Lessons Learned for Writing Groups that Last

I have a book coming out next year. I never would have been able to say that without the support–artistically and emotionally– of my writing group. During this year’s NaNoWriMo, some writers asked me how the group works, and how it’s lasted for so many years. Here’s what I’ve learned from being a writer, and then leader, in a long-term writer’s collective aimed at growth and publication.

Trust. This is the foundation of every effective collaboration I’ve been a part of. Everyone has their own histories, traumas, triumphs, and vulnerabilities, and these are so often tied to the motivation to write, and to past experiences with the art. Respect, listening, getting out of the way and sharing power–any way you have to build trust, do it. This takes the most work, but it has the greatest long-term pay-off.

Safe but Not Comfortable. I participate in a critique-like space for research at my university. That group’s leader once described it as “safe but not comfortable.” In order for the writing to work, it’s necessary to dig into what’s making it not work, whether that’s a boring plot, awkward prose, or the writer’s reluctance to be vulnerable on the page. The space needs to be safe for exploring both failure and success, and safe for asking the hard questions and hitting the bruised places.

Shared Goals. The original group I entered had an explicit goal: to support each other in preparing manuscripts for publication. This means more than looking over query letters; it means going through growth to create the words readers will want to devour. Your group doesn’t have to have this goal. What has sustained and cohered us  that we have a shared goal at all.

Equal and Complementary. The most successful, sustaining chemistry in our group has always been with writers who are at the same level of ability (both in writing-craft and in the craft of giving critique), yet have different strengths and challenges. This has made for equitable, reciprocal relationships, with each writer giving as much as they get from the process. As an interesting side-note, by chance, we’ve never had two authors writing in the same genre at once. I think it has helped that we’ve never been competing for the same market.

Commitment. To the writing. To the reviewing. To growth and getting the words out into the world; to our shared goals. To each other.

Mechanics. The group I entered nearly a decade ago now used the following structure. It worked so well I’ve not much changed it. Here are the basics. YMMV

  1. Our optimal number is 5. This gives enough opinions to form consensus, but there are still few enough participants to give everyone deep feedback.
  2. We meet every other week. This gives enough time to work up copy and read deeply, but not so much time it’s hard to keep focus and commit.
  3. Drafts for reading are due, at the latest, one week from meeting; copy on the day of the meeting is preferred. Copy can be anything the writer needs help with, whether it’s big-picture feedback on a first draft of a new novel, final nitpicks before sending off to an agent, feedback on a query letter, or even reviewing a story timeline. A writer may also use their time for discussion of things like “which offer from a publisher should I go with?” (we had that awesome conversation recently!) or “I need to talk through some ideas.” Copy is limited to up to 7000 words per writer unless previously cleared by the group.
  4. Every writer reads everything and does detailed commentary. In our group, everyone has some background in giving feedback (see Equal and Complementary; for example, through education in the literary or other arts, or from professional experience with journalism, tech com, etc.), and we tend to approach commentary from an “educated reader” perspective. “I had this reaction; I think it was because of X. Some thoughts for how that might not have happened are Y.”
  5. We go around in a circle with each person’s piece and talk through more complex comments (i.e., those that aren’t just typos or obvious line edits). Whoever’s piece was last reviewed gets to decide the next piece to review until done.
  6. We meet in person. (note: this helps with building trust–I say that as a committed introvert who will do nearly anything to avoid face-to-face in-person interactions most of the time)

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