Before I began writing fiction, I was an academic living in a publish-or-perish world. I submitted articles to journals that accepted them, rejected them or (most often) asked me to revise and resubmit. In that last situation, they returned my draft along with several, single-spaced pages of feedback from reviewers. My professional future depended on my ability to use that feedback to produce better work. I admit my first reaction was always a day of depression as I fought off the temptation to bury the thing in the backyard. But after that, I settled down to revise.
I found my work was always better after I worked through the critiques. Always.
What Is a Writing Group?
A writing group (sometimes also called a ‘critique group’ or a ‘writing circle’) is a collective of writers who offer and receive support for their work in the form of constructive criticism and feedback.
Writing groups can take many forms, from online ‘drop-in’ forums and sites such as Discord to face-to-face gatherings (pandemic permitting) meeting on a scheduled day in a regular, local location.
The operation of these groups is also incredibly varied. Some writing groups decide to provide feedback on one person’s work per session, while others operate more informally with read-throughs and a Q&A format.
No matter what sort of writing group you find yourself attached to, if giving and receiving honest feedback and constructive critiques are part of the process, then there are some best-practice dos and don’ts you can follow to make the most of your time there.
How to Get the Most from Your Writing Group: Dos and Don’ts
I’ve belonged to a lot of writing groups over the years. Gradually, I’ve learned that getting the most from them depended on how I responded both in the moment and in the long term.
General Writing Group Etiquette:
Being part of any club or group will require a certain amount of commitment — if you’re the sort of person who would rather write (and read) something new every week, you’ll probably be bored with a group that only meets once a month. Here are some general etiquette rules for groups of any shape or size:
- Do the work. You can’t expect members to give you amazing feedback on your work if you’re not prepared to help them in return. Critique groups should be give-and-take, not just take.
- Don’t do all the talking. There will be times when you have feelings about a piece of work, but try not to commandeer every conversation.
- Do show up on time. Since your writing circle isn’t an obligatory stamp on your calendar, it may be tempting on cold winter nights to stay in and watch your favourite show or read the next book on your TBR pile. However, it’s important to commit to the group and take it seriously.
When Your Writing Is Being Critiqued:
It can be scary/daunting when it’s time for others to read your work. The most important thing to remember is that you’re there to improve and learn. Here are some other tips for getting the most out of your week.
- Do listen. Try to hear both the positive and the negative aspects readers point out.
- Do write down everything people say. I find this helps me distance myself a little from the conversation. This includes not only where readers think there’s room for improvement, but also the good points they highlight about your work. It’s important you don’t forget your strengths so that you can understand what is working, as well as the elements you need to work on next.
- Don’t take criticism personally. This is hard. I know. Remind yourself that while praise feels good, it doesn’t identify ways to take your writing to the next level.
- Don’t be tempted to explain or justify your work. You already know what you think. You’re in a group to hear what other people think. When you’re talking, you’re not learning anything new.
- Do thank your fellow group members. They put time and effort into reading and responding to your work. They are giving you a gift, so make sure to thank them for their hard work and feedback.
- Do set your notes aside for a day or two. This mini-break gives you time to get over any initial resistance or hurt. Nobody likes to be told their work is flawed, so set your notes aside for a few days before working through them.
When You’re Critiquing Others’ Work:
No-one likes to be spoken down to or have their work ripped apart for no reason. The writing critique process should always be about positivity — even when there are improvements to be made. If you can be kind while being completely honest about what does and doesn’t work within a piece of writing, your writing group is going to consider you an important asset.
- Do address your comments to the group. Ideally, a group meeting is a discussion of a piece of writing, not an opportunity to lecture the writer. Addressing comments (especially where the writing needs work) to an individual may come across as an attack instead of a critique or conversation.
- Do talk about the writing. This may seem obvious, but it’s easy to wander off to personal stories this writing makes you think of.
- Do give honest feedback. It’s not always easy to do this, but being honest in your feedback will prove invaluable. For example, how are you reacting as you read? Is your attention wandering? Why do you think that might be?
- Do consider your language. Using phrases like “this didn’t work for me because X” rather than ”this is bad” will often soften your feedback while also being objective enough to get the writer to listen.
- Don’t be vague. Regardless of the feedback sentiment, making sure you use specific examples when discussing the work ensures that the writer is crystal-clear on what works and what doesn’t.
- Do remember the positives. Even the worst pieces of writing have some strengths. Remember to help the writer see what they are.
You may decide you prefer to work with beta readers or an editor, but if you’re up for it, a writing group can give you invaluable help. Rejoice at both the good and bad things they say, and use them to make your work better and grow as a writer.
Not Quite Ready to Step into a Writing Group?
If you don’t feel quite confident enough to find a writing group to call your own, don’t worry! We all work at our own pace, and some writers prefer to have a manuscript or piece of work that is a bit more polished before anyone is allowed to see it.
Why not take a look at our book Tell Me How To Write A Story by E.J. Runyon to give you that little bit of additional clarity when it comes to self-editing your work?
Read the First Chapter of The Trickster for FREE
If you’re wondering what the result of joining a fantastic writing group can look like, download the first chapter of Dorothy’s latest book — The Trickster — for FREE, and join Fitch and Dilly as they struggle against old loyalties to save Lac’s Holding.
Dorothy A. Winsor
For about a dozen years, I taught technical writing at Iowa State University and served as a Journal editor, but then I decided writing middle-grade (MG) and young adult (YA) fantasy was more fun.