The first time I tried to join a writing group I was living in Brooklyn. I’d finished a draft of a novel and wanted to meet with a couple of people over the course of a year and exchange writing and feedback. I responded to an ad I’d found on Craigslist and soon found myself in a coffee shop on the Upper West Side. The founder of the group was a portly man in his mid-forties. He explained he had two other writers and they were looking for a fourth. “Sounds great,” I said. “When can we start?”
He held up his hands like slow down buddy. “You’re one of about thirty applicants,” he said. “I need to ask you some questions.” It turned out our initial meeting was an interview for the coveted last spot in his writing group. Besides making a good first impression there were also several things I needed to attend to in order to apply for the position. First, I had to send a writing sample as well as a synopsis of my novel. Second, I needed to present a resume with my writing credentials. If I passed the first two steps I had to sign a disclosure agreement basically saying I wouldn’t steal the other writer’s work.
For some reason I agreed to all this. I sent over the required documents. A couple of days later he wrote back saying that they were going with one of the other applicants. “Although you have great writing credentials, your novel is too similar to one I’m writing.”
The sting of rejection infuriated me. Not only was my writing getting turned down by literary magazines, but now some hack writer was rejecting me as well. I decided to start my own writing group with my own rules.
With the help of Zoetrope.com I put together a group of writers who agreed to exchange longer pieces of work. Over the next six months we exchanged and critiqued each other’s writing every other week. During that period I began to realize why the aforementioned writer had been so selective in choosing members of the group. I also began to understand that there are certain mechanics which can make or break a writer’s group.
7 Tips For Creating A Writing Group:
Set Group Rules: It’s important to come up with rules as a group before you begin to exchange work. The maximum amount of writing a member submits should never exceed the amount decided upon. Even a couple of extra pages can create animosity towards the submitter who will be seen as taking advantage of the other member’s good will. I recommend placing the maximum at 7,000 words or 30 pages, double spaced with a standard 12 point font (Times New Roman or Ariel).
Handwritten And Oral Critiques: It’s important for group members to do both handwritten and oral in-person critiques. The handwritten critique is not only essential for the writer, but it also forces the reader to think about his or her critique. Negative banter can often fall out of a group member’s mouth during a discussion, but if that person has written out their critique beforehand he or she is more likely to give a thoughtful, helpful, critique. The oral critique is important as well because it is a chance for each group member to give feedback as well as discuss each other’s ideas about the work.
To Speak Or Not To Speak: Over the years I’ve been in writing groups where the person being critiqued could speak and other times where they couldn’t. I think it really depends on the group dynamic. Usually it works best for the person being critiqued to listen and jot down notes and questions. After the other group members have finished their discussion the writer can ask questions about (but not defend) their work.
Negative And Positive Comments: In the past my groups have made it a rule that for every negative comment a reader made they had to make a useful, positive comment as well. So, if you said, “I couldn’t stand the narrator,” you also had to say, “Having to view abuse through his eyes had an emotional impact on me.” And if you can give a solution like “adding more of a resolution to the end would make me understand why I needed to view the events from this character’s point of view,” you’re really giving a useful comment.
Group Diversity: It’s a good idea to have a mix of men and women from different backgrounds. In this way you will be able to see what is working or not working in your writing from a variety of readers. A piece of writing is often championed by one of the group members, but not enjoyed by another. When reading and listening to critiques the writer needs to make revision decisions based on what he or she is trying to communicate rather than if the comment is positive or negative.
Critiques Should Be Specific: Comments like “I don’t get it,” or “The story wasn’t my cup of tea,” are too general to be helpful. When doing a critique the group member should really think about the story and ask themselves, “Why didn’t I get it?” or “What about the story didn’t resonate with me?” There are many aspects to a piece of writing ranging from point of view to narrative voice to setting. If the reader can pin point an aspect of the story which he or she found problematic their comments will be far more helpful to the writer.
For example you read a submitted personal narrative and when you put it down you feel a bit confused. Instead of chalking it up to the writer being a bad communicator you ask yourself, “Why was I confused?” You realize that the narrator was supposed to be a ten-year-old boy, but there was no indication of this until the end which made you think the narrator was an adult for ¾ of the piece. Pin pointing the problem instead of making a general comment is far more useful for the writer during the revision process.
Critiques Can Include Solutions: It’s called hijacking and it’s often frond upon, but I believe it can be helpful to the writer. If the readers give solutions which are specific enough to help the writer better understand the problem hijacking can be a good thing.
For example in the above section we came to the conclusion that we were confused because the narrator didn’t seem like a ten-year old until the end of the piece. We tell the writer that our solution is to place indicators of the narrator’s age towards the beginning of the story. However, instead of being vague about it we give specifics such as the dialect in the dialogue needs to sound more like a young boy and it would be helpful if you’d add in details about the narrator’s appearance. By giving this solution the writer now knows that the reader was confused because the dialogue sounded too much like an adult and the reader wasn’t grounded in the story because of a lack of character description. Instead of the writer walking away with a vague idea he or she has specific problems and solutions and he or she can now decide what changes need to be made in order to resolve these problems.
Want to start a writing group? Well, the best way to meet potential group members and to be awesome at giving creative critiques is to attend the San Miguel Literary Sala Summer Workshops. Meet other writers or photographers, learn how to give and accept helpful criticism, and become confident in your work. Register before July 1 on our website!