Lessons from the first year of running a writing group

2015-04-30 12.08.16

First of all, join a writing group. If there’s not one in your area, start one. What’s the worst that could happen? Nobody shows up? If that happens, you’re no worse off than you were before. But, the more probable thing is that you will end up meeting great people who inspire you. I started Dorchester Writers almost a year ago and I thought I would share a few of the things I’ve learned about interacting with a critique group – and a few things specific to running one.

The first thing is to set down ground rules. We usually have two to five people ready to submit work each week, so they’ve worked for us so far: Here is a clip from our submission guidelines

Submission guidelines

We have never put a cap on the limit of submission for the week – and I would like to never have to.  In order for that to be the case, please read the following guidelines. (If you have a looming deadline and want to submit a longer piece, let me know and we will definitely work with you.)

  1. Roughly 10 pages a week. Less is fine and if you occasionally go over a page or two so you don’t drop us out in the middle of a scene, that’s fine too. But keep the ten pages in mind.
  2. Double spaced. We need room for notes.
  3. Your name needs to be on the document… somewhere.
  4. Page numbers. It makes referring to different parts of the work much easier.
  5. Submit by Tuesday night. We need time. Some of us work two jobs and need the~ 48 hours to give everyone’s work the attention it deserves.

I’ve learned a few things in the last year, through my mistakes and the mistakes of others, hopefully this will be of use to someone out there.

Always start with what you like about the work. I know, this is a no-brainer. But, when you meet with the same people every week for a year, you tend to get comfortable. That comfort is great, but don’t forget that even though you might think, “They know I like their work,” people still need to hear it every now and then. Though submitting your work to other people gets easier over time – I almost threw up the first few weeks when I posted to our Google Drive folder – people still need encouragement.

Never, ever use the phrase, “This is how I would write that.” It might not get you a physical slap, but know that I am beating you with a stick in my mind. You’re not writing it. Throwing out the occasional, “Maybe you could do this…” is more acceptable, but the best thing to do is to explain what your issue is with it and offer suggestions if they are asked for.

Don’t speak out of frustration. Always take a deep breath and say, “Cool, thanks for pointing that out and I will definitely give it some thought.” Consider what the person is saying.

Consider the audience. This goes both ways. If someone didn’t understand something, you need to take a minute to figure out why. It could just be them and your work is fine – or you may need to rethink something. If the majority of people in a group have an issue with something, give it even more thought. We all come from different cultures with different slang. It is quite possible that you can just look at someone after a critique and think…

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… I know I do sometimes.

This also means that not everything someone else writes is going to be to your taste. Critique the work on its merits and let it go.

Pet grammar peeves.  We all have them. It’s fine to mention them – and then let it go. Everyone in my group knows how much I despise adverb abuse and when a character “feels, sees, hears,” etc. I don’t bring it up in the group any more, but when I hand their pages back to them, all instances of those things are circled. They know how I feel, they know the reasoning… I don’t need to harp on it or bring it up in every meeting. That’s just annoying. Oh, and thankfully, every time I accidentally mess up something like that, they circle it. Have I mentioned – we have a really good core group of writers.

Don’t dominate the group. It is not the Suzy or John or Raul show… it’s a group that everyone needs to get something out of. We meet for an hour and half a week, spending an hour on one person’s story is not fair.

Granted, this falls on me as much as the writer. It’s my job to move things along… but so I can more easily do that without being rude, keep the good of the group in mind.

If you are in charge of making sure the group stays on track, don’t do what I did here.

Don’t waste our time. If tons of plot holes have been pointed out in your manuscript, don’t keep submitting the same thing with the same gaping wounds – it’s a waste of everyone’s time. Rethink your work – rewrite your work. These things may feel like your children, but they ain’t. I don’t care that you’ve been thinking of this story since you were three; if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. We’ll be happy to help you brainstorm – but you have to be open to changing things.

As a side note, if your story has an obvious agenda – political, social, etc. – you really need to remain open about the fact that you might be too close to the subject to see holes in the plot.

Administrator – You won’t (and shouldn’t try to) please everyone.  I am the least leadery type leader to ever put a group together. If I can do it – anybody can. There is no way a venue at a specific time will be good for everyone. We are all busy and meshing schedules with a group of random people from the general public is impossible. Sometimes you just have to make a decision, stick to it, and see how things shake out. Obviously keep a somewhat open mind about these things and test which way the wind is blowing every now and then – but ultimately, you are in charge and need to act like it. If you have rules and they are working – enforce them. If they aren’t working – rethink them. You will have at least one or two people who are mainstays in the group that you can discuss this with.

Last year we decided to all go celebrate the oncoming NANOWRIMO with a few drinks, so we went to a pub across the street from our usual meeting place. We had a good time and a few people mentioned that they would like to have the critique meetings there at the bar. I didn’t think it was the best idea, but the bartender was pretty cute, so I went along with it. It took three months, but the general consensus eventually shifted back to holding the meetings at our usual coffee shop. Be flexible when necessary.

People will come and go, especially if you use Meetup to put the group together. When someone joins the group, be welcoming and do everything you can to make them feel comfortable. Remember how nervous you were? They are as nervous as you were and they are walking into a fully formed, already functional group. Do not make them feel like they’ve walked into a clique of some sort. Pay attention to them and make sure the group welcomes them.

On the flip-side of that, it’s ok when people leave. You and your group will not be to everyone’s taste. It is better to have a small, reliable group of people who all know each other’s writing styles, and that will form in time.  As long as you were as welcoming as you could be to newcomers, if they leave, it’s not on your head. If there is correspondence with the person after they leave, thank them for giving your group a try, wish them the best of luck in finding a group that fits their needs (and mean it), and for the sake of your and everyone else’s sanity, the final thing I’ve learned…

Don’t take anything personally! Ever!

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