Sunday, July 29, 2012

Writers' Groups

On Friday Glenn and and I visited our local writers’ group to talk with them about writing and getting published.  The Pig Tail Alley Writers’ Group has been in existence for eighteen years, quite a record.  Seven writers now make up the group and they have a wide range of interests from mysteries to YA.  One of the topics we discussed was writing groups themselves.  I thought I might cover some of the information here since I rarely see writers’ groups discussed anymore.

My writing critique partner and I began a group in Okeechobee about five years ago.  We decided from our experiences with other groups that the first thing we needed to do was come up with a set of guidelines, one not so rigid that it wouldn’t allow for writers with different goals, but would lay out critique etiquette as well as the manner in which the group would proceed.

Here’s a run-down on what we developed:

Provide constructive feedback to writers serious about developing their craft with the goal of writing something for presentation and publication.

Bring manuscripts in professional format: double spaced, indent, pages numbered, spell-checked.

(The goals of the writers may be different from one another, some may wish to get published, others not, but we believed one goal for all should be improving their writing.)

Listen graciously

Offer courteous, constructive criticism.

Help others improve their writing without rewriting their work.

Respect the person’s own writing voice.

(No one can improve with vague input such as “I liked it” if there are no specifics why it worked or what didn’t work and why.  We were adamant that others should not write for the person, however.)

Accept feedback as well intended.
Try to find something positive to say first.
Stay on track during discussion.

(Since we met only once a week and rarely saw one another between times, we found it necessary to take a few minutes at the beginning to catch up on news, both personal and professional. It was easier to stay on track during the readings and critiques.)

Respond to reader’s work after they’ve read. Do not interrupt during the reading.

Read five pages (double spaced) or less of your original work unless otherwise indicated.

(It’s necessary to provide your writing members with your work to be able to give precise feedback.  It’s difficult to critique writing if you only hear the work.)

If you’re bringing a guest, please let us know.

(We thought this was only polite.)

Groups may develop different guidelines especially with respect to number of pages read, but there are points here that can be applied to all writing groups especially with respect to feedback

Not all writing groups work equally well.  I suspect part of the problem may be that the members have not agreed upon a way to proceed.  Written guidelines help.

Have you joined a writers’ group, several?  What have been your experiences?  What have you found makes a group work well?


  1. When I finally found a writers' critique group that worked for me, my writing improved vastly. That was nine years ago and although we don't meet on a regular basis, we are still a functioning group. When new writers ask me the best way to advance their craft, I suggest joining a group of supportive writers.
    Thanks for your post today, Lesley. Having an organized group with specific guidelines keeps everyone on task and prevents the gathering from becoming a chat group.

  2. I've run writing groups like this for a lot of years now, and your rules seem perfect. I always break it down to just one real rule: don't be a jerk. If you can pull that off, you'll be all right. The specifics are almost exactly what you have though.

  3. Sounds like you have good structure for your group, Lesley. I too belong to a weekly group and find it invaluable. It's part of the reason I produce pages every week.

  4. For me, writing groups hold back writers from publishing. I've known too many writers treading water in these groups for a decade or more, still trying to get the "approval" from their peers, too afraid to send anything out without it. What I don't get is the whole concept of the blind leading the blind. And, because I'm honest to the point of insulting (in my defense, never ask me for an honest opinion), I've gotten kicked out of three groups and had a handful of red pencils thrown at me.

    HOWEVER, when I work one-on-one (which I believe is the only way to train a writer), my writers go on to publish and win huge money awards in contests. I'm brutal and if they can survive, they have a solid career ahead.

    At that point the only one they have to please is their publisher and themselves.

  5. I once took a summer evening writing class at a creative-arts school in Toronto. Everyone shelled out a couple hundred bucks -- only to sit back in the stifling un-A/C'd room and listen to the instructor read endless passages from his play about life in prison. We were allowed to read aloud very short passages from our own work, have brief critiques, and then he resumed. I wish you had been there to deal with him, Sunny. Being a shy young woman, I was too polite to complain. I just dropped out. Have never tried a writing group since. I am inclined to the solitary approach, but I think you have a great point about contests.

  6. I've belonged to the same writers group for more than twenty years. It has changed over time and is now composed of eight writers, although one is not active. We mostly write in the mystery genre. We originally read manuscripts at our bimonthly meetings but switched to emailing chapters beforehand, then discussing them in person. It takes less time and works better this way. We don't have written guidelines but agree on procedures. Each year we have a Christmas Party and a summer Pool Party at a member's home.

