Create the Perfect Writer’s Group
So, you’re a writing pro who wants to put more zip into your work. Or a timid newbie scribbler who’s dared to take the plunge into the world of creative writing. Wherever you fall along this spectrum, you’ll find writer’s, publications and websites will tell you to join a writer’s group. Over the past five years, I’ve belonged to four.
Eventually, I started one myself. There, our members thrived, whether or not they got published. Our secret? The way we gave feedback or critiques. It took effort but, through consensus, we created a kickass set of golden rules to guide us. What follows is a summary of how we pooled our eyes and brains twice a month to make each other’s work shine.
Feedback and critiques
Criticism is a sign of respect. Foremost, in our group, we viewed constructive criticism as a sign of respect. We decided to be grateful for input from those who’d taken time to give our work a serious read and think hard about it. Even if all a member saw in a piece were mistakes, their input was a chance for us to learn. We considered their feedback with care, even if in the end, we did not agree with or adopt their suggestions.
Start positive: Any feedback started on a positive note. To create that atmosphere, everyone asked themselves when they read the pieces submitted for a meeting: “What did I like about the piece? Did anything grip me and hold me spellbound?” Starting with positive input let writers better receive the more critical, yet still constructive, feedback that inevitably would follow. We ram with this and behaved like the pros we were or wanted to be. So no one belittled the work or the person who created it.
Open minds: Often a piece fell outside a member’s preferred genre or comfort level. Even so, we kept an open mind to all efforts. Open minds gave our writers the courage to take risks, which enhanced our creativity.
Be specific: Specific praise can foster inspiration. And specific criticism, action. So we were specific and gave concrete examples from the presented work to make our points.
·One piece, one writer: We refrained from telling a presenting writer how we’d have written their piece. We focused on how to help them. That meant input yes, our personal rewrites, no.
Rules are made for breaking: We accepted good writers often break conventional rules, with intent or by happenstance. However, anyone who threw a conventional rule on the slush pile could be asked to explain how and why they did.
We also tried to speak the same language. To facilitate that, we created specific points to cover and questions to ask ourselves as we read a piece to be presented. Here’s what we included:
- Point of view: What was the piece’s point of view? Did it work? If not, could it be changed? Were there unintended shifts or inconsistencies in a piece’s POV?
- Plot: What was the plot and how did it progress? Was it based on any formal plot outlines or plotting techniques? Were there problems in its sequence? Did it employ flashbacks or diary inserts and dream sequences? Was the tense use appropriate?
- Action/conflict: Could the conflict be classified? Was the conflict logical, based on the characters or events? Did the action compel us forward?
- Character: Did the characters come alive? Did we know their history or were there enough clues so we could easily imagine it? Was a character’s voice distinct? Did the characters grow and progress? What were their goals and fears? Were their motivations clear or hidden?
- Dialogue: Could we hear the character speaking? Did their words ring true and fit the character as we viewed him or her? Did we understand any dialect or slang?
- Style: If the piece evoked emotions, it was often due to style. So we always asked ourselves, “What did the piece make us feel as we read it?” Then we looked for the techniques the writer used to tug at our hearts to see if they worked for us.
- Pernsicketys: We decided what we called “persnicketys” (like grammar tips) would best be given through hard or electronic copy mark-ups. The same for what we called copy edits (typos, spelling, homonym errors, punctuation, etc.)
Writers groups are as idiosyncratic as writers and, IMHO, they should be. Some groups I attended before (and the reason I was turned off many) were rigid about feedback. People went around in turn and gave feedback and the presenting writer stayed silent. Others allowed back and forth comments or free-for-alls.
We tried to strike a balance in our group, giving feedback one at a time and going in a specified order. Presenting writers listened to each individual’s feedback without interrupting. But they could then respond and agree or disagree, but with an open mind. As writers, we sought to learn from the feedback given, not refute it point by point to defend our work, no matter what we thought of the input. At the end of the critique go-round, we had a freewheeling group discussion.
A small but important point for structure? Everyone presented work with page numbers, names, dates, and titles in the same format. We always tried to end our sessions on a positive note. (A few times there were group hugs, but not often.)
In time, people socialized outside of, or after, meetings. Some supportive, lasting friendships blossomed and we had a few group parties. And many people even got published.