9 Tips for Running a Kick-Ass Writing Group

Part II of a two-part series

9 Tips for Running a Kick-Ass Writing Group

Last month’s Text in the City focused on how to find the perfect writing group. This month, I’ll share some tips for those of you who are looking to start or spruce up a group of your own. After sampling 10 writing groups over the past few years in DC, I’ve noticed some characteristics the most successful groups share:

  1. Consistency: Regardless of how often the group meets, it helps when members are able to set aside a specific day for it. One group I know meets every Monday evening, alternating between critique sessions and write-ins. This is a creative way to keep momentum going without running out of material to review. Another group I know meets on the second Saturday of each month. The leader will choose a published story to review if there aren’t enough member submissions to fill the time — anything to stay on schedule and not cancel. When your group members have a certain day they can rely on, they will be able to plan their schedules around it and get in the habit of coring that time out for their craft.
  2. More is not necessarily better: the strongest groups I’ve been in don’t have a large roster. You may think that gathering a bunch of names will guarantee that the group stays robust, but I’ve found the opposite: it can lead to people floating in and out without a sense of belonging or intention. I’ve been in a very productive group with only two committed members. About a dozen seems to be the top number before a solid group starts to feel more like a cloud.
  3. Structure time for both praise and improvement: It’s just as important for a writer to know what’s working as it is to point out opportunities for improvement. Groups that leap right into what bothered them about the work tend to stay there, becoming overwhelmingly negative. The most effective and inspiring groups have a structure involving something like “what I liked” or “what worked” first, followed by topics like “what I had questions about” or “opportunities for revision.” And stick to it — it’s all too easy to focus on where to tinker when you’re actively improving, but we all need encouragement to keep going. However, sometimes the session can lean too far to the praise side, making it less productive, which leads me to Point 4:
  4. Alignment of intention: I once arrived at a new group carrying a submission from one of the members, on which I’d noted comments and questions to discuss. The session turned out, however, to serve more of a social affirmation function: Members reminisced fondly about the timeframe the person had written about, complimented him on their favorite character, then moved on to a discussion of book marketing. This was of value to the participants because it kept them motivated to write with the hope of publication. I chose not to be the new bull in the china shop by bringing up the questions I had about the manuscript. In fact, I wound up awkwardly shielding my notes until the end because I got the feeling that detailed feedback was not the intention. Rather than try to “fix” what worked for that group, however, I moved on. Their intentions were aligned — just not with mine.
  5. Cone of silence: It’s best when the person whose work is being reviewed remains silent during the critique, knowing they will have a chance to speak at the end of the discussion. While the writer is then allowed to ask questions and clarify areas of readers’ confusion, they should never defend their work. A writer may agree or disagree with various comments, but that’s for the writer to sort out later at home, not in a heated debate with his or her readers. When a writer doesn’t listen to the very people they’ve asked to spend time reading and thinking about their work, that’s a recipe for frustration and toxicity within a group.
  6. Strong moderation: Not a dictator, but someone that the group recognizes as a leader. Ideally this person will give the group structure, gently remind writers of the cone of silence, and encourage participants to be civil and constructive with their feedback. This person can help keep time and stop circular debates when people have argued a topic to the point of diminishing returns.
  7. Read me a story: Starting the critique by reading an excerpt aloud is a great way to re-familiarize the group with a text they may have read weeks beforehand. Having someone other than the author read the excerpt allows the author to hear how others are experiencing their words.
  8. Line edits and written feedback: This may seem like a pain, but it is really the way to get the most out of your time in a group. When you’re being critiqued, it’s not terribly helpful to hear that your dialogue seemed off in some parts unless you also find out where those parts are. And the act of writing a summation of your feedback, even a brief one, will lead you to discover things you may not have noticed in the work unless you’d taken time to synthesize your impressions.
  9. MOST IMPORTANTLY: Don’t be a jerk. Be civil, be present, don’t submit work and then not show up, don’t only show up when your work is being critiqued, don’t just skim through other folks’ work on the bus on your way to the session, don’t only come to group to market your own book, don’t keep arguing that the author really should have written it your way — you’d be surprised at all the ways there are to be the jerk in a book group, so just don’t.

AND JUST AS IMPORTANTLY, too important to be just another bullet point: Be brave. Read, write, submit, even when you think it’s not perfect (because it never will be). Groups only thrive when people are willing to take the risk of putting their best attempts out there. Nothing is more thrilling than getting swept up in a piece of writing by someone you know. So give your group a chance to experience that. Submit!

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