It was on a balmy evening in Mozambique that I discovered my love of writing groups. I was working there as a volunteer teacher. With lots of free time and few distractions, I hoped to revise a manuscript I had been working on during grad school. Little did I know, the roommate I was paired with happened to be a fellow New Yorker as well as a fellow writer. During those long, mosquito-filled nights, we munched on mangos and cashews from the garden while reading each other’s work and offering suggestions.
This was the first time I shared my work with another writer. Her feedback was more helpful than any I had received from friends and family. Instead of hearing ’I don’t know, I just didn’t like that section,’ I heard feedback like, ’Switching to third-person here was distracting and made it harder to relate to the character.’ As a writer, she acknowledged the challenges I was facing while sharing specific advice that I could work with.
When we got back to New York, we decided to continue sharing our work and we invited friends to join us. With more people, the feedback became more dynamic, there were more writing styles to learn from, and we had a larger creative community.
In the eight years since, writers’ groups have become one of my passions, because they offered me accountability, routine, support and feedback that has helped me reach my goals and made me a better writer. I have started several groups throughout NY, online and in person: groups for poetry, fiction, playwriting and screenwriting. Many of the group members have gone on to become published authors and, more importantly, close friends.
Over the years I’ve learned a lot about what works and doesn’t work in writers’ groups. Here’s a list of my top ten tips.
- Find the group. Facebook is a great place to start. Post a message that you want to begin a writers’ group and you’ll be amazed by how many of your friends harbor a desire to write. Alternatively, you can contact bookstores, colleges, and libraries to ask if they know of a group you can join. There are also websites like Meetup.com that have information on local writers’ groups.
- Keep it small. I think the best size for a group is 4 people. If it’s smaller, you won’t get varied feedback, if it’s larger, you spend too much time reading other people’s work. I’ve also found with larger groups people tend to cancel last minute because they don’t feel like their attendance matters that much.
- Plan ahead. One of the worst things you can do is leave the schedule vague. We all dread that never-ending email chain where everyone’s rescheduling. From the beginning, decide when you’re going to meet, for instance every other Tuesday at 7 pm, and stick to it.
- Set the format. Determine if you want to read the pieces out loud at the meeting, or if everyone is expected to read beforehand and bring in their notes. Determine how many pages everyone is going to share and how many people will share at a meeting. Here’s what has worked the best for my groups: 2 people send their material a week before the meeting. They can share up to 20 pages. Members read ahead of time and come with prepared notes. When we’re discussing a submission, the writer does not talk. You can waste a lot of time explaining your decisions but at the end of the day, it’s more helpful to hear what other people thought of your decisions than for them to know why you made them.
- No alcohol. I learned this the hard way. During my first group, we each brought a bottle of wine. By the time we got to the last piece we were tipsy and distracted. Now we don’t have any alcohol and the critiques are much more focused. I can come home and write when I’m most inspired by the feedback instead of passing out drunk!
- Limit socializing. You can chat about the election with anyone, but not about the craft of your story. Honor the time you have with these people and focus on your writing. In my groups, we say the meeting officially starts at 7pm but come at 6:30 if you’d like time to catch up. This also helps keep the meetings a reasonable length of time. If the meetings start taking four or five hours you’ll probably end up canceling when you get busier.
- Don’t be selfish. One of my pet-peeves is someone who clearly joins a group to just get feedback on their own work. They miss meetings when it’s not their turn to share, or they never have time to finish others’ submissions. I learn so much through reading the other members’ works. For instance, I found one submission really boring and I realized it was because there was no conflict. I had heard this criticism of my own writing but I didn’t understand how boring such writing can be until I saw it in someone else’s piece. Discussing works of other writers develops your critical eye and makes you a better a writer yourself.
- Take a break. Every year or so, take a break from the feedback and discuss if the group is working for everyone. Is someone dominating the critique? Are the meetings getting too long? Have your goals changed? I’ve found that groups tend to lose steam after two years. This is when people start cancelling a lot or not submitting new work. Determine as a group if you need to take a break and reconvene with new focus, or if some want to drop out and make room for fresh faces. New members offer new perspectives. There’s nothing wrong with dropping out and there’s nothing wrong with starting a new group. You need to be among people who will help your writing flourish.
- Do activities together. I went on writing retreats with my first two writers’ groups. We also hosted a public reading of our work at a local bookstore. These activities cemented the group and made us feel like we were moving toward something. Go to conferences together. Attend a reading of a favorite author together. Enjoy this amazing, creative connection you have – it’s unlike any other friendship.
- Don’t take anything personally. I think the worst response is when someone has nothing to say about your writing: they either didn’t care enough or they don’t think you have the ability to improve it. Someone who points out flaws in your writing is spending a great deal of time giving you feedback and they are sharing it because they respect you and think you are capable of more. That’s a compliment. When negative feedback comes up it’s especially helpful to be in a group because that’s when you can determine if that’s one person’s opinion or if everyone in the group felt the same way. Either way, don’t forget that this is feedback on your writing, not you.
As I wrote this list I realized I sound like a harsh drill sergeant. In actuality, my writing meetings are a ton of fun and relaxed. These rules keep the drama on the page and not in the group! Contact me at writerswork.org if you would like a copy of the questionnaire I use when starting a new group.
Tracy Sayre is a novelist and screenwriter. As founder of Writers Work, she organizes conferences, retreats and workshops for writers in NYC. Her short film, Lily + Mara, will be hitting the festival circuit in 2017 and it stars Oona Laurence and Meghann Fahy. She lives in New York City with her husband, two cats and many shelves of books.