5 Tips on How to Run a Writing Group

By Mark Nichol

You’ve got your writing group up and running. All the hard work’s over, right?

Wrong. Just like any smooth-running machine, a writing group requires maintenance. Here are some tips for tender, loving care:

1. Construct Criticism
Model proactive and up-front critiquing etiquette. Advise everyone to start positive with a compliment, then offer honest but objective, well-supported, and practical advice, and then conclude with another commendation. Continuously reinforce the message that no one is served when criticism is withheld; only focused, writing-centered (not writer-centered) commentary will help the writer grow.

2. Vary the Routine
Some people might be ready to email a writing sample a week ahead of time to give others a chance to read and critique before the next meeting. Those selections don’t need to be read aloud before the group; you can go straight to discussion. (Hand the writer an annotated hard copy or return by email, with inserted notes, the file they sent you.)

Others can pass around copies of a cold read and read it aloud while others jot down notes, then go to discussion. Yet others might simply read a shorter passage for a moment’s worth of specific advice, ask a few general questions without reading at all, or pass altogether that week, participating only in discussion about others’ work. (You may not have time to go over every group member’s project at each meeting anyway.) But don’t let any one member get away with following the same routine every time.

Suggest a writing session every now and then: Everybody comes to the meeting, writes for an hour, then convenes to take turns reading part or all of their resulting selection for five minutes and getting one minute of feedback from each member.

3. Do Your Homework
Establish expectations for criticism: When you read the writing of other group members, take notes, writing down questions, suggestions, and compliments. Be specific when you critique, praising a vivid description in particular or recommending more character development with detailed advice.

Focus, however, not on telling others what to do but on asking questions to help them decide what to do. If you don’t understand something, or you feel that details are lacking, ask for an explanation or background information. Then, gently advise the author to incorporate their response into the narrative.

Your homework also involves setting your ego aside and acting on others’ critiques. What’s the use of investing so much time and energy in this process if you don’t take feedback to heart?

4. Take a Break
At regular intervals, step back from the critiquing cycle to meet just to advise or brainstorm about how to organize notes, do research, or work on character, plot, tone, and so on. Several times a year, go to a book reading together, or watch a movie or a play together and, for homework, draft a “novelization” or a rewrite of a scene and bring it to the next meeting. Compile a list of prompts for when members hit the wall.

5. Check In
Periodically evaluate how the group is going. Are your meetings too often, not often enough, or just right? Too long, not long enough, or ideal? Is someone missing too many meetings or wallflowering, or does one person dominate them? Is everybody getting what they want out of the experience?

What’s the procedure when somebody’s not fitting in? What do you do when one or more members drop out, or one or more members feel like increasing the number of people in the group? How do you recruit, and how do you decide whether to accept candidates? Establish and review your membership policies.

Above all, remember that although the group is a democratic body that should operate by consensus, you, as the founder, must continue to moderate the proceedings and nudge everyone to always honor its principles and purposes.

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8 Responses to “5 Tips on How to Run a Writing Group”

  • Chuck Hustmyre

    I’ve just never found writers’ groups to be of any use. It’s really the blind leading the blind. Image if a group of would-be surgeons got together and tried teaching each other the finer points of surgery.

    This would be different, of course, if you had a writing group led by a published author, but then it would be more like a class.

    Another purpose for one would be purely social. Writing is a lonely business, so it is good to hang out with other writers just to keep your sanity.

    Otherwise, save the time reading all that junk and work on your own writing.

  • Dermot McCabe

    Hi Chuck,
    How unfortunate you did not get anything from writing groups you attended. They can be very useful and stimulating. The very best of writers can benefit from a critique of their work from a range of other writers, both experienced and inexperienced.
    Your comments about aspiring surgeons is silly, so silly. Surgeons of all levels of experience do meet together to discuss and exchange information and learn from each other. That is exactly how you do become a surgeon. You never stop learning from your peers.
    And, there is no need to be rude, Chuck, calling, something you don’t agree with, junk. Although you might reply that I was rude using the word silly, but, I only said your comment was silly; you’re probably nice … maybe.

