Writing Groups are Awesome
(If you do them right)
Let’s get the introduction out of the way: my name is Dan Wells, and my first published book just launched today from Headline Publishing in the
I have been in a serious writing group for ten years now, dating back to college when I met a guy named Brandon Sanderson in a creative writing class. We were both aspiring novelists and decided to share our stuff, and things snowballed from there; we recruited a few other friends and started meeting every week. The roster has changed over time as people come and go, but that writing group has managed to produce four published authors, with several more very close to selling something, so we’re pretty pleased with the results. We’ve also screwed up several times. It’s taught us a lot about writing, but it’s also managed to teach us a lot about writing groups, and that’s what I’m here to share with you today.
How can a writing group help you?
In many ways, the primary benefit of a regular writing group is the simple incentive to write: you have to submit something new every week (or however often you meet), and if you don’t have anything you’re going to feel pretty self-conscious. There were long stretches in my early writing career when the threat of writing group mockery was the only thing that kept me going every week—I was down and disillusioned and certain that everything I wrote was terrible, but there was no way I was going to show up empty-handed. That weekly incentive to write, compounded year after year, helped establish the daily writing habits that eventually became my full-time job.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the writing group was performing its more traditional function: it was making me a better writer. First I learned from their reactions: simply by looking at what they liked and what they didn’t, I was able to interpret vast reams of data. I learned that certain things I thought were funny weren’t, and I learned that certain emotions or ideas were not getting across the way I intended them. When something confused them I learned that I needed to explain myself better, and when they forgot about characters or plot points I learned that I needed to spread certain references more evenly through my books. After the reaction-level stuff came the more explicit comments: they pointed out my clichés and my point-of-view gaffes; they identified my internal consistency errors and my many plot flow problems. And finally, from an overall, wide-angle view, they helped me recognize the things I did well and the things I needed to work on. I was able to see my writing through the eyes of my audience, ask them questions, and try out new ideas.
Over time I began to realize that reading and commenting on other people’s writing was just as helpful, if not more so, than receiving comments on my own work. It’s very easy to read something and know you don’t like it, but being forced to articulate why you don’t like it turns you into a much more critical thinker, and helps you learn how to identify and fix the same problems in your own writing. Is a scene boring? Why? Maybe it’s because there’s no conflict, or maybe it’s because the conflict is just a repeat of the last scene, or maybe it’s because the conflict wasn’t set up properly; maybe there’s too much dialogue, or maybe there’s not enough. It’s hard to see these kinds of things in your own writing, because you’re so close to it, and practicing on other people’s writing helps train your mind to see it more easily.
Forming your writing group
So now you know that a writing group is a great idea, and you have two main options: join an existing group, or start a new one from scratch. If an existing group is looking for new members, they usually make themselves easy to find: start in local libraries and bookstores and ask around; the clerks/librarians/message boards will probably be able to tell you if any writing groups meet there, and when you can find them. If you’re in college, or live near one, check out the libraries, humanities buildings, and publication centers. If you’re in high school, just talk to your English teacher. You might also choose to cut out the footwork altogether and go straight to the Internet: every state, and most big cities, already have writing leagues and organizations that you can tap into, and they can point you toward writing groups that meet in your area.
Once you’ve found a writing group, give them a good trial period; if you like them, hooray, and if you hate them, you can always leave, but please give them a chance first. Writing groups often appear confrontational, even when they’re not, simply because many people are unaccustomed to having their writing critiqued. Remember that they don’t hate you, and they don’t hate your writing, they’re just didn’t like the story you submitted this week. That’s fine: that’s why you’re there. That said, you may well run into a writing group that doesn’t fit your style or suit your needs, and it’s perfectly fine to leave and look for another one. If the other writers aren’t as serious as you are, or they don’t know what they’re talking about, or they only ever say good things, you probably won’t learn enough from them to make it worth your while. Even then, I’d encourage you to offer suggestions and try to improve the group before bailing out completely.
Forming your own group can be harder, but it does have the great benefit of allowing you to establish your rules and goals and schedule from the ground up. You can find people for your group in a lot of the places we’ve already mentioned: libraries, bookstores, writing classes, and online. A particularly good resource is nanowrimo.com, the website for National Novel Writing Month. Especially during October and November, it’s absolutely brimming with eager writers, and portions of the message board are broken down into state and regional areas, AND each region has a local coordinator whose whole job is getting local writers connected to each other. Attending local conventions and conferences is another great way to meet aspiring authors, with the added benefit of selecting for specific genres. If you’re in college, take writing classes and join the literature magazines—that is, as I mentioned, how I formed my writing group. If you’re not in college, consider taking a community writing class anyway; even if the class is terrible, you can at least meet other writers and head off on your own.
When forming your writing group, we’ve always found it helpful to include a mix of contributing and non-contributing members—people who read and give great feedback, but who don’t actually write their own stuff. These people are a great addition to a writing group because they improve your feedback without adding to the reading load. In my group right now we have five writers and two pure readers (it used to be four and three, but one of the non-writers has finally made the leap and started submitting). It’s also a good idea to include a good range of ages, genders, and genres, to make sure you not only have people who represent your audience, you also have people who can give a fresh outsider perspective. We also have a mix of novelists and short story writers, which is nice.
