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What Makes Writing Groups Work: Online Exclusive

Categories: Writer’s Digest Magazine July/August 2014 Online Exclusives Tags: critique group, writing group.

WD0814Writing often is a solitary endeavor, one that easily can lead to loneliness. You can spend hours alone at your desk, staring at your computer screen or a blank page, without encountering another human being (and no, tweets and Facebook messages don’t count). While some writers thrive in solitude, others crave the interaction with other writers—members of their own clan who will encourage them, inspire them and support them when the writing road gets rough.

If you’re seeking the companionship of fellow scribes, you needn’t look farther than your own neighborhood or city. Writing groups abound in nearly every town, and if your own neck of the woods doesn’t currently offer one, consider forming one of your own. In this online exclusive, seven groups from around the U.S. share their top tips for making their small community work. Their candid answers illuminate the best formats, possible pitfalls and lessons learned, gleaned from years of cultivating an intimate writing community. Use their advice to seek out the best writing group for you—or create a list of “must-haves” for your own group.

And for even more advice on joining, forming and maintaining a successful writing group, check out our feature in the July/August 2014 issue of Writer’s Digest!

The Atlanta Writers' CollectiveAtlanta Writers’ Collective

We’re intensely focused, motivated writers who understand the importance of constructive criticism and honesty, and consider the knowledge we gain from hearing critiques of other members’ work just as educational as hearing critiques of our own work. With the help of four large frisky dogs, delicious food and a bottomless coffee pot, we keep our small but mighty pack enthusiastically circling back month after month as we nip at each other’s paws, propelling our members forward. The writing skills we learn from each other due to the eclectic cross-genre perspectives and diverse styles of the members is invaluable, an experience that can’t be taught by any conventional research or study methods.

WRITING FROM: Snellville, Ga.

SIZE: We have nine carefully-chosen members, many of whom have been members for years. (Front row, left to right: Kristine Ward, Natalie Watts, Kerry Denney, Ken Schmanski; back row, left to right: Lorraine Norwood, Lynda Fitzgerald, Glenn Emery, Richard Bowman, Mike Brown)

FORMAT: We critique two writers’ entries each month, 20 to 25 pages apiece, submitted one to two weeks in advance. At the meetings, each member has five to seven minutes to give a verbal critique, and each supplies a written critique. Writers being critiqued remain silent during the critiques, then spend 10 to 15 minutes responding by discussing their material with the group after all critiques are finished. Our group consistently tries to be supportive and encouraging while providing honest, discerning feedback, complimenting the writer on parts that work and sharing ideas about how to fix the parts that do not. Each writer is encouraged to critique using their own unique perspective and skills, with an optional standard critique form supplied.

MEET UP: We meet on the first Saturday of each month for two to three hours in a comfortable setting at a member’s home. We spend a casual 20 to 30 minutes prior to the meeting having coffee and snacks, and freely discussing whatever we choose, then we spend 15 minutes sharing any helpful writing tips, links or books we’ve encountered the past month before beginning. This social time has brought us closer together as a group.

BETWEEN MEETINGS: We write, write, write! All members are encouraged to discuss and share works further at their leisure, and we stay in contact through a Yahoo Groups site, sharing articles, ideas, successes, goals, dreams, anecdotes and books (informative books on writing and/or entertaining stories and novels), along with a liberal dose of good humor, which plays a vital role in our correspondence.

LESSONS LEARNED: To be successful writers, we must work to improve our knowledge and skills in both the craft and business of writing. By meeting regularly with people we trust who attend every meeting with enthusiasm, positive energy and a supportive attitude, we all learn how to improve our writing craft, how to accept constructive criticism as a helpful tool instead of a creativity barrier, and how to incorporate all facets of the standard policies and procedures in the literary industry into our endeavors. We’ve all learned to check our egos at the door. If one person says something doesn’t work, we listen, but if three or more make the same observation, we seriously consider making the suggested revision.

TIPS: Invite prospective new members to attend a critique meeting before they’re accepted into the group. Request a writing sample to determine their level of expertise. This doesn’t determine whether they’re invited to join the group, but rather helps the group establish if and how we can help them.

 

The Bearlodge WritersThe Bearlodge Writers

The Bearlodge Writers (BLW) group has been active since 1979. BLW is open to any writer, new or experienced, seeking a welcoming, safe place to present work for praise and for constructive, sensitive critique. The group works with writers from first draft to last revision prior to publication. While BLW’s main mission is to offer assistance and support to one another, it has also sponsored writers’ residencies and scholarships and participated in writers conferences.

