A writing group can be a great resource for a writer, especially when you’re starting out. Most accomplished writers I know work with a group that reads their work and comments on it with the aim of helping you polish your word-nugget into something you can sell. I’ve belonged to a few writing groups, and they have all been helpful to me in different ways. Based on my experience, here are my thoughts on how to maximize your group’s potential so that everyone gets what they need.
1. Don’t bring in a rough draft. It is no fun reading someone’s crappy writing. Your buddies shouldn’t have to slog through a piece that is barely intelligible even to you. Polish it. Get it to the point where you can’t see anything wrong and then bring it in.
2. Have a page limit. Writing groups that include a wide range of writers with different levels of output will often end up feeling unfair to someone. Maybe not every writer needs to have their work read every time. It really is best if your group tries to keep the amount you read for each other fairly even. You don’t want to be the person who dumps a 200 page manuscript on your group when you’ve only read twelve pages for any of them. If you prefer to have your work read in a big chunk, skip your turn several times so that you have done plenty of reading for the other members. But give them fair warning that a long piece is coming their way.
3. Have serious writers in your group. Any writing group is likely to have some people who are new to professional writing along with a few people who are already published. Your level of accomplishment will become increasingly uneven as time goes on and various members sell their stories or books. If you’re in a group like this, good! That means you’re with serious writers who are trying to build a career. Stick with them.
4. Have tryouts. This goes along with the item above. You don’t want to bring in a new member if no one in your group likes his/her writing. That person doesn’t want to be in a group of people who’d rather read a cereal box than his memoir about stamp collecting. Have everyone in your group read a sample from an applying writer and have an honest discussion about whether you want to admit him/her to your group. This is a kindness both to yourselves and to the applicant, who will be better off with a group of like-minded readers.
5. Agree beforehand what type of commentary everyone is looking for. I have a tough skin. If something I’ve written is crap, I want to know it before I send it to my agent. I’m okay with harsh criticism as long as it doesn’t mask a personal slight. That’s what I’m there for. But some groups don’t work like this. Some groups say only very supportive things, some groups have rules such as, “Say two positives for every one negative.” Some groups don’t discuss the negatives out loud, but give written comments about weaknesses in a manuscript. Decide what you need, have guidelines for participation written down. That wan, if someone isn’t going along with the rules, you have a written list of rules for a reminder.
6. Have some time, either before or after critique, to just hang out and talk. I’ve learned some of the most valuable professional tidbits from writing groups, such as scuttlebutt about an editor or publisher, or ways in which the industry is changing. This time to just relax and talk together is very important to your group, and helps strengthen the bond between members.
If anyone else has anything to add about writing groups, please feel free to do so in the comments section. Now go find some cool writers and get a group started.
Amy Kathleen Ryan’s author website: www.amykathleenryan.com
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