Jo Knowles
Making the Most of Your Writing Group

Writing groups are a terrific source for aspiring and experienced writers. In my writing life, I’ve been a member of five writing groups. Each one has worked a little differently, and each one has offered something unique. Here's what I think a helpful writer’s group can offer an aspiring writer, and what an aspiring writer can give in return.

It's all about structure.
I can't stress enough how important I think a solid structure is to a successful group. Have a plan and stick to it! Here is a structure I particularly like:

1. Arrival
This involves hugs (depending on how close you are), “How are you?’s,” etc., and is a very important start to your meeting. But you do need to have a start time. If your meetings are supposed to run from 7-9 then make sure that by 7:10 you have said your hellos and are ready to start.

2. Check-in (approx. 15 minutes)
This is your friendly wallflower speaking: Check-ins give voice to every member in your group. This is very important. Start at one end of the circle and take turns speaking. (On circles: Whether you all sit at a table or in a comfortable room with chairs, arrange your group in a circle. This allows all of you to see each other, and gives you all equal positioning. I know it sounds funny, but it really does matter.). 

Each person should be allowed a few minutes (but no more than 5, ideally) to share what’s up: good news, bad news, publishing news, conference notes, upcoming events others might be interested in, etc. Try to keep the focus on your writing lives. Allow the person to speak without interruptions. Note: this is also a good chance for people to ask questions, share frustrations, etc., but try to stay on track.

In my last group, we also signed up to read during check in. Knowing how many of you plan to read before you start lets you know how to divide the remaining time fairly so everybody gets an equal amount of response time.

3. Reading
Here is where the tough part comes. I’ve participated in writing groups in which we’ve submitted work ahead of time and come prepared with notes. I’ve also participated in groups where we were allowed to read up to 10 pages that night, with no copies for members to read along. The best experience I’ve had by far is bringing 5-8 pages (or one chapter) to the group, with enough copies for people to read along and jot notes as the writer reads aloud. I’m sure submitting ahead of time works for some groups, but in my experience more often than not people have come unprepared and that just makes everyone frustrated. By reading “on the spot” no one has to do homework, and everyone can participate (see next).

4. Responding
I say responding because I think this is much more helpful to the writer than “critiquing.” After a person reads, let the responders take a minute or two of quiet time to gather thoughts and take notes. This can be torture for the writer waiting to hear what people thought, but I think it’s worth it to let people take a minute to, well, think.

Next, have the responders take turns going around the circle and giving their response. When one person is speaking, it is that person’s turn. Do not allow interruptions! Once others start talking or weighing in or disagreeing with the person whose turn it is, I really believe you are in trouble. Time gets wasted, the writer gets forgotten, and the discussion/argument becomes about the responders and not the work. If you have to, you can even resort to a talking stick, though this has never been necessary in my experience. I think what it all comes down to is respect for one another. Let each person have his or her say. You can give your opinion when it’s your turn to speak. But remember, your job as responder is to help the writer, not prove your point. 

Speaking of helping, I suggest that no matter how you feel about a piece of writing, start and end with something positive. Try to make note of certain lines you loved, or anything that moved you. Focus on what works! Then, ease into your response and the suggestions you have. When you're wrapping up, be sure to say something encouraging. There is nothing worse than coming to a writing group feeling very excited about what you have to share and getting only suggestions for changes and nothing that resembles hope. I think hearing what works is a lot more helpful than hearing what doesn't, especially in the early stages.

5. Listening
As the writer receiving suggestions, LISTEN. This means do not talk while people are responding to your work. Don't interrupt. Don’t argue. Don’t explain or try to justify. Just LISTEN. If you are talking, you are not hearing. And you are using up your allotted time saying things you already know. That’s simply not going to help you. Instead: listen, take notes, gather. After you've heard everyone's comments, ask questions if you need clarification, but that's it. Trust yourself!

If someone says something you disagree with, let it go. Jot it down, and then later, when you are revising, simply disregard it. Or better yet, give it some thought. Maybe after a bit of time the comment will make sense after all. YOU know your story best. But your writing group partners are there to tell you what their initial responses are. Will an editor or agent’s response be any different? Think about it.

6. Celebrate!
The writing life is hard. Celebrate each and every milestone! Did someone submit a manuscript for the first time? Celebrate! Did someone get an encouraging rejection? Celebrate! Did someone win a contest or get a grant? Celebrate! One group I was in always had a bottle of champagne if someone sold a book. Another shared a bottle of champagne for big celebrations, too. It’s fun, and it makes the person being toasted feel special.

Writing groups, in my experience, are a lot like support groups. My closest friends have come from the writing groups I’ve been in. The writing life can be a lonely one. Use your writing group not only to improve your writing, and to help other writers improve their writing, but to HAVE FUN being with people who share your passion for literature, and your love of writing.

If you have a question about organizing a writing group, feel free to send me a message! Good luck and happy writing!

© Jo Knowles


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