Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Writer's Ramble: Seven Things to Get the Most From Your Writer's Group

Writing is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to learn.  I’ve gone through a lot of different talents.  Some of them I was good at, and others kind of fizzled out, but they all had one thing in common.  I could take a step back, I could look over my work, and I could tell right away if what I’d done was any good.
Writing is like trying to paint a mural while looking at your canvass through a cardboard paper towel tube.  You have to keep the entire picture in your head, and at any given time you can only see a small part of the scene.

I realized that if I wanted to get good, I needed people to read my work and tell me honestly what they thought.  Right away I ran into two problems.  The first was that unlike my other talents, writing requires people to spend time with my work.  It’s not like art or music, where I can make them take a look or sit and listen for a minute.  Reading can take hours.  So, asking my friends to read my story is a huge favor.  The second problem was that people get uncomfortable when they have to tell a friend that their writing stinks.
And everyone stinks when they’re starting out.

I needed people to spot for me.  I needed people who understand the craft, who can see my mistakes from a neutral perspective, and who know how to give advice.  I needed a writer’s group.

So here are a few things that I’ve learned, which help me get the most out of my writer’s group:

1: Submit your best work.  It’s easier to critique something that is polished and close to ready.  If you don’t proofread your work, people won’t know what to focus on.  Some members will go hog-wild with the edits, which can be grueling and discouraging.  Others won’t know where to begin, so they’ll give just a little feedback, which can lead to a false sense of confidence.

2: Let people know where you’re at.  When you submit, let your group know if this is an early draft or if you’ve gone over it several times.  Let them know if you’re struggling and need advice on something.  If this is something you just typed up, you won’t want them to focus on line edits and grammar errors.  You’ll want them to focus on the big picture, instead.  If this is a later draft, you can ask for them to proofread and look for spelling errors and punctuation mistakes.

3: Be specific about what you want.  Do you want your readers to focus on grammar?  Do you want detailed line-edits?  Or do you want them to focus on big-picture items?

4: Keep silent when people are critiquing you.  People are funny about giving advice.  It’s uncomfortable, and if they sense that you want to argue, they’ll clam up.  You don’t have to listen to everything they say, but you’ll get the most honest advice if you resist the urge to debate or explain your work.  If you do feel the need to argue, see if you can phrase it as a question.  Just remember, if your reader doesn’t get it, it’s not their fault.  Something is missing from your writing.  Ask questions and find out why.

5: Give a synopsis of previous chapters.  Unless you’re submitting your first chapter, people will not remember what you wrote in your previous chapters.  People skip meetings and they’ll miss one or two chapters at a time.  A synopsis is a good way to bring them up to speed again.  Something else that helps is a list of your main characters.  I can never remember character names from one chapter to the next.

6: Do group activities together.  In order to be able to give advice in the proper spirit, you need to build trust in one and other.  The best way to do this is to spend time together doing things besides just tearing each other apart.
· Go out together.  Have a dinner night, where you meet at a restaurant.  Make sure you pick a place where you can talk.
· Meet up at conferences together and hang out.
· If you normally meet online, have an in-person meeting face to face.
· Have a book-night.  Pick a book as a group and read it.  Then instead of having a regular meeting, go out that night to a restaurant (one with a quiet atmosphere where you can talk), and critique the book.  Our group does this once every 3 or 4 months.  This is a really good way to get a feel for everyone’s tastes.
· Have a movie night.  Go and see a movie together, then have a group discussion afterwards and talk about the plot.
· Go on field trips.  One of the members of my last writer’s group had a horse.  One month, instead of doing our usual meeting, she offered to meet us at the stables where her horse was kept.  She told us all about horses.  We got to go riding around the yard.  This event was so popular that we had people show up who hadn’t attended in almost a year.

7 Start a group blog.  The members in my group were having a hard time blogging, so I suggested that we start a group blog.  We brainstormed names, and decided on "The Writers Ramble".  You can visit it at http://www.writers-ramble.com.  Every month we pick a topic, and the last day of the week we get together and blog about it.  We put together a post on the main page, that has links to everyone's individual blog.  Each link has a blurb designed to catch your attention.  This week we're doing our first post.  The subject is, why I belong to a writer's group, and why should you, too.

In conclusion, a writer's group can carry you a lot farther in your career than you could get alone.  You need people who understand the profession, and have the skills to analyze and properly critique your work.  You can't do this on your own.


  1. I never realized the "Horse Field Trip" made such an impression. I love talking (and writing) about horses. Tom, you and your new group are invited to another field trip if you so desire. I could even take you to the carriage barn to see the historical vehicles. You only need to ask.

    1. Wow. I think they would like immensely. We probably ought to do this in the spring after it warms up a bit. Would you be interested in doing two events (spaced apart a month or so, of course)?

  2. We could figure something out I'm sure.

  3. Great tips! I have the hardest time with keeping quiet during my reviews. Writing down the questions to ask after the critique is over tends to help me boil down any real concerns.

    And you're right, doing stuff together is key. These people are your friends/coworkers and you need to be able to trust them.

    Great post!

    1. That's a really good idea, writing down your questions while listening to your critique.

      I record my critiques, then dump everything to a .WAV file so I can go over it later. I never bother taking notes. I just listen. If I want to make a note, I'll say it out loud and the recording picks it up.

      You can get some good free recording software out there.