Guidelines for a writers group’s success

I’ve been a member of writers groups for about fifteen years. The first was online and I learned a lot from strangers who read my first stories. I made so many mistakes back then, from mixing tenses to changing point-of-view mid-story. It took the patience and kindness of more experienced writers to get me to the place I am today: an author, freelance writer, editor, and leader.

As with learning to write well, I also had to learn to be the type of facilitator a writers group can depend on. I now host two groups, both branches of Safety Harbor Writers & Poets. The first one meets in my home. There are 11 of us and we barely fit around my kitchen table. I had to halt new members because there is always a point when a group gets too big, too distracted.

The second group met every month at the Safety Harbor Library. While that group was just as amazing as the original, we decided to move it to the Safety Harbor Art & Music Center so we’d have more flexibility with our schedule.

A writers group is the best tool any hopeful or experienced writer can give to himself/herself. But to get the most out of it, no matter your level of knowledge or expertise, every writer or poet should pay attention to how you accept or give feedback to others. A writers group should be taken seriously. It’s not a club or a social event. It’s you becoming better than you are now.

As a reader:
Don’t spend more than twenty seconds introducing your poem or story. It’s okay to say “I need help with dialogue,” or “I wonder if the pacing is too slow.” But don’t tell us what inspired you or why you wrote it unless it is a quick, to-the-point sentence. Sometimes there is an exception to the rule, but usually the piece will and should stand on its own merit.

Be polite about the time. While your piece may be the best one read that evening, others are there for the same reason you are: to improve through critique. Please be considerate of your allotted time. Please read no more than 2000 words. We will ask you to focus on one project at each meeting. Even though poems are usually shorter than a story, it may still take a while to dig into its meaning and the way it is presented. I promise it will be given at least as much attention as the longer pieces.

Provide copies of what you read. We won’t always know how many will attend each month, but plan to bring about 5 copies of what you’d like to read. The group can share, or choose to just listen, but seeing the text in front of them and being able to mark it, will help you long after the group finishes that evening. You’ll see written comments, corrected spelling and punctuation, things we won’t critique in conversation.

Breathe and listen during critique. While you may feel the urge to defend your writing, those who are expressing their opinions on how to improve your poem or prose piece are giving you the gift of feedback. Even if you disagree, you should listen to what those around you are offering. This is difficult for many, but if taken to heart, your writing will improve after the very first time you are given feedback. Instead of defending your work, try saying “Thank you for the feedback.”

As a listener:
Give the reader your full attention. You may not enjoy the genre the reader is presenting, but you can offer opinions as a writer. How does the prose flow? Does it slow down or become too fast at any point? Does the dialogue sound like a real conversation? Does the point of view change, or should it? How about the characters? Are they too similar? Underdeveloped? In poetry, does every word count? Does it create a specific feeling for the reader?

Find at least two positive points about the piece. Start your feedback with a positive. “I like the concept of this story.” “I love how you used alliteration to portray the sounds when describing the setting.” Whatever positives you find in the piece should be expressed. The writer learns from what she or he does well. Please don’t ever say “I enjoyed this. It’s good.” Those comments are vague and unproductive.

If you disagree with content, try not offering feedback or at least only commenting on the structure or craft. If someone brings something truly offensive, I promise to handle the situation. Let’s be polite about differing views regarding politics and religion, though. Writers are all unique, with differing voices, and that’s how it should be! Right?

Please do not rewrite the works presented. If you could write it better, keep that to yourself. Instead, try offering ways the writer may be able to improve his or her piece: “This section is confusing. I think you should consider rewriting the second and third lines and clarifying the journey and where they were going.” “There are too many adverbs throughout. Try replacing the adverbs and find stronger verbs instead.”

It is OK to ask for clarification. But please wait until the reviews are finished.

What do you think? Are there other ways in which a writers group can be effective? I’d love to hear from you on your own writers group successes. Please comment and share your thoughts.

1 thought on “Guidelines for a writers group’s success”

  1. I agree with you about offering the positive, specific comments first. I think it’s so important to share with fellow writers what they are doing that is successful, interesting, captivating to you as a reader. That’s how we know what to do more of, before we get to what we should change.
    Another effective strategy for commenting, especially if you are a bit uncertain as to what to tell the writer, is to point out where you (the reader) would like to know more – more background, more dialogue, more description, more anything.

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