How To Form A Writing Group. Part One

I recently joined a new writing group. It’s pretty diverse: two film makers, a memoir writer and me, an aspiring literary scifi guy. The group, without much preamble, has gravitated towards open critique and feedback. So far, this has been mostly met with mutual appreciation.

I haven’t yet figured out how we’ve formed our group, since it’s still being formed. But a lecture by Brandon Sanderson (BYU) offers a useful frame for these types of collaborations.

  1. Come prepared. Read and take notes before meeting.
  2. Your feedback should be specific and descriptive. Talk about your reactions to the writing, not what you think the writing should be. E.G. ” I had fun here…” “I was bored here…” Avoid the phrase: “You should…”
  3. Ignore the small stuff, like: grammar, spelling, prose, style. Focus on plot, setting and character. The other stuff will be addressed during revision and rewriting.
  4. If you are the author being critiqued, you cannot speak. Anything you say will only dilute the feedback.
  5. Bring finished work to the group. Unfinished work will tend to get bogged down in “Wouldn’t it be cool if…”
  6. Understand that most the feedback you get will be dumb.
  7. Help the work that is being critiqued become what it is trying to become, not what you want it to become.

My 2 cents so far:

  • The “descriptive” position seems a great position to take in any situation. In therapy we call it: “I-statements” versus “You-statements.”
  • Our group actually does some brainstorming around unfinished work, which I find helpful. I’ve used a lot of the ideas the other guys have shared.
  • The no-talking rule for the presenter is a good one, but hard to pull off. I always feel the urge to defend my work. The whole, “no, you don’t get it. Let me explain…”
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3 comments

  1. Christopher Peter · May 1, 2014

    I’ve thought about joining a writing group but never got round to it. I’ve heard positive things about them but I don’t know … I imagine they vary like anything else. Also, to be honest, I’ve been reluctant to commit the time when there aren’t enough hours in the week as it is. What do you see as the pros and cons so far? How often to do you meet?

    • Juan Zung · May 1, 2014

      The time commitment is a big issue. We meet every week for between 2-3 hours, and often go out for drinks afterwards. But that’s really just one consideration out of many.

      Another really important factor is finding the right personalities to work with. The four of us are all moderately critical and not at all mean-spirited (so far!). So, even though we don’t spend much time congratulating each other on how brilliant we are, we’re generally comfortable taking in each others’ critiques.

      One other issue, for me, is finding writers at the same level as I am (or maybe one step ahead). I have some insecurities, so I get intimidated by working with people who are already well-accomplished. But I am also sometimes impatient with people who aren’t taking their work seriously. The group I’m in is composed of all unpublished writers. And I’m the only aspiring novelist of the four (two are film makers and one is a memoirist).

      Two really great “pros” I’ve found for writing groups: 1) keeps me accountable to produce consistently. 2) some awesome extra sets of eyes to show me my many, many, many blind spots as a writer.

      Thanks for stopping by, CP! And Happy Writing!

      • Christopher Peter · May 2, 2014

        Thanks for the insight. I think I really need to take the plunge and try one.

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