Writing Groups

A former student emailed me recently to recommend an online writing community. Her goal? To get critique on her work. She’d heard horror stories about online writing groups where people stole participants’ work, and she hoped I had some good advice about finding a reputable online writing group.

I hadn’t heard about that sort of plagiarism, but I don’t doubt that it happens. The absence of face-to-face connections makes it easier for a stinky sock to spoil the drawer. I advocate for—and cultivate myself—writing groups that meet in person. And even though my longest writing partner and best friend lives in Georgia and we respond to each other’s writing on the phone each week, we ground our practice in the two years we did live in the same city.

A solid writing group can facilitate all the aspects of the writing process, including generative writing and invention material, the recursive work of drafting and revision, and the final polishing—style and proofreading—that leads to a strong piece to submit for publication.

Types of writing groups:
• Writing dates: Pairs or small groups meet for a writing session at a coffee shop, library, or someone’s home. This is good for writers who wish to develop a writing practice and holding themselves accountable for producing material
• Writing shares: Pairs or small groups meet to read work aloud. No one needs to respond or critique the draft; this is also good for accountability and inviting an initial audience to your work.
• Writing response group: Pairs or small groups meet to respond to each other’s drafts. The group needs to establish protocols for sharing drafts beforehand via email (or reading to each other “cold”) as well as time limits, turn taking, etc. Although a lot of these guidelines can be formed or changed as you go, it’s good to set some ground rules early on. It’s also a good idea to discuss what kind of feedback you’re looking for, what your worries or concerns are about sharing your work (if applicable), and anything else you feel your group members should know about you. When I first met my writing partner, she’d had a bad experience in a previous writing group, so I took extra care in how I framed my response to her and made sure that we reflected about our feelings—not just the quality of the response, but how it felt emotionally.
• Reading group: Pairs or small groups that preselect common articles, book, etc. to read, share, and discuss. These are usually writing focused resources and/or examples of the kind of literature / writing the group aims to emulate—the writing “conversation” you’re entering.

What to expect (based on Bruce Truckman’s theories of group development via one of my former professors, Robert Brooke)
• Forming: This stage is where the group members get to know each other, each other’s goals, and establish rules/ procedures for work;
• Storming: This stage involves participants pushing against the rules, and/or conflict with working styles and expectations;
• Norming: In this stage, differences resolve; folks appreciate each other and what each brings to group;
• Performing: Finally, the group finds a productive, working rhythm.

Final thoughts on being a writer in a writing group:
• About control. Your group members are commenting on your writing, not on you, your beliefs, or your life choices. It may feel personal, but it’s not. This is your piece of writing, and you will decide which comments and suggestions you eventually take. Don’t let the workshop moment let you feel you’ve lost control.
• About listening. Each comment and suggestion gives you insight into what your writing looks like from the outside. This is valuable information. So, even if you don’t agree with a comment, try to understand it. Play the believing game. What does it tell you about the way your intentions as a writer translate to your reader? Take notes so that you can look back on the comments you received and your thoughts.
• About speaking. After you have listened to and understood your peers’ comments, enter the conversation. Restate what you’ve heard them say, ask for clarification, and bring up any concerns you have that were not addressed. This is the way a writer exerts control in the workshop, by holding readers accountable, making sure they have given the necessary feedback.

Of course, one way to get experience in a writing workshop is to take a creative writing class, participate in a writing conference, or reach out to your follow writers in SDSPS!

(Adapted from a talk I gave with my writing group members, Amber Jensen and Mary Woster Haug.)

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