WRITING FROM: Sundance, Wyo.

SIZE: Currently, we have 20 members on our active email list. Members have ranged in age from 15 to 82.

FORMAT: BLW’s format is simple and effective. We sit around a large table located in a conference room at a very supportive local library, read the work, and garner both praise and critique from the other writers present at the table. At one time, we did not bring copies of the work to pass around, but simply read the work while listeners made notes. Now, writers bring copies of the material to pass around the table. The writer reads while listeners write notes on the pages or suggest comments, and marks any corrections. Sometimes, a writer will ask another writer to read the material. After critique, all copies are signed and returned to the writer. It cannot be stressed enough that we value kindness and respect for each writer’s work above criticism.

MEET UP: BLW gathers at the Sundance Library on the first Tuesday of every month, at 11:00 a.m., and on the third Tuesday at 5:00 p.m. One member travels more than 150 miles, round trip, for meetings. Others come from neighboring South Dakota, a round-trip drive of about 60 miles. Those arriving first start the coffee and set out snacks—including lots of chocolate. Before the reading and critique session, BLW spends about 30 minutes discussing any business, sharing information about writing successes and publishing opportunities, and answering general questions. Those present needn’t have a piece of writing on a given day. Those who have brought work to be critiqued draw from a bag of dominoes that is passed around the table. Work is read in order from the smallest domino number to the largest. Each writer brings a unique and valued skill set to the table. We have writers who envision the story arc, ferret out the thread of the writer’s intent and give advice on overall structure. Others are “grammar police,” able to determine proper word usage and phrasing. Members often comment about how the piece affects them emotionally and/or intellectually.

SUPPORTING EACH OTHER: Most importantly, it is about respect for the writer and the work. We are earnest about sharing a deep level of trust. What is read or said at BLW stays at the table until such time as the author chooses to share it. We offer consistent and sincere encouragement. As one member recently stated, “Bearlodge Writers is a safe place to be vulnerable.”

LESSONS LEARNED: Our individual successes help perpetuate and encourage the success of everyone in the group. The consistency of the format offers stability, and although members have come and gone—we recently lost one irreplaceable and beloved founding member—the heart and the purpose of the group remains the same: To encourage, respect and nurture writers, honor their processes, and celebrate their victories, whether that victory involves finishing a first draft or achieving publication. Welcoming new members keeps the group vibrant, while long-time members offer an historical and experienced perspective.

 

DFWWWDallas/Fort Worth Writers’ Workshop (DFWWW)

We help and encourage North Texas writers of all genres and experience levels to produce professional-quality writing suitable for publication. We do this by providing read and critique sessions, educational activities, networking opportunities and a welcoming, inclusive atmosphere.

WRITING FROM: Euless, Texas

SIZE: 164 members (as of the February 5, 2014 monthly business meeting)

FORMAT: We are a read-and-critique group. That means instead of submitting material for critique prior to the meeting, our members read their writing aloud. This process benefits the writer and the critiquer because both learn to listen for inconsistencies, word echoes, pacing problems, etc.

We have used this format for 30-plus years (the group was established in 1977). DFWWW authors have produced over 300 traditionally published books. We don’t alter the format. It works.

We begin promptly at 7 p.m. and hold a general meeting for 10-15 minutes. We ask any visitors to stand and introduce themselves (we average one to two visitors a week). We ask any new members to stand and reintroduce themselves.

Then, we break into three or four smaller Read Rooms where writers read their work aloud. We are a multi-genre group and do not segregate by genre. This is an advantage because it exposes our membership to other forms of writing that they may not typically read. It’s not unusual for a memoir, YA, thriller, science fiction, a poem, and a nonfiction magazine article to be read in the same room.

Each writer is allowed up to 15 minutes to read, and then receives up to five minutes of round-robin critique. Each reader gets no more than 20 minutes. We average six to seven readers per room and about 20 to 28 reads per week. To stay on track, each room has a monitor. We have the process down to an art.

SUPPORTING EACH OTHER: At the beginning of each weekly meeting, members announce any rejections, submissions or acceptances that occurred since we last met. The group applauds for all of them. It often surprises visitors that we clap for rejections. Our philosophy is “Rejection should be celebrated because it’s part of the submission process. You can’t sell if you don’t submit.”