  7. Sunny told me the group of which I was a part for two years most likely held me back. I tend to agree. Most of my group wrote (and read aloud) to please themselves. They often left no comment on my work or no constructive suggestions. I took someone to task who frequently violated our 5 pages, double-spaced, Times New Roman, 12 font rule on one particular night when her writing was a compilation of nonsensical jibberish.

    Instead of backing me, one person felt I had attacked that writer personally. Long story short, it devolved into an understanding that several members of the group preferred "safety" over honest critiques. That was my chance to bow out and I did.

    Now, I'm in a new small writing group with people ambitious and keen to publish. Only trouble is, we are all so busy individually, that we have only met 2x all summer. I hope things improve when we are settled into our "school year" schedule, September through June.

    For me, the primary value of a writing group is that it keeps me accountable. If my piece is workshopped and improved, it's gravy. In the meantime, I am aware of the need to keep writing. Amazing how I can feel compelled by outside forces, but seldom by internal ones...

  8. There is such a variation in writing groups. I have experienced ones where everyone was held back by endless writing, rewriting and little useful input, a kind of writing in circles as Sunny seemed to be suggesting. I also think groups can serve a purpose at one point in a writer's life and then the writer outgrows them. Our group in Okeechobee lived out its natural life and is no longer in existence. What I retain from that group is my critique partner with whom I exchange chapters from time to time. I think I've been in both great and awful groups.

  9. I like your guidelines, Lesley, but one thing I would add is don't let any one person's comments dominate the meeting. There was a woman in a group I used to belong to who really just wanted to "visit" and talk about herself. Maybe give each person a time limit?

    And, Sunny, thanks for my daily chuckle. Now where'd I put my red pen?

  10. I've been in some great groups and some not great groups. I think people join writers' groups for different reasons, and it's important to get those reasons out up front. For me, I'm not joining for companionship. I don't want cake or chit-chat. I want brutal honesty. If I'm writing something not good, I want to hear that. Just as important, it's vital not to keep score. It's not a contest. If someone writes something great, say so, even if they just trashed your story.

  11. Good subject. Every time I've moved I've joined--or started--a group. We have three basic rules. 1. Be honest, but not cruel. (2) Give helpful suggestions for improving what needs it. (3) Try to find something in the work to praise at least a little. We meet every two weeks, jot notes during reading and then after verbal comments one at a time, give them to the author, and only seriously-revised work may be read a second time. We limit the group to six and those who miss three sessions or don't bring their ten new pages for three sessions are asked to leave so someone else can join. Stephen King said "no" to a critique group, but after he does two rewrites, he gives his book to two "trusted readers" who will be honest. In other words a very small critique group.

  12. Good topic, Lesley.
    I belong to the Queen City Writers Critique Group. It's a small group, which I prefer, and we all help each other. I wouldn't trade them for the world!

  13. I also think it's necessary to get a take on what people want from the group up front. Our guidelines cut down on chit-chat. It's a writing group, not a reading group, not a coffee hour.

  14. Writer's groups can hold you back, or push you forward. It's up to you to decide which a group is. I've known some absolutely no-nonsense groups that have helped a lot of writers improve and get published. They had experienced writers to offer helpful comments. No time was wasted on fluff. But, many groups are social clubs - and that's okay as long as you understand that and are chosing to socialize with other writers, and are not looking for help. You must look at the group very critically. Decide what you want. Does this group offer that? Join or decline.

  15. I belong to a small critique group -- three of us -- and we meet every other week for three hours of mostly reading and critiquing, after the initial chit-chat. I find I need the discipline of this group, which I created, in order to write regularly. With my teaching and so many other distractions, I could easily put off my "real" work. We all feel the same way and are helpful to each other. If it ever stops being useful, I'll bow out.

  16. I belong to a group that's been around for more than a decade, though I've only belonged for a few years. Almost all members are published authors or produced screenwriters (or both) and all give excellent criticism. One member is perennially late, but we all expect that good-heartedly and use the time to take care of chitchat. There are no rules in terms of how much work to bring in, but if someone wants the group to read something especially long, they give advance notice and "reserve" the session (say, for a screenplay, for which he/she will assign characters to members and we will do a table reading).

    That being said, my question to the blogosphere is, how important is genre to a critique group? I write noir, but most of the members of my group write cozies. I'm never sure whether the predispositions of my genre are appreciated by the group. Has anyone had any experience along these line?

  17. I've been in several groups over the years. The worse are the ones where either writers are always praised and not critiqued, or the other extreme where people want to show off how much they think they know by slamming the other writers. I've seen groups where the members talk about writing but never actually write. And I have friends who have published several books and still attend a critique group. The writer needs to decide what she needs (feedback, networking, socializing) and search around to find a group that matches her goals.