What to Expect From a Writers’ Group

You’ve written and rewritten that piece SO many times you’ve lost perspective. Ydiana-shallard-dionne-lapointe-bakota-and-clint-young-2014-editedou need feedback. A writers’ group, or a writing partner, is the best way to get that. A friend or lover, keen reader though she may be, will probably just give a polite (or overly critical?) overview. And she’s probably not familiar with the mechanics of story crafting.

A writers’ group will give you honest—and respectful—reflection about your darling, guided by protocols that should include:

  1. Agreed rules for giving and receiving feedback
  2. Members with a similar range of expertise and commitment
  3. Regular meetings that allow you to develop trust and rapport

Guidelines for Giving and Receiving Feedback

The writer should:

  • Submit polished/revised work. (Don’t submit text with known flaws, needlessly consuming peers’ time.)
  • Let peers know what specific, or general, feedback you want. (Is it grammar and punctuation, or are you concerned the ending might be abrupt?)
  • Writers must listen—in silence—to their peers’ responses, without defense or explanation. (If your peers are confused, your general readers will be too.)

Readers giving feedback should:

  • Give your peers’ writing the same careful reading and response you expect from them!
  • Focus on issues the writer wants feedback on.
  • Make notes about things that impress as well as those that confuse. Neither be too harsh, nor too nice in your responses.
  • Remember, it’s the piece you’re assessing, not the writer, so choose your words accordingly.
  • If someone has less advanced skills, scale your expectations.
  • Respond in specific terms (not “this is lovely”, but “I can almost smell that sea air.”)
  • Where possible, ask provoking questions, rather than dishing out advice.
  • Limit your notations on the manuscript to the bigger issues. (Rather than underlining every instance of passive language, add an end note about it and cite a couple of examples).
  • Hone your meeting comments to two or three larger problems (the rest is captured in your notes).
  • If another peer has already mentioned points you want to raise, agree (or disagree) and move on to another reflection.
  • Attend and offer response, whether or not you have submitted work.

Find Peers Working Within a Similar Range of Expertise

  • Members with a range of experience results in diverse responses, but if there’s too great a span the more experienced writers won’t get enough—and newbies might get swamped. (My writers group now interviews prospective members and asks for writing samples.)
  • Everyone should have a similar commitment to their craft. (Occasional writers who rarely submit work make the group uneven.)

Frequency of Meetings Builds Comradery and Trust

  • Weekly or bi-monthly meetings fosters cohesion. (My group used to meet monthly so missing one meant a two month gap in contact.)
  • Frequent meetings maintain deadline pressure—and production!

If you want to form a new writing group, take a look at the anthology The Writing Group Book, a compilation of 35 essays—each by a different author. The book covers a gamut of topics, from how to get started, to tips for maintaining relevance.  The book is laid out in sections so you can easily choose pertinent topic. Most offerings, however, might be too cursory for a longstanding group that wants to move to a deeper level.

Do you have comments you’d like to add here, about your experiences with writers’ groups? Send us a note to add to this blog post!