by Patrick Ryan
A writings’ group can be a wonderful thing. It can also be a disaster – not just a waste of time, but damaging to your writing process. So here are some tips for how to make your group work best for you. First and foremost: keep it small! Four is great number. And since all of your writer friends are going to want to be in your group, decide from the start that you won’t grow in size (they can form their own group). Make sure each one of you is 1) serious about writing, 2) not a hothead, 3) not a pouter, 4) looking for ways to make your writing better. You aren’t there to impress; you’re there to get help. Once you’ve formed the group, try following this structure:
Meet, say, once a month. Everyone puts up a story or chapter ahead of time via email (set a limit of around 20 pages each) so that, when you meet, you’ve all read one another’s work ahead of time and have prepared some notes. Appoint one member to “lead” the workshop for the night – by which I mean, pick someone who will make sure the structure is followed. When your submission is up for discussion, shut your yap and just listen. I mean this literally: you are not allowed to talk (at first); you’re there to listen. Each member, one after the other, says a general positive thing and a general constructive criticism. After that, they discuss amongst themselves large things, small things, nit-picky things, stuff they like and stuff that confused them. They talk about ways in which you might improve your work. All the while, YOU JUST SIT THERE, LISTEN, AND TAKE NOTES. This might be difficult, at first, but it’s crucial. If you try to talk, the leader gets to shush you (we do this in my group, and it’s very useful and often funny).
Once the other three members have said what they have to say, the leader then turns to you and asks if you have any questions for the group. Here’s where you get to pick their brains about anything brought up, and about anything they didn’t mention that you’re curious about. (“Did the ending make sense?” “Did you believe it when Sally threw the orange at her stepbrother?” “What if I switched the point of view to first person, and made the narrator a cocker spaniel?”). Try not to get defensive about what you’ve written, and try not to spend a lot of time explaining what you were trying to do. If none of them got it, chances are it isn’t working.
Finally (and this might sound a little goofy), the leader asks you to tell the group what you heard. This is basically a summary of their discussion, so you have to tell them what they said they liked, what they said they didn’t like, what confused them, etc. I think it’s crucial to do this, because most of us have a tendency to hear only the negative, but having to regurgitate the discussion back to the group helps you take in the praise along with the criticism. (And don’t forget: constructive criticism is a good thing.)
In short, the group slowly works its way into a conversation that involves both the writer and the three people giving feedback. Spend about 20 – 25 minutes on each submission. Trust the group, trust the structure. Trust me! I’ve been in a writers’ group like this for a long time, and it’s been a tremendous help!