Best Practices for Writer’s Groups

Last night was the inaugural meeting of the Central Shoreline Writer’s Group (CSWG), where five of us met in a noisy coffee shop (and decided to find a quiet library for next time), introduced ourselves and our relationships with writing, and gave our first critiques. By the end, I felt like I’d already made a few friends and look forward to building camaraderie with others as passionate about their craft as I am.

Even though it was the first CSWG meeting, it wasn’t my first writer’s group. I had almost given up on the idea of them after being disheartened by unchecked egos and hot tempers and critics who bleed all over others’ pieces, trying to twist everyone’s writing into their own voice. But I still wanted a place where I felt comfortable sharing my work and could find meaningful critique that would elevate my writing, not shake my confidence or make me burn with frustration.

So I created one. And I wrote a “Best Practices” (based on my own experiences, common suggestions around the internet, and suggestions from other group leaders), to avoid the pitfalls that writer’s groups can be notorious for. Since it was only our first meeting, I may come back in the future and add another tip or two but for now, I hope this will help you find success with your own writer’s group. (Updated June, 14th 2019).

Do you have anything you would add? If so, please comment below!

Central Shoreline Writer’s Group Best Practices

by Heather Jacobsen

When to submit

New members must go to at least one meeting before they can submit their own work.

Submit no earlier than two weeks ahead of the next meeting, so readers won’t forget what they’ve read by the time the meeting happens. And submit no later than one week before the meeting so everyone has a chance to read it thoroughly in time.

How to submit

Submit a clean copy, as you would to an editor or publisher—double-spaced and in readable, reasonable-sized font. Maximum 5000 words.

Focus on the content, not the grammar or style.

Don’t count the adverbs, and don’t point out the sentences that start with “And.” Likewise, don’t tell a writer their style is too simple, they need more adjectives.  There are all kinds of writing styles out there. Some write in the ornate, flowery “baroque” style consisting of subordinate clauses and modifiers and perhaps even detailed lists, which may defy many of the grammar rules we learned about in grade school English but can take the reader through a whole experience in just one sentence. Some people write in plainsong, yet their writing is far from plain. Some people write one-word sentences. Or two.  If you do you catch a glaring grammar error it’s probably ok to point it out, but in general, look at a piece as a reader/writer, rather than a copy editor—two completely different mindsets. Try to ascertain the writer’s style as you read for content, not play grammar police.

Exceptions: if the writer specifically asks for help in teasing out their writing style; if something really isn’t clear in the way it was expressed; or if the writing style doesn’t match the genre.

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Be honest but kind.

Begin with the positive. Say what you liked about the piece before you point out the flaws. Then end with something positive.

But don’t be so nice, that you aren’t honest, or else you’re wasting the writer’s time (and yours). Couch any flaws you spotted in polite terms, being sensitive to the writer’s ego (and we all have one—you’re kidding yourself if you don’t think you do). Don’t forget that you will soon have your turn in the ego-checking hot seat, so be mindful of your karma. “That dialogue was crap” doesn’t help anyone. “The dialogue could use a little paring down” is better.

You should critique the writing, not the writer. “Instead of “you’re seriously terrible at scene setting,” say “I would love to see more details in the scene…” then perhaps lead with some questions—was it a dark and stormy night or a bright and sunny day? And it’s always good to turn the criticism back to you: “I didn’t understand this,” “this part didn’t work for me.” Because even though you are awesome, there is still the possibility that the problem was in your reading of the piece—not necessarily the writing.

Also, be as specific as possible. What about the dialogue was troubling? It didn’t match the character that said it? The writer wants to know things like the twist in the plot didn’t seem realistic; the blonde protagonist was suddenly a brunette two pages later; or there were too many things left unsaid at the end of a piece. Use specifics when pointing out the parts you did like about the piece, too. “I loved the phrasing of this passage here.” “I like the way the scenery here sets the tone for what’s about to happen next.” Point them out.

For more specifics on what to look for when critiquing please see the following helpful links:

Critiquing Memoir

https://www.thomaslarson.com/writing-workshops/236-critiquing-memoir.html

Critiquing a Novel

https://www.critiquemymanuscript.com/checklist-for-critiquing-a-novel/

Critiquing Non-Fiction

http://www.ahml.info/attend/nonfiction-critique-guidelines

Critiquing Short Story

How to critique a short story

Offer solutions, but don’t be pushy

If you spot a flaw and have an idea on how to fix it, by all means share it. But since you are not the original writer of the piece, your solution may not work with their voice or their intent, no matter how brilliant you are. Let your solution be an example to inspire the writer rather than an imperative. 

Likewise, don’t try to make the writer’s voice sound like your own. That goes back to #3. Don’t try to edit their style to match yours. If the writing needs tightening or stylistic attention, remind the writer of Strunk & White or Stephen King’s On Writing (or others) and encourage them to read more in the genre they write in. But only if you’re sure it’s their style that needs work.

When it’s your turn to be critiqued, be a good sport and don’t lose heart.

Start by being sure to submit your work only when you’re ready. The group isn’t here to do your project for you, but to give you feedback on the work you’ve put in so far. There will be less to pick apart if you’re satisfied with your work before you turn it in.

Then, assume your piece isn’t perfect. What do you need the writer’s group for, if it is? Even the best writers have gone through revision after revision until their piece works, so see this is an opportunity to improve upon your work, rather than an evaluation on whether or not you are worthy of calling yourself a writer.

As hard as it may be, don’t take anyone’s comments personally. Don’t interrupt the person providing your critique. Try to keep your emotions at bay and don’t get defensive or try to argue. Remember, it is your work, not you that is being critiqued. A few deep breaths can help you separate you from your work.

Once all the critiques have been given, you can ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask for more specifics from your reviewers, especially if they are being vague.

Focus on what comments have been helpful and forget the rest. Don’t take everything your critique group says as gospel.  These are only the opinions of other writers who are also looking to write (and critique) better. It’s possible the next person giving your critique could have the completely opposite opinion. It also possible to receive a bad or incorrect critique from someone not following best practices (but we hope not—that’s why this document was written).

Of course, if the same issue keeps popping up, it might be worth taking note of. In the end, it’s still your work. You are free to agree or disagree (preferably in the privacy of your own home). If you still feel sensitive about some of the commentary, give it a few days. The sting of criticism will wear off, and you may just see that some of these comments were truly helpful.

No matter what don’t give up. Remember how even J.K Rowling and Stephen King were rejected over and over before they met with success. If you don’t lose heart and keep at it, you, too will meet with success.

Enlist a Moderator

It might be a good idea to enlist a moderator, someone whose work is not being critiqued that day. The moderator can help keep discussion on track, so everyone has a chance to get their work critiqued in the two hours that we have to meet. The moderator can also keep tempers from flaring if people tend to bristle at being critiqued or get argumentative. But hopefully it won’t come to that. 🙂

Probation and Membership Termination

New members will have a probationary period of three meetings before they are officially recognized as a new member. This gives established members a chance to review more work, as well as see how the member interacts with others. Even after the probationary period has ended, the group as a whole holds the right to terminate another member at any time if consensus has arrived that that member is problematic.