure. Decide what the rules are before you start. Loosy goosy groups tend to not work. Will people read work aloud?  Is it copies reviewed beforehand?
  • Goals/Expectations. I think it's always helpful for a group to choose members based on a review of potential members' goals/expectations and a sample of his/her writing to make sure it's a good fit. It's best if it's comprised of writers who are similarly committed and have similar goals, i.e. are members writing as a hobby and looking for a place to express themselves, or are members professional writers who want a true critique of their ideas and drafts with an eye to publish and get paid? A mix of both can become frustrating. Goals (fun/expression vs. getting published/paid) need to be communicated up front, along with a discussion of what the expectations and hopes for the group are.

CREATING THE RIGHT MIX

  • Size. The group should be small-ish (4-6 people) so everyone gets a reasonable amount of time to discuss his/her work. Too few and you may not get enough feedback.
  • Similarity of experience and knowledge of genre. A similar level of expertise and familiarity with the genre is helpful, too. In other words, political journalists and sci-fi writers may have useful feedback for one another, but it's more likely that writers who share a genre or at least similar themes (science journalist + sci fi fiction writer) are going to be more helpful to one another. However, remember that a different perspective can add to the mix as well.
  • Expertise. Newer writers may want to take courses and workshops before joining a group with more advanced writers.
  • Mismatch mess. If you find that you have someone that is not a good contributor, or dominates the conversation, won’t listen to criticism, or gives the group a bad vibe, ask them to leave. A group can quickly disintegrate if this isn’t done quickly.

LEADERSHIP

  • Leadership. It helps if someone is willing to act as a leader (a role that can rotate) and if everyone keeps everyone else accountable with gentle, encouraging pressure to produce and stay focused, guiding the discussions back to the goals when necessary. If comments turn from helpful to critical, the leader should remind the group to provide constructive feedback.

SCHEDULING

  • Frequency. Weekly meet ups are more than most people can manage, and monthly ones are spaced too far apart to feel rigorous, so meeting every two or three weeks seems to work well.
  • Set a clear schedule. Not only should you nail down dates, but also who is presenting, the deadlines for drafts, etc.
  • Deadlines! People also need to be able to commit to deadlines to send drafts to the group at least a day or two before meeting so that everyone has reading and thinking time and can arrive at a meeting with written comments if the idea is to workshop drafts.

MEETINGS/NITTY GRITTY

  • Make the meeting space useful. Find a meeting space conducive to productivity. Too comfortable and it can lead to distraction.
  • Stay committed to time restrictions. If the goal is to allow 30 minutes per person, don’t run into another person’s time or expecting people to stay later.
  • Be on time and get to work. Respect each other’s time by arriving promptly and getting to work. Save small talk til the end.
  • Have someone else take notes. Consider having the author on tap listen to the feedback while someone else takes notes.
  • Create an online group. Create a Google group to so that people can easily write the whole group.

FEEDBACK

  • Honesty and generosity. Feedback should be honest, but generous (it's possible to be both) -- because no one wants to be discouraged and sharing drafts of writing can make people feel very vulnerable.
  • Sandwich Critiquing. We always practiced the "sandwich" approach to critiquing, and tried to allow each person to finish his/her critique without interruption before the writer responded. The sandwich means that each person giving a critique explains what he/she liked about a draft, then what he/she thinks could be improved, and ends by noticing another strength of the piece. This strengths-based approach helps it feel constructive but still allows lots of room to challenge the writer to re-work, re-write, re-think anything that's not working.
  • Critique don’t criticize. Remember to critique and not to criticize. State positives, point out places that need clarifying, room for improvement, and offer suggestions.
  • In defense of no defense. Decide whether you allow writers to defend their work. Sometimes it’s best to listen with an open mind and not defend and just accept constructive feedback.

BOOKS TO GUIDE A GOOD BOOK GROUP

FINAL THOUGHTS

  • “My own writing group was formed in part from the PSP writers list. We have been going for 2.5 years, three members have sold books since we started, and this weekend we leave for our second writing retreat, leaving behind, collectively, eight children and five spouses to fend for themselves for two nights. So it can be done!”
  • “The main thing that seems to make the difference between the groups that sustain and those that don't is if the group members have a) a clear, achievable schedule that everyone sticks to and b) a common sensibility.’

MEMBERSHIP REMINDERS.

  • Remember that other people’s ideas are just that. Do not assume that other writers are right, or that you need to change something in order to get a work published.
  • Focus on the story/writing, not the grammar. Focus on the message and creativity rather than typos. Those are secondary to the point of the writers’ group.

·        Read Twice, write once. Read through a manuscript straight through. Then read with your pen. Sometimes questions are answered (or become irrelevant) later on. This way you give the document a chance to be whole without critique.