  • peggy

    I am a member of a successful writing group that has met for over 3 years. The original group began over 5 years ago; many changes and drop-ins and drop-outs. Now, we are a core group and I have learned so much.
    Critiquing others’ works in itself is a learning experience. I think having to really dig in and figure out why I like and don’t like someone else’s paragraphs has helped me grow as a writer.
    Plus, the feedback! Family and friends compliment without specifics. Writers let you know what works and what doesn’t. And human nature comes in to play too–did you ever hear, you find the most fault in others when it is a fault you too are guilty of? This is true in writing groups as well—a HUGE eye opener for any writer.

  • chuck Hustmyre

    My point was you will learn little if anything about how to write by taking the advice other amateur writers. You don’t have to feel too badly for me for getting little from writing groups. I’ve been on a few bestseller lists, so I picked it up somewhere. That was just my two cents. So feel free to disregard it.

  • Juliethe Jarhead

    I find that reading other writers’ works helps me see what works and what doesn’t. It also gives me an idea of in what genres other people are writing. In my most recent group, I was the only person writing a period piece.

    And a published author does not guarantee a good writing group. I have been in groups led by a published author, and he was unhelpfully critical at best and rude at times.

    My only issue with writing groups is that people use them as their own personal novel / script analysts. They come for a meeting or two, submit their work for critique, then disappear when it’s their turn to do the critiquing.

    Finally, I’m so glad, chuck, that you are on ‘a few bestsellers lists’. I’m sure it boosts your self-esteem immeasurably.

  • Cory

    Chuck, while I get your point, consider this, does being a published author mean your an expert in the business. If you’re a well-read individual, I’m sure you have read a book or two in your days where you thought, holy sh$%, how did this even get published. If you can be a very self-reflective individual, any criticism, from an amateur or a pro, is useful, because as long as you are learning on bettering your craft, then the group is successful. I am currently in a writing group, and each person in the group has a strength in certain particular areas. It has been very helpful editing and commenting on their pieces just as much as reading their comments on mine. I suggest you find a good group. Read, revise, leave comments, and then have a Skype conference to discuss your writing. Once again, if you can be self-reflective and learn from your mistakes, then a writing group, amateur or not, is VERY worthwhile.

  • Michael Tevlin

    I have been in critique groups both for fiction and for songwriting.

    The fiction group was moderated by two writer/editors who set the rules and charged a fee. The moderators and all students critiqued. This was a fantastic experience, getting the critiques and support of both professionals and peers.

    The songwriting group was a one of peers. But the level of skill, insight and commitment to the group was high. Being in the group most definitely helped my songwriting.

    So it seems either model can work — or not. It all depends on the quality of the moderator(s) and the critiquing skills of the members. The writing skills of the members can matter but don’t guarantee a good group. You can have a great group of writers and a lousy writers group. But I’m not sure if you can have a group of poor writers and a good writers group.

  • Angela Garratt

    Hi,
    I run a writing group and all of my members have been coming consistently every week (unless on holiday, ill, etc.) for the past two years. I believe that writing doesn’t have to be just for the professionals. Anyone can write for any reason they choose. Some of my members write solely for therapeutic reasons and others just want to speak to another writer for support. We do on occasion go on trips together either to a museum, theatre, book launch, poetry event and many other places. This is to gain new insights, skills and inspiration. Over the years we have got to know each others writing pretty well. We enjoy each others company and we are always learning new things from one another.
    It is a shame to think that writers feel they absolutely have to stay in one place, writing, writing, writing. Why not get out there and meet other people that share a common interest? Writing can be very tedious at times. As much as I love the art of literature and creative writing, sometimes, it is good to get away from the computer, give yourself a break and speak to someone who knows what they are talking about, because they are going through exactly the same thing as you are.
    In my writing group, I have people who write for a living and people who are writing their first book. I have people who only write short fiction and/or poetry, people who write for fun, never intending to be published and people who write non-fiction. We may be an eclectic bunch, but we learn all the time from one another and that to any writier is priceless.

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