LESSONS LEARNED: Despite DFWWW’s long and successful history, time has shown that we cannot rest on our laurels. Just as the publishing industry has changed, so have we. More of our members now choose to self-publish versus pursuing the traditional route. At the same time, the number of our members who have sold to traditional publishing houses has also grown.

TIPS: We have a written set of bylaws that govern how the group operates. These include checks and balances that regulate how we function to avoid any confusion.

We recognize our style of read-and-critique does not work for everyone. We encourage potential new members to visit once or twice before they join (membership dues are $100 annually). Because only paid members are allowed to read or to give a critique, we also offer a 30-day trial membership ($25) for anyone who wants to sample the full experience.

We remain focused on our primary goal: writing. We do not allow other distractions to interfere with our stated purpose: “to produce professional quality writing suitable for publication.”

 

Prose GroupProse Group

We are a group of men and women who are all interested in words. Some of us are published authors (both self and traditional); others want simply to learn how to write better. Some write fiction; many write creative nonfiction. We congratulate each other on successes and sympathize over rejections.

WRITING FROM: Fearrington Village, Pittsboro, N.C.

SIZE: Eight members (From left to right: Carlton Lee, Laura Jensen, Dick Merwarth and Ronnie Lynton [seated], Caroline Taylor, and Les Ewen; not pictured: Calista Moon and Paul Stiller)

FORMAT: We have had the same format and the same coordinator for the entirety of our existence. Our format is to agree on a topic or theme (and sometimes genre) for the next meeting. Members are always free to submit something they’re already working on. A format that hasn’t worked well for us is to write for publication in a specific journal or magazine.

We made a decision to keep the group small. Our size gives each member time to ask questions, provide feedback and make suggestions. We meet for two hours and normally fill every second with conversation. We have always tried to keep our critiques positive and encouraging.

MEET UP: Submissions are circulated in advance by email. At our monthly meetings each member reads a paragraph from his or her submission, and others critique the work for its strengths and weaknesses. Discussions occur about what approaches or techniques the writer might consider using to strengthen the piece.

SUPPORTING EACH OTHER: This group has been meeting for nearly seven years with more or less the same members, many of whom have taken input from the group to get stories or novels published. Last year we had a very successful open-to-the-public “writers read” at McIntyre’s Books, a local independent bookstore.

TIPS: Focus discussions on the actual writing, not the subject matter. During our meetings we stress the need for limiting discussions to the writing. Submitted pieces should include not only the name of the author but should identify the work as either fiction or nonfiction.

 

Road Warriors

Road Warriors

We are a rambunctious mishmash of women that talk loud, fight passionately about word choices and always order dessert. We have members in their 20s , 30s, 40s and 50s, and we write scripts, novels, steampunk and nonfiction (and a few more genres.)

WRITING FROM: Los Angeles, Calif.

SIZE: 5 members.

FORMAT: We go over everyone’s work one at a time and share notes one at a time, too. We do discuss things as a group, but we also make sure everyone gets a turn to talk. This has been crucial and extremely helpful in terms of getting comprehensive notes and not pissing anyone off.

MEET UP: We meet once a month and go over any pages group members have sent. We all send pages a minimum of two days before we meet so we all have enough time to read each other’s work. We order drinks and food, and dive into discussing each other’s work. If a person is particularly stressed or has a big project, we’ll go over their pages first. It’s a loosely structured format, but we are very mindful of respecting each other’s work and making sure everyone has a chance to share their notes. We also believe in ordering dessert and drinks, because chocolate and alcohol make it much easier to hear that you need to rework Act 2 of your screenplay or that your main love interest is bland.

BETWEEN MEETINGS: At the end of each meeting we set the date for our next one and each state our goals for what we want to accomplish in the interim. We also email each other questions if we want some feedback before we meet again.

SUPPORTING EACH OTHER: Month after month we show up ready to hear each other’s worries and breakthroughs, and to dedicate time and energy to reading and thinking about each other’s work. This is huge. It’s amazing to have a group of women we can send drafts to and get back comprehensive, thoughtful notes. It’s also amazing to have a group of writers to complain about writers block, carpal tunnel, and how you can momentarily go insane trying to find the right sentence to end a chapter with. It is beyond encouraging to hear about other’s struggles and have them support you in yours. It creates a community you can check in with, who will talk you down from giving up on your projects because they’ve all been there before and believe in you. Never underestimate the power of commiserating and being encouraged by other people sharing the highs and lows of the writing life.

