6 Ways to Get the Most from Your Writing Group

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There’s no better – or cheaper – way to improve your writing and your motivation than by joining a good writing group. If you’re lucky enough to find a group that fits your personality and writing style, you’ll have a built-in “mastermind group” for moral support, technique and style tips, publishing leads and advice, and, of course, friendship and fun.

But like most things worth doing, getting the most from your writing group will require a bit of work on your part – you’ll get out of it what you put into it. Here are five key actions you can do to ensure your writing group experience totally rocks:

1) Show up.

This may seem painfully obvious, but it’s crucial. As Woody Allen said, “80 percent of success is showing up.” Even if you’re in a group whose members e-mail each other their critiques (a great idea, if everyone’s up for it), you’ll get a lot more from these critiques by asking fellow members in person about their suggestions or why they reacted the way they did. Furthermore, a lot of the most useful comments you’ll get (or make to others) will spring from your in-person discussion of each other’s pieces.Of course, life will occasionally get in the way – illness, work emergencies, and vacations will sometimes take precedence over your literary muse. But if you find yourself missing meetings for months at a time, you may want to consider a group with a more convenient schedule – or rethink why you’re in a group in the first place.

2) Come prepared.

One of the top benefits of writing groups is they can motivate you to keep writing – at every meeting, your fellow group members will expect you to bring something new, and you won’t want to disappoint them. Even if you’ve only written a few pages or have a sinking feeling that your latest piece just doesn’t work, bring it along – your fellow members may be able to provide you with the advice (or difficult questions) you need to break through your doldrums. Equally important is taking the time to read and reflect on your fellow members’ contributions – they will want and expect your feedback, and you may learn some useful tricks from seeing what other writers do. Yes, your own writing will always be first in your heart (okay, maybe I’m evil and selfish and only speaking for myself!), but remember, everyone else worked just as hard on their pieces as you did on yours – so give them the respect and attention they deserve. They’ll love you for it.

3). Give everyone enough time to read your piece!

In most writing groups I’ve been in, everyone e-mailed their stories/chapters/poems to the rest of the group before the meeting. If your group works this way, you’ll get more detailed and thoughtful critiques if you give everyone a couple of days to mull over your work. An occasional piece submitted at, say, 5:15 p.m. for a 6 p.m. meeting is better than nothing at all – but the more time you give your readers, the easier their job with be. This will also ensure that critiques of your work will be something more useful than, “Wait, when did you send that?”

4), Accept your peers as they are.

One of the coolest things about the groups I’ve been in is the diversity of their membership – I’ve been in groups with people from their 20s to their 80s, writers of everything from experimental poetry to commercial travelogues, fresh-out-of-the-gate beginning writers and award-winning auteurs.

If you’re lucky enough to have such a rich range of backgrounds and experience in your group, you’ll no doubt find you won’t always love everyone’s work (and they won’t all love yours, either). This is okay – any writer worth reading will have a distinct voice, and distinct voices aren’t meant to resonate with everyone. But this does mean you have to be careful and diplomatic in your critiques. Respect your peers’ writing for what it is, while focusing on what the author can improve within the confines of his or her genre. Don’t like steampunk and this one guy in your group won’t stop writing about amphibious iron robots? You won’t be able to make those robots go away (or change his setting from Victorian Liverpool to current-day Tampa), but you could still helpfully point out any plot inconsistencies you find.

Similarly, be gentle and diplomatic with beginning writers. Don’t ignore any serious mistakes they may make, but be kind and supportive when pointing them out. (The “compliment sandwich” is a good technique for constructive criticism.) Joining a group can be intimidating for new writers – they take the leap because they want to grow and find a place for support. Think back to how you felt when you were starting your writing journey – and treat your new members the way you wanted to be treated.

And if you are a beginning writer – don’t be intimidated! You’re not being graded – you’re in a group for your own benefit. Don’t compare yourself or your writing journey to that of others in your group, and don’t ever think your questions are dumb or embarrassing. Ask away – after all, everyone else does.

5) Stay on topic.

If you’re lucky, your fellow writers will also become your friends – after all, you’ve spent a lot of time sharing your most personal creations with them. This is a wonderful thing – but it also makes it dangerously tempting to turn your writing group meetings into unstructured social hours. If you find your time together more focused on dumb jokes and cat videos than on writing, it’s time to pull back and focus – after all, one reason you became friends is your common passion for writing. One way to ensure focus is for the moderator to set a time limit for critiquing each piece – this ensures that meetings start and end at fixed times, and ensures plenty of time for socializing before and after the formal critiques.

6) Have fun!

Choose a meeting place that’s comfortable and welcoming. Enjoy the company of like-minded writers, don’t beat yourself up over dumb mistakes, and don’t be afraid to cut loose and laugh. You and your group work hard to move your writing forward – enjoy the journey!

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Follow Felicia Lee:

Lee is the author of the Days of the Dead series. She also writes non-fiction essays (some of which have appeared in the Los Angeles Times and Salon.com and promotional copy for businesses, nonprofits, and public agencies. She earned two degrees in English from Stanford and has a doctorate in linguistics from UCLA. After ten years as a university professor and researcher she returned to her roots as a writer and has never looked back.

4 Responses

  1. Connie Morrison
    | Reply

    Hi Felicia,

    You have shared some good tips. I find I learn the most from my group when I just listen. Sometimes I do have to get in my two cents worth, but I never learned anything from myself.

    Even writers in the same genre can be very diverse in their voice and methods. And as you say, you must write something new for every meeting or everyone is very disappointed even if they try to hide it. What a motivator.

    Connie

    • felicialeewriter
      | Reply

      Connie, you’re so right — listening and watching are some of the best ways to learn and get new ideas. We really do teach each other!

  2. Robin Ingle
    | Reply

    My experience has been that I not only learn things in my writers’ group when the other writers comment on my work, but when the other writers comment on other members’ work as well. And even if all the members are beginners, there’s a lot of learning that goes on just because you are seeing different styles, and you can see what works and what doesn’t with readers. I belong to a multi-genre group (I write historical fiction), and sometimes I pick up things from people who are writing mystery or even fiction targeted to children.

    Thanks for a great post, Felicia. These are all great tips!

  3. felicialeewriter
    | Reply

    Robin, I’ve also had that experience — I’ve learned a lot about how to become a closer reader through listening to other members’ critiques of other people’s works. It’s also fascinating to see the different things that attract everyone’s attention.

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