What Makes A Writing Group Successful?
In our Apex writing group, Apex is an umbrella organization that provides services for a large number of writers, but we also encourage writers to do things in smaller groups. For example, some writers are having great success by meeting together for daily writing sprints, or weekly brainstorming sessions or critique groups.
I’ve belonged to several writing groups, and many of them were excellent, while a couple were actually dysfunctional. I’d like to suggest a few things that you can do to keep your writing group on track.
First, have a leader for your group—a president, and a sergeant-at-arms. The president’s job might be to lead discussions and to submit ideas for rule changes. The sergeant-at-arms is a person who talks quietly to someone who breaks the rules and let’s them know that the group has a problem. He or she may even need to evict others. Usually, both positions are voted upon.
Second, manage the size of your group. You don’t want to be overwhelmed by piles of manuscripts to critique each week, so don’t let the group get too big. I’ve seen writing groups with 150 people in them, and at that size, you can’t really have a meaningful critique of a novel. Even ten people is too large.
I’ve been in some groups where each writer was expected to submit, say, twelve pages a week. That worked very well. It meant that each writer progressed each week, but no writer came in with two hundred pages, week after week.
Generally speaking, by the time you’ve had eight people comment on a single manuscript, you’re probably critiqued it enough, so decide how big you want your group to be—three people, six? Once you hit your limit, close the group. In the same way, you don’t want the group to be too small. Search for members who compliment the group, people who have their own skillsets. Some authors, for example, might be full of passion and excitement. Another may have a vast understanding of a given genre. Those two writers are stronger together than they would be apart.
Meet together often. Most groups seem to work well when they meet weekly. If you try once a month, it can work, but groups that don’t meet together regularly will fizzle out.
Critiques should be written on the manuscript (either in pen or in a file) so that the author can compile the ideas when finished. Talking about the critique verbally, though, helps stimulate ideas in others and gets members of the group focused on a story, so you want to have both written and verbal comments. Always start a critique with something positive. Knowing what works is as important for a writer as knowing what to fix. More importantly, it helps authors remember to accentuate the positive, give praise when it might be needed the most. Give substantive criticism in oral critiques: talk about plot, characterization, scene building, pacing and other “big-ticket items.” Don’t waste a group’s time by talking about punctuation, spelling, dropped words or typos in an oral critique. Sure, you can fix commas in a written critique, but don’t belabor the point.
Agree on some rules for what you will critique. I think it is helpful for people to brainstorm a plot for a novel, for example, so you might have special brainstorming sessions. But you might not want to waste time critiquing something like nonfiction articles.
Assign roles to your group members. In one group I belonged to, we had an author who watched markets, for example, so that each week we would discuss contests or magazines that were opening. That author always searched for news, but we soon found that everyone was helping out. Suddenly we had more than a dozen people gathering important data, and it taught all of us to keep our eyes open.
1. Divide your meetings into parts.
- At the appointed time, let your sergeant-at-arms call your meeting to order. (That means, you stop gabbing.) Remember, this is a writing group, not a social group. If your start time is 8:00 PM, don’t start it late. Just as you officially open a meeting, you also want to officially close it at the appropriate time. Many groups like to go out afterward and socialize, but don’t let your group turn into one where people only talk about writing.
- Start your meeting with news of personal accomplishments. How much did each person write? (For a writing group, people should know that they must write in order to remain a member.) Find out what milestones each member reached (“I finished my novel!”)? Have them report on acceptances or awards they won, or on sales records? (This helps build excitement in the group.)
I’ve seen groups do fun things. In one group, a person passed out “gold stars” that people could wear on their forehead. In another, a person passed out brownies. IN a third, if someone finished a novel or won an award, the rest of the group paid for their dinner that night.
- Next go to market news. Are there any contests that opened or new magazines or publications your group should be aware of? Have you heard of interesting local visits by celebrities or listened to any fascinating podcasts? What about news from major publishers that people should be aware of. Be brief, but share.
- Once that is out of the way, get to the work of brainstorming or critiquing!
- With brainstorming, you want a free flow of ideas. Let an author present an idea—say a novel summary—and then go around the room and suggest ideas about how to make it better, but set a time limit. “We’re going to talk about Sarah’s upcoming novel for 20 minutes.”
2. Now begin the critique session. This has a few rules.
- It is the author’s job to listen to critiques and take notes—never to defend his or her work or to apologize. There should be a “no cross-talk policy.” This should be a strict rule, and those who violate it should be ejected from the meeting.
- The critic has the floor. When a critic is speaking, no one should interrupt to give their opinion, except for the sergeant-at-arms, who can cut them off if the critique goes on too long or becomes abusive. (Remember, some critics will campaign for changes to a story, but that isn’t their job. Their job is to point out ways to improve the story.)
- The critic should always address the story, not the author. In other words, if a character, let’s call her Terry, is a horse thief, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the author is a horse thief. Good people have to address imaginary evils in their fiction.
- Set reasonable time limits for a critique. Five minutes for ten pages if probably more than enough. At exactly five minutes, the critic needs to shut up. This means that you might need an official timekeeper.
- If you love a story, tell the author how you feel. Something like, “This is an excellent story, and if I were an editor, I would buy it as is,” can be very helpful. I recall being in on one session where half the room said this—and they were right.
- Some groups like to allow the author to respond at the end of a critique, perhaps to explain why they did this or that. It’s healthy, but the response needs to be concise, too. In other words, keep the time on! I usually like to thank people for their critiques.
- Some groups also like to allow crosstalk after the critiques finish. This often leads to important brainstorming ideas, so I encourage it.
Remember, a writing group is a living, growing thing. It may change over time, and your rules need to evolve with it.
Want to meet with writers from around the world to help boost your group: join us at Apex-writers.com. You can take classes and workshops together, listen to bestselling authors, and learn from editors and agents on a weekly basis. More importantly, this is a place to network with other authors in order to help boost your career.
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