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A good writer's group (or workshop) can improve your writing and writing habits,
as well as provide a supportive environment everyone in the group. It can
be the springboard for long-lasting friendships and possible collaborations.
It can be a great resource for "brainstorming" when you're stuck on a particular
problem with a story of book. This article will examine the various aspects
of writer's groups, and help you decide if a writer's group might be good
for you, as well as what kind of group to look for.
What is a writer's group?
A writer's group, sometimes called a writer's workshop, is basically a group of writers who agree to get together periodically to read and critique one another's work. This is different from a workshop led by a teacher or instructor (usually for a fee), in that the writer's group is a more laissez faire arrangement, with each writer contributing more or less equally.
A writer's group is not necessary to become a good writer, and many writers do not like the group environment or dynamic. On the other hand, but many writers have seen their writing improve as a result of their involvement in a group, and the best way to find out if you are suited to being in a writer's group is to join one on a trial basis. If you like it, terrific. And if you find that it's not to your taste, that's great as well.
Finding a good writer's group
It's important to know that there are good writer's groups and bad ones. Nothing is worse than joining a group and having a terrible experience because it's a problem group. How do you determine what the qualities of a good writer's group are? The following checklist will help you make your decision:
Does the group offer genuinely honest critique or
does it specialize in ego-stroking? An "oooh-ahhh" group is the kind that,
no matter what kind or quality of material you read, fawns over it and tells
you how terrific it is. Such comments may boost your ego (until you get sick
of the hollow praise), but they do little, if any, good to a writer seeking
an objective appraisal of his or her work. I cannot stress this enough: detailed, honest, objective critique is the most important thing a writer's group can offer.
Does the group suffer from the opposite extreme? A "bloodletting" group
takes great delight in slashing your work to shreds (and mangling your ego
in the process) without making any constructive observations or suggestions
about your work. Note that sometimes honest, unflinching critique can feel like bloodletting, particularly when your writing needs a considerable amount of improvement. Observe the group arefully. Are they making substantial, intelligent, objective comments or are they enjoying what amounts to a literary feeding frenzy at your expense? If it seems like the latter, get out and find a more balanced group.
Are the members of the group actively seeking commercial publication? If that's your goal, then you need to seek out a group whose collective goal is the same. Such a group will include members who write and bring work to meetings on a very regular basis, and who are educating themselves about the business of writing (marketing, rights, etc.) Such a group will endeavor to give its members honest, insightful criticism when necessary, along with encouragement and support.
Does the group encourage "wanna-bes" or "hangers-on?" Such
people like to pretend they're writers by hanging around writer's workshops
and participating in the critique sessions, but they bring in little, if
any, of their own writing. They figure that their proximity to people who
are actually writing makes them writers, too. Nothing could be farther from
the truth. A good writer's group will discourage wanna-bes by requiring a
minimum amount of writing be brought in on a regular basis. For example,
a group that meets once a week might requires that its members bring in work
to read at least once per month. This is an extremely minimal requirement
which anyone working toward becoming a professional writer should be able
to easily meet.
How often does the group meet? The more often, the better. Try to find a group which meets at least twice a month, and preferably once a week. I flourished in a group that met every Thursday, rain or shine, for three hours of reading and critique. The more often you meet, the stronger your desire to produce material to bring to a meeting becomes, and that makes you more a more productive writer. We strongly encouraged regular attendance and member participation, and that peer pressure has actually helped a number of members develop a regular writing schedule (which is extremely important if you're ever going to make it as a pro).
Note: keep socialization and chitchat to a minimum at meetings. You're there to read and critique at meetings, not to have a party. A few minutes of socializing as you take your seats and wait for everyone to arrive is okay, but get down to business as soon as possible. You can always socialize after the meeting concludes (see below).
How do the members of the group get along with each
other? This may sound silly, but you need to find a group of people you can
respect and become friends with. After your meetings, go out for beer or
coffee and "talk shop." This promotes a sense of fellowship and support for
members, who can sometimes be lonely (because of the solitary nature of the
writing) and misunderstood by non-writers (including spouses, lovers, friends,
employers, parents, etc.). You'll be amazed at how quickly solid friendships
are formed, and how helpful other members can be when you're having problems.
Some people worry about becoming friends with other members of the group--that a friend won't be as quick to give honest critique as a mere acquaintance. This can happen,
so you should emphasize that during the meetings people be as honest as possible
during the meetings, even if it hurts a little. Remember, business is business,
and true friends will always be honest with you anyway. If you do come away from
a meeting feeling a bit bruised, don't worry. Leave the work alone for a few
days, then go back to it and review the group's comments. You might be surprised
to hear yourself saying "Hey! They're right after all!" And if not, well, then
it's quite possible that you're right. You have to be open to criticism, but
following your instincts is important, too.
What kind of skill level does the group as a whole represent? It's best to join a group that is, for the most part, close to your skill level. A writer who is still struggling with very basic problems may feel overwhelmed if he or she joins a group of people who are beginning to sell regularly. Similarly, a more advanced writer may feel frustrated if he or she joins a group of beginners.