Writing group structure
There are hundreds of different ways to run your writing group, and my group has tried most of them over the last ten years before finally settling on a system we really like. It’s a great jumping-off point for your own group, and you are of course free to tweak and change things until you get something that works for you.
We meet every week. Any farther apart and you’ll forget one chapter before you read the next; any closer together and you’ll create such a huge time commitment that few people will be able to keep up with it. Our group meets on Tuesday nights at 8, in one of the member’s homes, so it’s easy to remember, plan around, and attend.
A lot of writing groups are also reading groups, where the members will show up, read their stuff out loud, and get immediate feedback. This can be fun, but it’s also very long, and we’ve found that we can get more and better comments when we plan ahead. We ask that everyone email their submission on Thursday, so we have plenty of time to read before the following Tuesday; most of us don’t actually read until Tuesday afternoon, but the early deadline forces us to plan ahead and keeps things smooth. We’ve also restricted submission size to 4000 words each, though most of them hover between 2500 and 3000. It’s a good size without taking forever to read; longer submissions are occasionally allowed, but we’ve found that we don’t get as good of feedback on them simply because there’s so much to cover.
We do each writer’s work in turn, and we try to keep it to 20 minutes. It doesn’t seem like much, but we’ve found that anything longer than that tends to get either unfocused or too nit-picky, and neither situation is very helpful. Start with one submission, give all your comments, then move on to the next.
The Level System
This is the key to the whole process, and it was developed by one of our writers named Janci Patterson. The system works very simply:
First we talk about good things—all the stuff we loved or enjoyed, all the places we laughed or were excited, all the payoffs that really had an impact, and so on. Writing groups have a tendency to focus on mistakes and other bad stuff, but it’s very important for a writer to know which parts work well in addition to which parts don’t. Starting with good things helps get everyone in a good mood, and it assures us that we don’t run out of time talking about bad things before we finally get to the good stuff.
Next we talk about Level Threes: anything we hated so much that we would literally stop reading if not otherwise obligated. There are more of these than you think, especially in first drafts. This is where we find out about major plotting errors, unresolved threads, characters who act too stupidly to believe, and so on. These are often the most important comments, so we do them first.
Next are Level Twos, which is where most of the problems typically lie. This is where we point out consistency errors, confusing descriptions, bad blocking, and so on. If a problem is important, but not enough to make you put the book down, it’s a Level Two.
Finally, if we have time, we have Level Ones: all the little stuff like misspellings and wrong names and weird choices. There are usually a ton of these, especially in a piece that’s pretty polished, and they can often be very annoying even though they’re not very important, so it’s helpful to label them as Level Ones because it lets the author know that they’re not a huge deal. Often in the past we would spend half an hour talking about things that really weren’t all that important.
Breaking things into levels helps us focus our comments most helpfully and spend our time most effectively. It’s a great system.
The Cardinal Rules
When you actually sit down in your writing group and start critiquing each others’ stuff, there are two rules that we consider to be indispensable:
No Prescriptive Comments
As a commenter, your job is to give your reactions to the piece, and to point out mistakes and problems. It is not your job to fix those problems—that’s what the writer’s for. When you provide descriptive feedback and detailed reactions, the writer can take copious notes, analyze them, look at his goals for the piece, and decide the best way to fix things. The writer is the only one capable of doing that. If you start prescribing changes (“you should do it this way instead”), you are getting in the author’s way and, in the worst case, influencing the piece down a direction it really shouldn’t go. The commenters are there to provide information; the writers are the ones who take that information and put it to work.
Writers Shouldn’t Talk
As a writer, your job is to listen to everyone’s comments, to keep notes, and to learn what you can. It is not your job to defend your work—when you try to explain why you did what you did, and how it really works and they’re just not getting it, the entire tone of the writing group changes. People get defensive, others get aggressive, and the feedback devolves into an argument. If you have to convince people that a certain scene or character or decision works, that means it doesn’t work; your writing must be able to stand on its own. Don’t argue with negative feedback, use it to become a better writer. It’s also important to remember that you are under no obligation to actually use any of the feedback you get—take notes, review it, and you may eventually decide that you’re right and they’re wrong. It happens. But do that later, and keep your writing group free from arguments and confrontation.
“The Writing Group Problem”
No matter how wonderful your writing group is, the very nature of the process will tend to lead to a very specific problem. Reading 4000 words a week is a very jumpy, truncated process; you’ll do your best, but you will inevitably forget about certain characters, decisions, and even emotions that surface over the course of a story. Whereas a normal reader might devour your entire book in a couple of days, a writing group might spend a year or more on it, with significant gaps in between each chapter. People will forget about certain things, key payoffs will lose a bit of their impact, and complex stories with multiple plots can appear more muddy than they really are. This is sad, but unfortunately unavoidable if you want the huge benefits of a weekly writing group.
Our solution is simply to keep it in mind—we often preface our comments with “this may just be the writing group problem, but….” We also make sure to give our completed novels to other readers, who can read them full-length; they can’t provide the detailed, scene-by-scene feedback of a writing group, but they are much better at providing large-scale feedback that a writing group will miss.
Writing groups are an incredibly valuable resource for any writer, and are much easier to join, organize, and run than you may think. With a bit of effort you can put together a group that will not only help you become a better writer, but form lasting friendships that will last throughout your career.