How to Run a Writers’ Group

Some thoughts and ideas on how to run a successful and welcoming writing critique group.

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If you are thinking of setting up a writers’ group, either because there aren’t any you can get to or your local one isn’t the right kind of group for you, then you definitely should. We all work in different ways and there is nothing wrong with making an alternative, as long as you don’t deliberately tread on another group’s toes. Show a little courtesy and decorum by picking a different time of the week to an existing critique group. Don’t use a similar sounding name. Other than that, make the group inclusive and welcoming.

Most critique groups have ways to accommodate all sorts of strengths and responses, including the occasional opting out of commenting and using a verbal response rather than a written one. It’s just a question of working out what works for you, both as an individual writer and as a group. There will need to be consensus to allow the meetings to run smoothly but differences are also healthy.

We all have methods we prefer or ways that we find easier to be understood by the majority, but running critiques is something that needs a bit of time to work out. The dynamics and needs of a group can change over time and this is why we review our practice.

For me there are seven main things that pop into mind to ensure the running of a successful writers’ group:

  1. We understand and follow the order and ethos of the process, both in terms of procedure and who does what;
  2. We give each other and our work an equal amount of time (if required), concentration and respect whenever possible in order to keep equality and positive balance;
  3. Robust questioning and specific enquiry are good, with focused, constructive and positive feedback whenever possible;
  4. It may help both ourselves and others to critique concisely and with focus if we share what we want members to base their critique on/what queries we have about our piece;
  5. We know that we do not have to critique someone else’s work unless we feel comfortable or competent to do so, but whenever possible we give it our best try;
  6. We understand that we do not have to have our work critiqued if we don’t want to, but that by doing so it helps us learn about critiquing and our own writing;
  7. If we put our work in to be critiqued, we try to appreciate any constructive advice that comes our way with as much good nature as we can muster, even if we whole-heartedly disagree with it. We are, after all, on the same side.

As the leader—for want of a better word—it is your job to set an example, at least in the early stages of the group. For example, if someone else has already said what you were going to say, don’t repeat it—find something new to add or save your breath for the next writer. If you unwittingly find yourself defending a point a little too vigorously, or having to over-explain your feedback, perhaps drop the point or try a different approach.

Just because you might be someone who likes to critique, it doesn’t mean everyone does or feels capable of doing in-depth critiquing on the spot, either because they aren’t sure what to say or possibly because they need two or three read-throughs to get inside a piece of writing. Some, for example, would prefer to annotate it in the silence of their own home and are less attuned in a group. There’s no great good to be had from getting frustrated about this. It’s just that we are all different and come from different scenarios, some of which haven’t included critiques.

Conversely, there are those for whom having a few minutes of silence to read, investigate and annotate a piece is torture. In a class I ran last year, an intelligent and engaging writer nearly spontaneously combusted with the physical necessity of restraining themselves from talking as soon as their piece was shared. Their excitement was wonderful and, if I’m honest, it was both bemusing and entertaining to see them struggle. Whilst the overriding positivity of it was that they were enthusiastic about the piece and were burning to say something, as group facilitator I had to keep them in check. It was their writing being critiqued, so even after everyone had finished reading it was their job was to listen and absorb, not talk.

Similarly, when your writing is being critiqued you also have to set an example. Listen instead of arguing or debating points, and take everything on the chin even if you disagree with it. If the use of a particular word or the structure of a passage is an issue for someone, then yes, it’s possible they are enjoying winding you up, but much more likely is that something feels out of place. Often you already know your piece needs quite a bit more work before you bring it, even if you don’t realise it until someone else points it out. Either that or they are all wrong and you are clearly way ahead of your time! In that situation you may want to ask yourself what scenario is more likely.

There’s a member in one of the writers’ groups I run who has decided to say that I am a performance poet, possibly because I read my poems with pauses and peaks or because they know I run spoken word events. I have also written plays and monologues, plus write and present prose for critiquing, so it’s not a debate I need—or want to get into—but it arises every time I share a poem in this group.

Over four years this member has barely offered a handful of points on what must be over thirty of the poems I’ve shared. They tell the group with a smile that my poems “don’t need much depth/have to work on the page/use or follow a recognisable, expected structure” as “they only have to sound good.” The fact that they have said this about my free verse, haiku, found poetry, list poems, and once even a sonnet, means either that they think they don’t understand poetry so won’t try, that I am a crap poet (which is, of course, a possibility), or that my writing rarely has a subject matter they are interested in. The fact that they don’t say so many negatives to the other poets writing with similar forms and even subject matters means I am either unique (highly unlikely) or that my personality is not for them. When I factor in their responses to my prose, the same negativity occurs, just in a different manner or focus. With someone like this, the best advice is to appear to listen and take on what they say, but just keep quiet and get it over with as quickly as possible. I would much rather spend what little time is dedicated to my own writing discussing feedback that will benefit me.

As someone trying to improve all the time, I listen, pay attention to what everyone says—even if I disagree with it—and note it all down. I keep a master copy of whatever I bring to the group, which I annotate with cobbled together criticisms/observations from everyone else. Despite this, I always read each person’s comments on the copies they wrote on. Importantly, I don’t stress about bad or negative reactions.

In terms of steering the group, I only really intervene with other people’s feedback if it feels subjective based on preconceived stylistic opinions, rather than objective about the quality and craft of the writing. That’s not what we’re there for. When we critique, we should fully engage with the piece and give it our best shot.

As a writer you grow to know yourself. It’s an ongoing journey that hopefully never stops and changes time and time again. Being human and emotional and insecure at times we can also sense when something’s not quite right in our lives and our work. Having a broken heart, a crappy day at work or a difficult ongoing medical condition means that there may very possibly be times when we all bring to a writers’ group some hidden things alongside what’s on the page. Sometimes we can swallow it, sometimes not. It is not always easy, therefore, to present yourself or your words on those days.

If you get to the venue and think you don’t want to share in case you crumble, or there’s just no space in your head to do yourself or others justice, then whilst it’s good to be there for the group, it’s more essential that you look after yourself, even if you are supposed to be in charge. Maybe contact another member to see if they can run the group in your place. Either suggest they start without you if you need a little time or tell them you can’t make it. It’s okay to opt out. With writing groups and critiquing there’s usually another meeting and I would bet that if you miss one and no-one quite knows why, someone will take a moment to reach out to you and see if you are alright. Even if you were a writer that members were looking forward to critiquing, you are allowed to miss it every now and again. As soon as you can, appoint a few people to the reserve list to step up and share the responsibility with you.

On the other hand, you can be at the group, pen at the ready, buzzing, bouncy, chuffed with the piece you are offering up to be critiqued. Yet as soon as you start reading it or getting feedback, a tiny doubt you’ve previously had or a comment someone’s made rises to the surface and you suddenly hate a piece or don’t care what anyone says about it—positive or negative—because you know it doesn’t work.

These things happen from time to time. It could be uncertainty because it’s a piece you’ve amazed yourself by writing, or an issue you ignored that flummoxes you, or a sudden belief that you should just give up. Whatever it is, that mood will probably pass so rather than switching off in the session or chucking everyone’s notes in the bin straight after, resist the urge. Hang on in there. Put it away and go back to it when you are ready. It’s worth it.

Running a writers’ group is basically attending a writers’ group but also doing some admin. If you want to do it, start by getting a few writers together and see what happens. It’ll be a lot of fun, and you’ll definitely learn something.

Gary Studley is a writer, artist and teacher. He co-runs SoundLines and two live-lit nights at The Jolly Sailor and The Lighthouse.

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