Forming your own writer's group
If you can't find a group, you can start one yourself. Place a small classified ad in the paper seeking like-minded folks. Post flyers at the local universities, libraries and bookstores. You may have to weed out some undesirables (wannabes, etc.) but soon you may find that you've got a full-fledged writer's group on your hands.
Once you get a group together, you'll need to agree on some ground rules (where and how often you'll meet; whether your group will read work aloud or distribute photocopies of each member's work; etc.) It's important to have a set of operating procedures so members (and prospective members) will know both what to expect and what's expected of them. It's a good idea to type out a list of ground rules so that new members can get a copy when they join.
You'll need to decide how big you want your group to be. Some groups are smaller, and some larger, but many people find that having more than ten or twelve members is problematic, mainly due to the time involved to critique so many people's work in one session. It's also good to have a group where things are decided by majority vote. You might also want to have a group coordinator: someone to keep the meetings going smoothly, call people and remind them that the next meeting is coming up, and that sort of thing.
If the constraints of real-time writer's groups prove difficult, or if you can't find enough writers in your area to create a group, one good alternative is an online workshop. I'm in a group on the Genie network with several other writer from around the country. We convert our manuscripts to ASCII text format and email them, cc'ing a copy to each member. Then we post our critiques either in a workshop topic (where we also discuss stuff) or in a writer's personal critique topic. We're fortunate in that Genie provides a private area for writer's groups, but even if you don't have access to a private area, it's possible to create and run a successful online group.
One real advantage of an online group is that you can participate more at your convenience. That advantage is a disadvantage, too, because if people get busy they can end up putting off their reading and critiques. In a way, it can take even more commitment to be in an online group.
Tips on criticism
Here are some suggestions for good criticism. Each member should do the following when critiquing a manuscript:
Be honest and objective in your critique. Remember, you're not doing the author a favor when you hold back on a critique. There's no need to be harsh, but you must let the author know if there are problems with the work.
Be as specific as possible in your critique. Take note of the following elements of the story: plot, structure, setting, characterization, point of view, pacing, transitions, dialogue, conflict, sensory detail, etc. Nothing is more frustrating for a author to get a vague, rambling critique. Point out specific aspects of a story or chapter that worked or didn't work for you, and tell the author why and how they
worked or didn't work. Example: "I didn't believe the Jeffrey character in your," is not very useful to the author. "I didn't buy the Jeffrey character because his motivation for giving up his military career was unclear." is
much more helpful.
Be concise with your critique. Remember that time is limited in a meeting, so don't belabor a point over and over again. Say what you have to say and let the next person have a chance to critique. (Some groups limit each member's critique to a certain amount of time and use a timer--I think this is a very useful idea).
Don't repeat another person's critique. If someone
give the same criticism you were going to give, simply say "ditto" to show
that you agree, and then cross that item off on your list of critiques. Saying
ditto is valuable in that it lets the author know that more than one person
had a problem with that particular part of the work, and avoids slogging
through the same comments over and over again. The only exception to this
is if you can substantially expand on what the other person said in his or her critique.
Criticize the manuscript, not the author. Your assessment of the author's intent or motivation is irrelevant, as is trying to second-guess the author. Just state what worked or didn't work for you in the story, and why.
Make statements--don't ask questions. Asking the author
questions invites time-consuming debate and possibly defending (see below).
Remember that an editor or publisher won't write back to an author with questions
if the story doesn't work. Just state your criticisms to the author and if
something provoked a question in your mind, turn it into a statement instead.
Example: instead of asking, "Why did Anna throw out the tea kettle?" say "It's not clear to me why Anna threw out the tea kettle" or "I
don't understand why Anna threw out the tea kettle."
Identify your biases. It's important to let an author know if he's hit one of your personal hot buttons. If you don't condone drug use and the author writes a story with a drug-using protagonist, the objectivity of your critique may be colored by your personal beliefs, and so you're doing the author a favor by letting him or her know that.
Balance your critique as much as possible. Remember that a long, negative critique, even if it's an honest one, can be pretty painful to listen to from the author's viewpoint. Try to balance out the negative with a few positive comments. Always try to end a critique on some kind of positive note. Be tactful.
Tips on being critiqued
When your work is being critiqued in the group, you should do the following:
Take notes. Even if you disagree with a criticism, take note of it. Later on, you may realize that you actually see that person's point after thinking about it for a while.
Don't defend. Defending is when you interrupt someone's
critique with something like "oh, you don't understand what I was getting at," usually
followed by an explanation or clarification. Remember that you won't be able
to explain or clarify like this with an editor or publisher, and you should
simply keep listening and take note that the person had a problem with this
Similarly, don't ask questions, unless you don't understand a comment and need clarification. It's much more important for you to listen during a critique than it is for you to talk.
Remember that just as there are all kinds of writers, there are all kinds of writing groups, and methods that work well with one group may not work at all for another group. Experiment. Find out what works for you and for your group and stick with that. Good luck!