Guidelines for a Successful Writers’ Group

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

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. 

Trust

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.

Commitment

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.

Confidentiality

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.

Published 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.

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How to Take Criticism at a Writers’ Group

First take a deep breath and remember it’s the work that being criticised, not you.  Taking the plunge and offering your work for criticism to people who will not unconditionally praise it isn’t easy, but it is necessary if you want your writing to develop. 

Once you’ve found a writers’ group to suit you, you need to get the best out of it.

Don’t react

At least not there and then.  Take what’s been said away and consider why it’s been said and what the speaker hoped to achieve.  Individuals will all have their own obsessions: with one it will be grammar and punctuation, with another characters, with another dialogue.  But think: are they trotting out the same advice they give to everyone or are they saying something relevant to your work?  One magazine editor used to state “you need to stop writing” on her rejection slips.  That message was like slamming into a brick wall until you realised she said that on all her rejection slips thus it became completely harmless.

Not all Advice will be useful

Some of the advice will apply directly to the piece of work under discussion.  Some advice will be useful but will not apply to the work under discussion, but is worth noting so it can inform future work.  Some advice should be ignored: some will try and re-write your work, resist. 

Some Critics only Criticise

Sadly some cannot bring themselves to say anything positive and will only focus on weaknesses.  Turn your focus to the sections they didn’t comment on: that’s where your strengths are.  Look the sections they did comment on.  Do their comments apply or should they be ignored?

Don’t try and please everyone

You can’t.  Who are you targeting your work to?  Do they like it?  That’ll do.

The problem area might not be the one under discussion

The problems may occur earlier in the work.  If no one likes a particular twist in the story, the problem lies in whatever made the characters follow that twist.  If no one likes stanza three, then the problem’s in stanza two that led to stanza three.

Take Care with Rewrites

Are you rewriting because the work needs it or re-writing to please the group?  Ultimately you should be writing for your target audience, ie commissioning editors, and if the group wants you to take your work in a direction that editors don’t like, don’t re-write.

Are you collecting rejection slips?

There’s little point in simply bringing your work to the writers’ group every meeting if your aim is to get published.  You have to submit work to editors as well. 

The Worst Criticism is silence

That’s not the silence of people gathering thoughts immediately after seeing/hearing your work.  That’s the silence of standard rejection slips.  The silence of no reviews.  The silence of no editorial feedback.  The silence of no readers.  If you want to get published, you’ve got to get your work out there.

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Five Tips on Choosing a Writers’ Group

Jeff Vandermeer had a post on Writers’ Groups, but focuses on how to pick a group that will stretch and develop your writing towards publication.  It’s worth bearing in mind that groups with a more social focus can be useful too, providing you accept that they’re not going to help you get published.  Here’s some tips on finding groups that are right for you.

 

1 Where is your Writing Career?

Make a list of where you want to go with your writing and what you are prepared to bring to a writers’ group.  Do you want to be a published writer or are you writing for yourself?  Are you starting out or have you already got work published?  Bear in mind that as your writing develops and you achieve published status, you may outgrow the group you joined when you started out.  That doesn’t mean you have to stop attending, just that different groups are appropriate to different levels of writers and you may find you need to join more than one.

 

2 What can you bring to the writing group?

Can you constructively criticise and give feedback on work by other writers?  That means saying what a piece of writing’s strengths are, what the weaknesses are, what makes those sections weak and suggest improvements whilst at the same time appreciating that you are not the author of this piece of work and your suggestions may not be incorporated when the actual author edits their work.  A group of semi-professional and professional writers will expect that level of engagement and if you want to be professional, that’s what you’re aiming for.  A less ambitious group will tend to praise but not necessarily criticise: you’ll feel encouraged, but won’t get the necessary criticism to develop your work ready for publication.

 

3 Can you take constructive criticism?

 

It’s not easy when you’ve spent hours sweating over the placement of a comma or picking exactly the right phrase to accept someone else suggesting that there was a better option.  But if you want to get published, better to have a friendly face give you some robust comments before your writing gets anywhere near an editor or agent, rather than run up numerous rejection slips because editors don’t have time to tell you that a minor change could transform a rejection into an acceptance.  Most established writers will admit that the best advice they had when starting out was a sheet full of red ink from a respected mentor.  Ego boosting “that was great” comments soon fade in the face of one rejection slip after another.

 

4 Take advantage of a free trial

 

Any writers’ group worthy of the name lets potential new members sit in on one group meeting for free.  Take advantage: you’ll get a feel for how the group works, who the members are and whether it’s suitable for you.  Find out whether group members have been published or not and, if so, where.  Pay attention to the feedback given to members’ work – is it a critique-towards-publication or a bit vague and mostly positive?  What do the members want to achieve with their writing?  Do they concur with your own ambitions?

 

5 Be prepared to join more than one writers’ group

 

It may be that you find one friendly but uncritical group that makes you feel like part of a community, you find one critical group that will get you on the road to publication and another group that specialises in the genre you write in.  You may find on-line writers’ forums useful too.

Making A Mark

Leicester Writers’ Club celebrated its 50th anniversary with the launch of “Making A Mark”. First to read was Liz Ringrose with an extract from her warm, genuinely funny mystery (there’s no murder, but that’s not the mystery) novel, “Unwrapping Angelo”. Next up was Debut Dagger shortlisted Rod Duncan with an extract from “The Mentalist”. Light relief came in the shape of Nick Stead’s radio play. Poets were represented by Mike Brewer and Marilyn Ricci whose poem “Stowaway” was runner-up in a poetry competition and subsequently published in “The Coffee House”. Carnegie Prize shortlisted children’s writer and current Club President, Chris d’Lacey, who’s seen his books translated into 24 languages, wrapped up the readings.

Deputy Lord Mayor of Leicester, Roger Blackmore, kindly spoke of Leicester’s diversity, how important writing (and reading) is and warmly congratulated the Club on reaching 50 years. Creative Leicestershire, Leicester City Council and Leicestershire County Council, all of whom had part-funded the anthology, also passed on congratulatory messages. Naturally huge thanks go to the editorial committee who compiled the anthology and club members who made the night a success.

I came away with a warm glow and feeling that just maybe all those snatched hours of scribbling or typing, honing and developing time management and organisational skills that go into keeping on top of submissions, deadlines and constantly compacting so many things into so few words, just might be worth it.