Monday, January 26, 2015

How to Start a Writing Group

Aside from the creative writing workshops I took in college, I've generally avoided writing groups. My reasons are varied and complicated, but mostly it's because I don't like to share my work with anyone until the rough draft is finished. I find that giving it away too early takes some of the steam out of it for me. I also like to trust my gut without any interference until that first draft is completed.

This past summer, however, taught me that maybe working in a vacuum isn't the best way and that it's time for a fresh approach. When I heard a friend talking about starting up a writing group, I immediately asked if I could join.

Our writing group met for the first time recently and it was great. I think we all felt a little apprehensive at first, maybe a little nervous, even. We started our first meeting by introducing ourselves, giving a brief history of our writing work, and why we wanted to be part of the group.  Then we each read aloud a page or two of a piece we were working on and gave each other positive feedback only for this first time around. We spent the rest of our time lay down the ground rules for how we were going to conduct our meetings. By the time we left I think we were all feeling pretty confident that this was going to be a good experience.

Are you thinking about starting a writing group? If so, the most important step is establishing ground rules before anything else happens. Here are some things to consider:

Keep Your Group Small. Our group is made up of six people and I think this just might be an ideal number.

Pick a Neutral Location. We chose a casual restaurant in a central location. This took the hosting pressure off all of us.

Try to Choose Members with Similar Abilities. After we read our pieces aloud, we all admitted to breathing a sigh of relief that everyone in our group was beyond the "advanced beginner" stage. If your group is made up of writers with vastly different abilities, you're going to find that the writers with more experience will be bored, while the beginners might lose confidence.

Create a Schedule. Our group has chosen to meet once a month. We've divided the group into two sections: Group A and Group B. Group A will turn in work no later than a week before our next meeting in February; Group B will submit work in March, and so forth. Our meetings will be two hours long. The first half hour or so will be for eating, settling in, chatting. We will then devote 30 minutes to discussion of each piece.

Place Word Limits. For now, we have limited each submission to 3,000-5,000 words, to make the process manageable for the readers. This rule will most likely need to be revisited as we go along.

Have a Facilitator. Members of the group that is not submitting work are each assigned a piece to facilitate. For example, since Group A is turning in writing in February, members from Group B have to take turns leading the discussion for one of the pieces. There are many ways to handle group discussion, but the bottom line is that it's important to assign one person to steer the group if they get off topic, to spark discussion if nothing is being said, and to mediate any disagreements that may arise.

What's your problem with the Oxford comma?

Decide on Rules for Providing/Receiving Feedback. This is the most important ground rule of all. Sharing one's writing is an extremely personal, humbling experience. Readers need to be sensitive and tactful. Every discussion should begin with the strengths of the piece. Sometimes it will be hard for readers to find things they like, but it's a great exercise to look for the positive--there will ALWAYS be something you can praise if you look close enough. Criticism should be honest, specific, and delivered with fairness and tact. It should always be framed with the intention of helping the writer. Saying something like, "I thought it was boring" is unhelpful. It's better to say, "The pace was too slow" or "It took to long for the story to get going". This is information the writer can use.

When it comes to receiving criticism, it's often a good idea for the writer not to speak at all during the discussion period unless a reader needs something clarified. This is a very difficult, worthwhile exercise. It forces the writer to really listen, instead of spending his time defending his writing. It's also excellent practice for reading future reviews, when you are forced to face criticism about your work but cannot respond to it. At the end of the discussion period, the writer may be given five minutes to ask questions.  

Be Flexible. Periodically check with writing group members that the ground rules are working. You may find that as time passes, you will need to make adjustments.

Do you have a writing group? What are your tips for running a successful group?

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