When a member of a writer's group submits a story, they are asking for feedback from the group members. Members of a writer's group should see themselves as a helpful and supportive group composed of active writers. The purpose in analyzing and discussing a submitted story is (1) to convey a sense of what the story is saying to the reader and (2) to provide an analysis of the effectiveness of the techniques the author used to create the story's meaning. Group members should not be much concerned with grammar, punctuation, or other composition issues; that is a task for an editor and usually takes place after a story is polished. When members of a writer's group discuss a story, their primary task is to provide feedback regarding the techniques the author is using. We try to focus on the following elements of the story:
- The narrator that the author has chosen to tell the story and the narrator's "voice" and point of view (POV). POV examples include: omniscient (third person with unlimited knowledge of the story and its characters; limited omniscient or third person limited (third person, but associated with a specific character in the story); first person (told using "I", whether or not the narrator is a participant in the story).
- The overall structure (the writing methods and mechanisms the author used to unfold the story, step-by-step).
- The development of the plot (the sequence of events or incidents that comprise the story's action).
- The portrayal of characters (descriptions, actions, and speech of the people in the story; the story's protagonist, or central character - which may be sympathetic or unsympathetic, and the antagonist or antagonists).
- The descriptions of each of the story's settings (descriptions of where and when the story takes place).
- The maintenance of a theme (the controlling idea or central insight of the story).
When discussing a submitted story, group members should try to remember the following:
Writer's group members should always ask authors to describe their intent, in terms of the story's main devices and strategies, and then try to concentrate on those issues. It is best, at least at the beginning of the discussion, to focus on the simplest and most obvious elements of the story's form and narrative techniques. Then, at the author's request, the discussion may extend to other issues related to the story's meaning and how the author intended to illuminate the dramatic situation. In other words, initially try to focus mostly on techniques, form, and structure, rather than on content.
- The writer is asking for help to make it a better story, not to hear what people liked and didn't like about it.
- There are different kinds of stories and different ways of telling a story. Even within a genre, an author may be trying to break new ground. There are a multitude of different ways to tell a story and a story may rely on any of a great variety of devices.
- Although a story is a narrative (told by a narrator), it may also be a dramatic monologue, or it may be poetic (it may poetically tell its story through images or introspective human experiences). It may be didactic (provide a lesson), or it may develop a logical argument. It may work allusively, analogically, or symbolically. The story may have a careful stanza-by stanza development, or it may depend on repetitions or images. The story could be allegorical, it might use magical realism, it might concentrate on the effects of the environment, or it might attempt metaphorically to represent the interior lives of characters.
- It is not the job of a group member to decide if the author should or should not have taken a particular approach (there is no "correct" approach), but to provide feedback regarding the effectiveness of the techniques that were used. In other words, the primary task is to provide the author with feedback as to whether you think the techniques used were effective in accomplishing the author's purpose; if not, suggestions may be offered as to how that technique could be modified or which alternative techniques might be employed.