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Developing a Writing Group

by
E.E. Murdock, Ph.D and Zoe Murdock, M.S. M.A.

From their forthcoming book:

Writing the Easy Way:
Developing and Maintaining a Writing Group

First, the easy part: getting a writing discussion group started. Getting a writing group started in your area is just a matter of getting the word out. If you are affiliated with a university, just put up a note near the English department. Say something like:

Writers Group - Meeting at . . .

Or there may be a bulletin board at your local bookstore. Just be sure to get permission before sticking up notes everywhere.

Of course, these days, there is also the internet (the world's largest bulletin board). An easy way to get the word out is to post your writers group here at FictionWeek. Provide the group's name and where and when it meets. And let us know if there
are ever any changes in the group's meeting times or places.

Other types of publicity are also helpful. For example, you may have an event-type newspaper in your town. They will usually publish community events like writing discussion groups at no cost. There may also be community radio or TV that will list your group for free.

OK, so you have posted your notice and a few people have started to show up. How do you keep them coming? How do you get more members? Keeping writing group members is not easy: writers are a solitary lot and they tend to show up once and decide it is not for them. They may think writing is for loners. Well, while writing is an activity done alone, that can often be the problem: no feedback. Writers, at some point, need feedback and it is the job of the group to provide it. Not mean spirited, "I didn't like your story" feedback, but well-intentioned "As one reader, I had trouble with the way you described your main character. Maybe you could continue to add a little more description as the action progresses." Something like that. Something useful. If your group provides useful feedback, the writers will come. And they will continue to come.

But what happens when that writer has received the feedback they were looking for? Won't they just go away and write? Sure they will. Many writers don't like to criticize other writers. They just want to be writers. We don't really have any solution for dealing with writers who only show up when they want feedback on their own writing. But instilling everyone in the group with a sense of community can help. Let them know that no one will be there to give them feedback if they don't provide it for others. Social activities also help. It might be useful to have the group sometimes attend readings, or book signings. Or just combine a barbecue with your usual meeting. Holding your meetings in a nice place, like a bookstore that has a cafe is also useful. Even writers need a night out from time to time.

As to whether you should supervise your group or just let it find its own course is, in the end, up to you. An unsupervised group may drift and fail to provide useful feedback, but it may also be a lot of fun. On the other hand, a group leader that too strictly forbids certain types of discussions can hamper a group's creativity.

It may be best to steer a middle course. To do that, first determine what is the focus of your group. Do you want people to submit writing a week in advance? Of can they bring short segments to read to the group. Or you might want to start the meeting with a (short) period of reading. It probably depends on what you are focusing on. A group that is working on the writing of novels of longer stories will require advance submissions. But a group that is focusing on writing technique could welcome writers who just want feedback on a short section that established a specific technique. They could even bring in sample sections from published books to discuss the technique.

Whatever type of group you want to start, remember it takes time to really get it rolling. At first there may only be a few people that are holding the group together. In fact, sometimes you may be the only one who shows up. But given time, a good writer's group will grow steadily. The best groups are good specifically because different people show up each time. That provides for a good variety of comments and a diversity of feedback.

Guidelines for 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.

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 character and his teacher?" 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, something to add to the story, or a specific part of the story to work on. Many teachers of creative writing have said the editing and revision IS writing. If so, the writer's group can serve a valuable role in that effort.

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.

Good luck, and be sure to let FictionWeek know about your group.

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