Guidelines for Writer's Groups

From the forthcoming book "Writer's Groups"

Writer's groups provide a place for writers to meet with their peers for feedback and discussion. Because writing is such a solitary endeavor, these groups can be very helpful to a writer struggling to perfect his or her writing skills. However, feedback and criticism can also be less than helpful, even destructive, if it becomes personal or if it is not directed to the techniques demonstrated in the writing. Feedback such as "I liked it" (or didn't like it) or "the character wasn't believable" are not very helpful to a writer trying to decide the best way to tell a story. It takes a little more work, but spending enough time studying a story to figure out why you (or any reader) might have liked or disliked it will be much more helpful to the writer.

The best feedback "objectifies." That is, the best feedback looks at a story in terms of its component parts and the techniques used. Which components were the most effective (dialogue, description, pacing, voice, characterization, plot development, etc.)? Which techniques worked and which need more attention? For example, could the story be better told using a first-person narrator? Would a reader better understand the character if he or she was given access to some of the character's thoughts? Which components were underused, or overused? Are there confusing sections? That kind of feedback brings the writer's attention to specific areas of the piece and to the specific techniques used there. After everyone has had a chance to providefeedback, the group, through discussion, should try to come to some kind of consensus about the best way to tell that particular story. This also turns the discussion into a learning experience for everyone, which is the real value of a writers' group, learning how to become a better writer yourself.

But the writer has considerable responsibility also. Some writer's tend to argue, to resist feedback. Maybe they think the piece is perfect as it stands. If so, why bring it to a writer's group? Maybe they resist the idea of rewriting. If so, what would be the purpose of soliciting feedback? For that reason, some writer's groups employ a "glass booth" approach: they don't allow the writer to speak at all during feedback sessions. But an even better approach is to ask the writer to limit his or her responses to asking for clarification. If feedback is supposed to be objective, the writer should also be objective. For example, the writer might ask, "If you say the character seemed to unexpectedly change at that point, do you think I should provide more background about his motivations? Maybe I should tell something about his troubled childhood."

After each member of the group has had an opportunity to provide feedback, the discussion can be opened up to a more general give and take about the writer's goals and an analysis of why particular techniques were chosen. For example, a writer might ask, "Do you think I should have used more dialogue to help the reader better understand the relationship between the characters?" Then, the group could discuss that idea.

When writers are given specific techniques to try in specific sections of a story, it gives them something to carry away from the discussion; it gives them something to go back home work on. Objective feedback on writing techniques helps the writer rethink his or her writing, rather than just fixing problems. Experienced writers often say the editing and revision process is where the real writing takes place. Therefore, the writer's group should try to help the writer with that process.

In summary, writer's group feedback sessions always seem to go much better if the discussion is (1) centered on the story, not on the writer, (2) is "objectified" to focus the discussion on specific components of the story and the techniques used, and (3) after everyone provides individualized feedback, the group, through discussion, tries to come to some kind of consensus about the best way to tell that particular story (i.e. which techniques are the most effective when telling that kind of story) This third item turns the discussion into a learning experience for everyone by broadening and generalizing the discussion; in other words, what can we, as writers, learn from the techniques used to tell this kind of story.

Below is a summary table of how to discuss stories in a writer's group.

How To Discuss Stories

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:

  1. 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).
  2. The overall structure (the writing methods and mechanisms the author used to unfold the story, step-by-step).
  3. The development of the plot (the sequence of events or incidents that comprise the story's action).
  4. 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).
  5. The descriptions of each of the story's settings (descriptions of where and when the story takes place).
  6. 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:

  • 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.
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.  

NOTE: In our writing workshops, writers submit their work by email. Members of the group use the Microsoft Word editing and markup tools to note errors and to provide feedback and suggestions. CLICK HERE for instructions on how to use the Microsoft Word editing and markup tools for that purpose.

Copyright 1998-2013. All rights reserved.

Back to the FictionWeek
Home Page