A good writing group is worth the best writing program, and it’s a good deal cheaper. Not only do you get your prose workshopped, but you also get to think about what works and what doesn’t work in other people’s writing.
A bad writing group, on the other hand, represents a clear and present danger to your back molars.
So what makes for a good writing group?
Three key ingredients:
- Dedicated writers willing to improve both their work and yours. A writing group isn’t a form of therapy. It’s a way to become a better writer. Don’t be on the defensive, and do try to help others. Expect the same from other members.
- Clear rules. Who gets to read, how long for, in what order, and so on. There are always people who take advantage of opacity, and that’s the quickest way to fester resentment.
- An enforcer. Someone needs to call time, to cut off the person who speaks too much, to get people back on topic. If someone likes to be the enforcer, don’t roll your eyes at them. Let them and be thankful for it. It is a tough but necessary job.
If your group covers these basics, then chances are it’ll be effective. Now, if you’re putting together a group, you may want to play with a few more parameters.
Reading in advance versus reading on the spot. The former’s a lot more work, and it might be unreasonable for those with full time jobs, but it does lead to more thought-out criticism, and you can submit longer pieces.
Writer reads versus someone else reads. It can be useful for writers to hear their work read out loud by someone else. They’ll often trip on awkward constructions, pinpointing what needs reviewing. But it does take one potential reviewer out of the equation, and writers need to learn to read their own work out loud.
Time per reader. There needs to be a maximum to avoid abuses, but that can vary from fifteen minutes to an hour (this includes reading and critique time).
Structure. When do people give feedback, is there a window for last comments, and so on.
Frequency. Nothing kills a group quicker than irregular meetings. The easiest is for it to be at the same time every week. Side bonus: only dedicated writers will want to belong to such a group.
Meeting space. In a quiet bar, at someone’s house, always at the same place, or on a roster. Or online: on Google Hangout, via email, on forums.
Open versus closed. Some groups are open to all, and they perform a crucial role in your writers’ community. But precisely because they are open, they are not conducive to useful feedback on book-length projects. Sadly, the propensity to voice opinions is only very weakly correlated to the quality of feedback. Go there to meet other writers, contribute to the debate, and soon enough, you’ll know of suitable closed groups, or you’ll meet people with whom to form such a group. Finally, if your area doesn’t have such a group, consider putting one together: you’ll be doing a great service to the community.
New entrants. Inevitably, a successful group will attract other writers. If it gets too crowded then not everyone will get to read. (Six is a good limit). Remember the first golden rule, and don’t let in tourists. You need a probation mechanism. It doesn’t have to be explicit (that can be a bit intimidating), but don’t go adding people you haven’t vetted to your group’s mailing list. Don’t be too closed either: that new person might just unlock your book with their feedback.