The Basics of Starting a Writing Group

So, you’ve decided to start a writing group? Congratulations, you have just taken the first step down a path that can enlighten and strengthen your writing, or just as easily weaken your mind and destroy your friendships.

Isn’t that exciting?

Getting good criticism and encouragement is absolutely essential for producing great writing. Every last writer you admire has gotten feedback about their work from people they respect (and maybe some they didn’t), and you shouldn’t do any different if you want to improve your craft.

Let’s go over a few essential steps that will give your writing group (and consequently your writing) the best chance of success.

The Purpose

Have you gotten kicked out of every group you’ve tried to join? Are you completely uninterested in the writing of others? Do you only care about getting feedback for your story?

The purpose of a writing group is encouragement and improvement for all members.

Then stop.

You don’t want a writing group. You want beta readers — people who have agreed to read your stories and provide feedback without expecting anything in return. To be clear, beta readers are great, even essential, but the purpose of a writing group is encouragement and improvement for all members. If you’re going to start a writer’s group, it must be because you want to help others as much as you want them to help you.

Another important point to consider is the focus of the group, whether it be criticism or motivation. Traditionally, writing groups have been intended for criticism, but some writers are at a stage where they just want help getting the words on a page. They don’t need feedback, they need encouragement. In one of the most successful groups I have ever been a part of, we didn’t critique; instead we gathered for an hour exclusively to write. It wasn’t great for interaction, but working simultaneously gave us a sort of creative boost.

Whichever style you choose, you have to commit to it, otherwise the entire purpose of the group gets muddled.

The People

It should come as no surprise that choosing the right people is the most important aspect of starting a writing group. Personalities and intentions make or break the experience, and in turn affect the quality of the work.

You don’t necessarily want people who think the same way you do; variety in style and viewpoint are important for getting good feedback. But you do need people who are there for the right reasons (because we’ve already established that you are, right? …Right?), who will commit to the format and style of the group you create.

There’s a constant struggle between the people who dominate the conversation, and those who are hesitant to speak up. Both personalities can have much to offer, but they must be willing to participate respectfully. This is a group effort that requires input from everyone.

There also needs to be a similar balance of skills. Someone who is far more advanced than the rest of the group might get bored quickly, while a newcomer in a group of published professionals will likely feel intimidated. The dynamics and friendliness of the group can mitigate some of these scenarios, but everyone needs to feel equally challenged.

Finding people is another major hurdle. Friends can be good for feedback; they can also be useless. Fortunately, we have the Internet. There are online groups, places to post notices for local meetings (try Meetup.com), and plenty of people on social media and forums who are in a similar situation. Go find someone!

The Format

The next important issue is the format of the group. We’ve already discussed the two main purposes of writing groups — criticism or motivation — but there are plenty of other things to consider.

Thanks to modern technology, you must also decide whether you want the group to meet online or in meatspace.

How often will the group meet? People need time to write and read stories for critique. Most groups strive to meet weekly, but this may be too frequent for people with work and family obligations. The bigger the group, the harder it will be to work with schedules.

How many people will critique at one time? Some groups have the whole group read a single piece and comment, while others split everyone up into new pairs each week and offer one-on-one feedback for their stories. One-on-one helps avoid the feeling of being ganged up on by the group, but group feedback offers better opportunity for discussion and reinforcement.

Thanks to modern technology, you must also decide whether you want the group to meet online or in meatspace. Face-to-face is great, but a video conference can unite people from around the world. It’s also possible to have an asynchronous group where people read and submit feedback to a group page when they have time. There are plenty of tools for this, from Facebook and Google+ groups to member forums and storage areas such as Dropbox and Google Drive.

Don’t forget to have a regular meeting for celebration. When people hit milestones, publish stories, or just need a boost, have a reward party. Celebration helps unite the group because members feel genuinely invested in the success of others.

The Feedback

Here’s the point where the poo hits the prop, especially if there are difficult or sensitive personalities in the group. The whole point is to help everyone improve, so feedback is important, but it can also sting like a buggy whip on a blister.

Set up a dedicated structure for feedback so that everyone knows what to expect. By creating a process, it helps negative feedback feel less like a surprise attack.

Some groups like to set a time limit, say two minutes, for each person to critique a piece, which helps them avoid long-winded diatribes about form or grammar or character development. Others like to use the sandwich method — pointing out something they like, then critiquing a part of the story, then pointing out another thing they like. This has two benefits: The writer gets feedback on what is working along with what isn’t, and the nice stuff helps them feel less attacked. Some don’t like the sandwich method, but it’s generally a good idea to make a point of giving positive feedback along with the negative.

Whichever methodology you choose, make sure to set strict limits on how people offer and receive criticism so that there’s no antagonism between writer and reader. A common tactic is to forbid the writer from responding until the critique is done so that there’s less opportunity for a back-and-forth of arguments and excuses. Then give the writer a few minutes to respond and, most importantly, ask clarifying questions. This will help keep things civil and provide the best opportunity to learn.

Above all, make sure everyone understands how to be polite and helpful. This doesn’t mean pulling punches or avoiding confrontation, but there absolutely must be an atmosphere of trust and caring so that the writer knows feedback is being offered in the spirit of help.

Finally, these oft-quoted words from author Neil Gaiman are extremely applicable here: “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

Stick with It

After you’ve made all the decisions on where and how you’ll meet, the last step is to persevere. The first session will be awkward. Someone will get offended. Others won’t read their assigned story. It’ll be a little rough as you figure out group dynamics and what works for everyone. Perhaps you’ll lose a couple people, maybe gain a few more. But after a little while you’ll hit a groove and find that writers are getting valuable feedback.

What has your experience been with writing groups? What advice would you give to someone trying to organize one?

Daniel Hope

Column by Daniel Hope

Daniel Hope is a writer, ukelele player, and unrepentant nerd. He has worked as a technology journalist (too frantic), a PR writer (too smarmy), and a marketing writer (too fake). He is currently the Managing Editor of Fiction Vortex, an online publication for science fiction and fantasy short stories. At FV, he's known as the Voice of Reason. That means FV staff members wish he would stop worrying all the time. He thinks they should stop smiling so much.

Daniel Hope lives in California and dreams of writing more. When distraught about his output, he consoles himself with great beaches and gorgeous weather. He recently published his science fiction novel, The Inevitable, on the Kindle Store and Smashwords. Find out more at his site: SpeculativeIntent.com.

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Comments

LadyWordslinger's picture
LadyWordslinger from Lower Sasnak is reading If I tell you what I'm reading, I'll have to change it every time I finish one book and start another. August 27, 2014 - 11:37am

I had hoped that "If you build it, they will come" would apply, but after two meetings of exchaging ideas of how we wanted our group to function, followed by four straight months of no-shows (except me), I tabled the idea for now. I'm too stubborn to give up entirely.  

L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami August 27, 2014 - 2:20pm

That's the big reason I'm not wild about online groups. You never really know who might be seeing your work. Generally speaking if I write say Cyberpunk influenced magic realism set in medeival Europe, I would want writers that have similar interests. Though that doesn't necessarily mean that's all they read.

I like both the Sandwhich and the time limit method. Also feedback within a 1,400 character limit might be good for those that tend to be a little ... ranty. That's especially helpful if the arrangement is a take turns approach. If all your doing in spewing 50,000 long rants about character development you are wasting everyones time.

Also this must be emphasized, the last thing a beginning writer needs is someone to "rate their story". Star systems are about as usefull as shoes on a pig.