How to Start a Successful Writer’s Group

There are many ways a writing group can fail, but the two that stand out to me are:

  • Egos everywhere bashing each other, then defensiveness, then more bashing, then perhaps tears.
  • Goody goodies giving each other therapeutic praise, then everyone gets a cookie.

I can make this list go on and on, of course, but these two categories of failure were the ones I was most concerned with when I started my own group.

There are many kinds of groups with different goals, different ways that work well. But I’m very happy with my group, so I want to share with you our organization in the hopes that it will help you plan your own. 

We have a set procedure, but we aren’t stuffy about it. We know the rules, and we know when it’s appropriate to break them. It has been an organic merging, a somewhat magical thing really.

We meet here, in the lush desert garden of our eldest member, a Southern bell who loves to play hostess and who will give you the evil eye if you refuse the frosty beer mug:
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We do eat cookies. We eat lots of delicious food, in fact, and we imbibe in wine and beer, but that’s not the focus of the group.

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Here’s why our group works:

  • We all came from the same writing class, which had it’s own set of rules with which we were all already familiar.
  • We are all good readers. Good writers are not necessarily good at critiquing. Keep this in mind.
  • We are all committed to showing up, submitting our work on time (sort of) and giving each other a thoughtful critique. Those who demonstrated they weren’t committed were asked to either commit or leave. Sort of harsh, yes, but that’s life. It’s not fair to the others who are committed. If you’re the one putting the group together, you have to do this. No need to be ugly about it, but it must be done. Count on having to do this, especially if you’re enlisting people you don’t really know yet.
  • We are a group of five. Five or six people works best. Any more than that and things will feel too rushed. Too few, and things get claustrophobic.
  • We are diverse. In fact, we represent every decade from the 20’s to 60’s. But more than that, we all come from very different backgrounds and have different skills. Think about this when you’re inviting people to join.

The Method to our Madness:

  • A WEEK BEFORE WE MEET: We submit our work via email. 25 pages max. We usually print out each other’s work, but it’s not imperative. Everyone in my group likes to write on the pages, so we print them out.
  • BEFORE WE MEET: We write out a critique and come prepared to discuss. It’s really nice to have critiques written down, a record of what happened. We all save our critiques in files for our second draft (we usually submit novel excerpts). I usually take notes while everyone is talking, just in case the others say things they forgot to write down. I like to have a blow-by-blow transcript of them battling it out when they interpret my work.
  • NOON: So we start out chatting. This doesn’t have to happen, technically speaking, but that’s what we do. We grab our beverages of choice, help set up the table, the chairs, etc. then chill out on the patio while we wait for everyone to show up. I recommend skipping the booze unless you know your group pretty well and feel comfortable with each other.
  • ONE: We have a pot luck lunch and go around the table somewhat systematically to ask what’s going on in our lives. This is our hand-holding, everyone-gets-a-cookie part. It’s a nice thing to do, and then we can leave all the shit of life behind for the actual critique. This also doesn’t have to happen, technically speaking. If we were at a cafe or if time constraints were involved, we would have to skip it. But the truth is, we like each other and we want to get caught up on what’s going on in each other’s lives.
  • TWO-ish: We get started. Each person gets 20 min. Actually, it’s 30, but I set the timer at 20 and when the bell rings, we know it’s time to start wrapping things up. If you look in the photo above, you’ll see my little aqua-colored manual timer…if you’re the one in charge, be sure to get one or have an app on your phone. Also you or someone should be in charge of moving things along in general.
  • During these 20-30 minutes, the author is NOT ALLOWED TO TALK. This is ridiculously important. Do it. Enforce it. It’s the only way to know for sure what’s going out. In real life, you can’t hover over the shoulder of your reader correcting his interpretation.
  • We start with a synopsis. Someone volunteers to do this, and the rest fills in anything that got left out.
  • Next we say WHAT WORKED. This language is important. It’s not “I loved this story” or anything vague like that. It’s not hand-holding, cookie-eating praise. It’s like this: “The voice was distinct from the other characters” OR “The omniscient POV works for the story because…” OR “Strong sense of place, for instance, here…” OR “Well-chosen details, especially this one…” We all learn from this just as much as criticisms.
  • Then we give SUGGESTIONS. This language is also important. It’s not, “I hated this story” or anything vague like that. It’s not bashing. It’s not plot suggestions (although we all secretly want them). It’s like this: “The transition from the flashback on page 147 needs to be smoothed out…” OR “The character’s voice is inconsistent. He’s in middle school but here and here he sounds like he’s in college” OR “I want more details” OR “At the beginning he’s in the living room, but suddenly he’s in the kitchen?” OR “Would she really feel shocked about that? What about this detail in the earlier chapter…”
  • Then we let the author ask questions. This is the time when the author gets to tell everyone what he or she intended to do—Oh, the joy! The release!—and the rest of us offer even more suggestions to help the author get there.