LESSONS LEARNED: That all first drafts are shitty; we have writers who are both newbies and professionals, and all of our drafts need work. Notes from a diverse group of people are insanely beneficial. We all specialize in such varying genres and mediums, and it makes our work better.

TIPS: Pick quiet restaurants to meet in with good food. Handle any conflicts or problems head on. Always say what you liked about someone’s writing first. If you follow those three rules you’re pretty much guaranteed to have a good time. It’s also important to spend some time just having fun at each meeting. This bonds you and lets you get to know each other, which can make your notes more meaningful and insightful.

 

Trail Mix PublishingTrail Mix Publishing

We are unique in that we have KidLit authors and illustrators from all genres: picture books, middle-grade and young adult. We each bring different skills and background, yet we share a burning passion for children’s literature.

WRITING FROM: Atlanta, Ga.

SIZE: Seven members: Colleen Bennett, Kim MacPherson, Shannon Martin Marrs, Shanda McCloskey, Tosha Sumner, Christi Whitney, and Aaron Yacher.

MEET UP: Our goal is to meet once a month. Sometimes it’s difficult to arrange the meeting due to our busy schedules, but it’s always worth the effort.

We’ve all become good friends, and so after catching up on each other’s lives, we go around the table reading our work aloud and offering suggestions and comments. The illustrators in the group also share their newest pieces during this time.

BETWEEN MEETINGS: We write, and/or draw, and keep the lines of communication open via Facebook and email. At almost any given time, you can find at least two or three of us exchanging works-in-progress, bouncing around ideas, getting advice and lending a supportive ear.

SUPPORTING EACH OTHER: Most importantly, we listen to each other. Whether it be cheering on a full request, a contest win or a rant about a rejection or critique, we listen and empathize or sympathize. We have a private Facebook group page where we share relevant information regarding publishing, agents, editors, tips, news and where we organize our meetings. We bounce ideas off each other and read and comment on each others’ blogs. We also attend SCBWI conferences together, including travel and hotel.

LESSONS LEARNED: Traditional publishing is a hard business to break into. It takes a supportive village to get you through the ups and downs along the journey to publishing.

TIPS: Our group ultimately found each other through SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) which is a great starting point in finding people who are serious about their craft.

 

Two-Thirties

Two-Thirties

We call ourselves the Two-Thirties, which approximates the sum of our ages and the time of day we meet. We are a band of committed women writers between the ages of 50 and 80. We write in multiple genres:  fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and screenplays. We love the power and beauty of language. We each have two books either published or forthcoming from various publishers including Knopf, Random House, Story Line Press, and WordTech Communications. We keep writing even though we have all suffered through rejection, frustration and exhaustion. Although Tami is the current poet laureate of Montana and we’re all published, we know that we are in it for the love of the written word, not for glamor or fame. (Of course, we’d happily embrace a little fame if it happened along.)

WRITING FROM: Billings, Mont.

SIZE: There are four of us: Cara Chamberlain, Tami Haaland, Danell Jones and Virginia Tranel.

FORMAT: We send our work to one another via email before our meetings, so we have time to read before we meet. We typically limited ourselves to 20 pages of work per person, but if one of us has a completed manuscript, we’ll read the entire thing so we can talk about pacing, organization, plot and character development, etc. We began with this format, and it worked well, so we have stuck with it.

SUPPORTING EACH OTHER: The most important thing we do is offer close and careful readings of each other’s work. We are the first audience for projects big and small. Because we meet often, we also encourage each other to keep the work coming. Our group provides a safe and understanding place to vent about our rejections and frustrations, and to celebrate our successes. It is extremely valuable to get support from writers who know what a long haul it can be between successes.

LESSONS LEARNED: Critiquing a finished piece and critiquing a work-in-progress are two different things. A finished piece needs detailed feedback. A work-in-progress needs some feedback, but also lots of encouragement as the writer works through her process. We also allow ourselves to disagree: We don’t feel pressed to come to any definitive answer about how a piece should develop. We always allow the writer to make the final decision about what needs to happen with her work.

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One Response to What Makes Writing Groups Work: Online Exclusive

  1. Kerr Berr says:

    Woo-hoo for the Atlanta Writers’ Collective, and congratulations to the other finalist groups! Great publicity for us all. Thanks to Writer’s Digest for sponsoring the contest.
    Kerry Alan Denney
    author of SOULSNATCHER

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