No matter how informal your writers’ group, it’s useful to have a framework that outlines the aims of the group and accepted behaviour within the group. The guidelines listed below are not prescriptive and can be adapted to suit.
Workshops generally consist of a writer either reading a piece of work to a group, handing out copies of a piece of work to a group or both and receiving feedback and constructive criticism. Establish how this going to happen beforehand.
Some groups like work to be distributed the meeting beforehand so members can read, re-read, think round the piece and write notes. The advantage is members can familiarise themselves with the work beforehand. The disadvantage is that notes get lost, some members won’t attend the feedback session and other members won’t have been at the meeting where the work was distributed. Writers have to be prepared and able to bring extra copies of their work.
Other groups don’t pre-distribute but distribute on the night. The advantage is that notes don’t get lost. The disadvantage is that the criticism may not be so robust as there’s less time for members to get a feel for the work.
Some groups don’t distribute copies of the work but expect the writer to read aloud in front of the group. This requires other members to have the discipline to listen and writers to be able to read (using a venue that has a microphone and/or hearing loop helps). The criticism here won’t be very detailed, but will be sufficient for professional/semi-professional groups where the work is very much polished and edited before being read to the group. The advantage is that much less paper is wasted.
Consider needs within the group. If your group doesn’t distribute copies but expects the writer to read, you need may need to distribute copies to members who are hard of hearing. If a writer doesn’t want to read their work, have a mechanism where another member can read for them.
Everyone is working to the same goal: to help members of the group produce the best writing possible. There will be disagreement as to the best way of going about it, but writers need to feel that other members are not holding back or automatically focusing on the negative.
All members of the group have to be prepared to read and comment on work by all other members. A group won’t survive for long if some members always comment and some members rarely comment. The imbalance will lead to resentment. If someone expects others to comment on their work but does not comment on others’ work, seriously consider whether they have a place in the group at all.
I have attended a workshop where not only was I chairing but I was the only one commenting on the poems produced as well. When I finally got chance to have my poem criticised (mistakenly, I left mine until last), none of the other workshop members commented. I never went back.
Respect and only allow Constructive Criticism
All members have to be treated with respect – comments must only be on the piece of work under consideration. No personal comments or insults can be permitted.
All comments must be constructive. That doesn’t mean you can’t say, “The second stanza doesn’t work”. It does mean you have to say “The second stanza doesn’t work because….” and explain why and then make suggestions as to how it can be improved.
Responding to Criticism
Don’t respond without taking the comments away and considering them. If you’ve not understood a point made by another group member, ask for clarification, but don’t tell them they’ve missed the point completely.
Remember not all comments will be useful. If one person didn’t like stanza two but others did, then stanza two is probably OK. If several people didn’t like stanza two, then stanza two is a problem. If you feel commenters have missed the point, then it may be you didn’t make the point very well.
Suggestions for Improvements are only Suggestions
You’ve given up an evening to make a really close reading of a poem, taken it apart and put it back together again but better. You’ve given your reading of the poem to the poet and they’ve taken it away to give it careful consideration. You see the poem published in a poetry magazine and the poet hasn’t incorporated all your suggestions…
Why should they? It’s their poem, not yours. No matter how strongly you feel that your suggestions were right, they were only suggestions. The poet is under no obligation to incorporate all of them.
Likewise, you are under no obligation to incorporate all the comments you receive on your work. If you really feel that strongly about your comments, go and re-write the poem yourself, but keep it in a notebook.
Keep comments about the group within the group. Keep comments about work-in-progress within the group. Or at least keep members anonymous and take the serial numbers off the work if you think that something might make an amusing blog entry or usefully illustrate a point during another workshop so that none of the group members recognise themselves or their work.
Establish whether your group will consider published work. A full-length book (non fiction or novel) is very unlikely to be re-written in between re-prints. However, a poem may have several outings before it gets into a published collection. It may be read at an open-mic event, it may get published in a poetry magazine, it may another outing at a reading, it may be published on a blog before being collected. A poet may well wish for comments for improving a poem that has been published but has not been collected into a book yet, but some group members may feel they are wasting their time commenting on a published work.
Appoint a Chair
It doesn’t have to be the same person each meeting, but ensure someone is appointed to keep an eye on the time and decide which pieces of work are considered in what order.
Of course it’s useful to have some sub-rules here about how the order is established – chair picks at random, members write their names down and that establishes order, etc – and how the chair selects whose comments are heard when. Equally members have to respect the chair, not waffle, not repeat comments already made, not talk when someone is reading aloud/commenting and get back from any breaks on time.
Publish the Guidelines
And ensure every member has access to a copy – either give a copy to every member or post them on a noticeboard/blog/website so that everyone attending the group knows how it works.