I wish you all luck in starting your own group. It’s a a struggle at first, and if you don’t have people already familiar with the process, things can get tense. There was drama. I think starting out with a high level of organization is best…things will get looser with time, but at that point everyone will be on the same page. If you’re starting the group, it’s your job to communicate the rules and make sure everyone agrees to their usefulness. If you get someone who doesn’t like them, and who doesn’t seem to have a good reason why…well hell, it’s your group. You decide whether or not to keep that person.

I know. I’m mean. But I’ve also got an awesome group and everyone in it says so and we all love each other. So there.

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12 thoughts on “How to Start a Successful Writer’s Group

  1. I love that you start with the synopsis and then open the floor

    I had a prof (IN GRAD SCHOOL) who made all 18 of us go one by one around the room saying one thing we liked. Then we went around a second time and said one thing we didn’t like. Then it was opened up to everyone. Most people did the hand-holding non-sense (I really like the imagery or It felt so real to me). Most ass-backwards way of doing a writing workshop ever.

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    • Wow. Did he really make you say what you LIKED and DIDN’T LIKE? Geez.

      I have a theory about how to get through workshops like that. Perhaps I should post about it, but basically you take it all in like a scientist. You gather the data, you note patterns and trends, and you ultimately make your own decisions based more on numbers than on what’s actually being said. This is only when the people in the class and/or the format can’t really be counted on. It’s an unfortunate situation, but there’s a way to get something out of it. Not much, but something.

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  2. “It’s not hand-holding, cookie-eating praise.”

    That’s so important. Critiquing stories subjectively not only dilutes the message, but could send writers off in the wrong direction. When I’m in a writing group, I always try to give objective and precise critique. Inconsistency, as you helpfully pointed out, is one of the major issues writers run into. I wonder why that’s the case.

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    • Inconsistency is my demon! I have problems with characters showing up suddenly in different places, things jumping around in time, misplaced objects, that sort of thing. My first draft is sort of dream-like where objects can defy laws of physics, appearing magically out of the aether when I want them. I’m the last person in my group to find these sorts of inconsistencies in other people’s writing—I guess it makes sense. When I read I skip over these minor details unless someone picks up an object three or four times…only then will I notice it. It’s not a good thing, let me tell you. It’s just my personality, I guess…I look for the overall meaning as quickly as I can.

      I usually don’t miss character inconsistencies because that’s what matters to me, seeing the whole person. I’m usually the first to point these out.

      I guess everyone has their thing. The Southern Belle in my group ALWAYS picks up on the minor details that I couldn’t even imagine paying attention to. That’s her forte. I can’t tell you how important it is for me to have this group. These details are really important. (She’s the one who lays out the gorgeous table for our group, pulling out her fine china and silver…I’m the one going, “Are you sure you don’t wanna do paper plates? No dishes?” And then I get her icy look. I think that explains something!)

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  3. Your blog is great and really interesting! I was hoping you could kindly visit my blog and like or comment on anything you found interesting?

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  4. Since graduating from college I really missed my poetry community, but luckily I have a few amazing poet friends in the city and we managed to get ourselves together in a workshop a few months ago. It’s been so great! It’s just four of us so we really get to focus on each other’s work (and on each other), and we really know each other’s preoccupations/goals/aesthetics.

    We always have lots of cookies. And wine. Lots of wine.

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