I’ve been coordinator for writing groups in my area for about a decade. I volunteered for this because when I move to a new area, there’s never an easy way to find a writing group. The first time I wanted one, I enrolled in a community college creative writing class. It was basically a glorified writing group, with about 14 students who took the class over and over again. I asked a few class members if they’d like to form a group and that was my first. The next place I lived, I wrote to a creative writing teacher and she recommended two students I might write to. It was a great group. But I wasn’t destined to live there long.
California has regional writers clubs, a concept that started with informal gatherings of author Jack London and others in the San Francisco Bay Area. Formally established as a club in 1909, it now has 22 branches around the state. The club in my area is very active, holding a monthly meeting, book launches, workshops, an annual conference and so on. I post in the monthly newsletter letting writers know they can get on my list to find other writers wanting to form or join a group.
Writers group meetings can take place in a cafe, a park, someone’s living room, an office, a classroom or on Zoom. I’ve experienced all these venues.
Just over a year ago, I helped someone find a group. I interviewed her to discover what she’s liking about it and how they do things. I’ll call her R for anonymity. R had been working on a piece of contemporary fiction—a family drama—for about five years on her own before she joined a writing group. She says, “I like the consistency of meeting twice a month with a committed group. It keeps my momentum.”
R doesn’t feel it’s necessary to all be writing the same genre. In fact, she says, “I love hearing genres other than mine being read and their stories taking shape.”
I asked her, “What feels different about writing when you know you’ll be sharing with your group?” She answered, “It pushes me to bring a ‘product’ that’s polished to the best of my ability, and something my readers will look forward to reading. Also, when I’m stuck on a section, I can let go of the frustration, knowing I have a cohort who will offer suggestions and help me through the stuck part.” This point is one I had never put into words to myself! So true. You stop going in circles with a knotty bit, knowing others will love problem solving it with you.
Besides venue and frequency of meetings, groups take multiple forms in regard to how they give feedback. I asked R what her group members critique. “Storyline, character depth, grammar?” She answered, “All these. Each person has different strengths.” I agree. In my groups, there’s usually someone who’s particularly attuned to repetition. Words like slipped, settled, walked, can get boring, and something like surreptitious really can’t show up too often without sticking out. But as writers, we sink into telling the story, painting the picture, finding the emotional content, and often don’t notice excessive use of a word.
About how the group shares feedback, R told me, “We send our section out the week before our meeting, and everyone writes back with their input on grammar, timeline, character development, asking for clarification, etc…, allowing us to implement the suggestions we like. We read the final product when we meet.” I asked R how they discuss the feedback and she said, “We do all of our ‘discussion’ before we meet [emailing each other], so by the time we read it, we have implemented what worked for us, and then receive feedback for the upgraded content – usually lots of praise and talking about what moved us, what excited us, etc….”
I have to say, it’s cool to hear others’ ways and what’s working for them! For years, my groups have read aloud and written feedback on the spot, then shared it out after each reading. Some like this method because it doesn’t require any time outside of our meeting. Others find it hard to hear the reading and write comments on the spot. In fact, I’m pretty sure it can’t be as thoughtful or thorough. Things to consider!
I’m a big advocate of reading aloud and asked R how important she finds it. “Very important,” she said. “I can reread my work many times without catching something that I’ll find when I hear the words out loud.” I’d add for myself that a huge shift happened for me internally when I started reading my work aloud to others. I felt a new “owning of my words.” When I’m reading aloud, I always jot a lot of changes I want to make.
R said she’s felt comfortable from the start with her group. It can be an uphill battle at first, getting used to receiving criticism. R shared an experience where a member felt offended by something someone said (maybe a language difference, R suggested). The member dropped out for a time but R encouraged her to return, explaining that it was a misunderstanding. The member did come back. “It was a time of understanding our personalities,” R remarked.
That’s a big factor in settling into a writing group you can enjoy and benefit from: all members need to make the effort to form a safe space, both encouraging and critiquing (gently); in turn, we each need to assume best intentions and try not to argue with suggestions but take them home and let them percolate. Usually the solution seems obvious when I return to my writing after any length of time, but it’s great to have the mark on the page showing me where to work.
R shared that they only had a few meetings in person before Covid hit. One member had trouble adjusting to meetings on Zoom but R “set up meetings with her one-on-one until she understood how to do it.” I think this shows that R is a very caring addition to their group!
If this post has raised questions for you or you’d like to share your experiences with writing groups, please comment!