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.