Are you thinking of joining a writing group? In this post we look at what it takes to be a great writing group member.
As a new writer, the best thing I did for my writing, and the thing that set me on the path to publishing was to join a writing group. And not just one. Over the years I joined informal groups, took classes lead by private teachers, and enrolled in university workshops.
I’ve now spent a decade teaching and leading workshops myself, and I still think that having to critique the work of others, getting feedback from mentors and peers, and the accountability of having deadlines are invaluable assets for writers of all skill levels.
To get the most out of your writing group, whether it’s in-person or online, and to be the writers that others love to have in the group with them, you’ll want to bring your best game. Here are some writing workshop best practices:
10 Ways To Be A Great Writing Group Member
1. Follow All the Rules And Protocols
This should go without saying, but there always seems to be that one person who turns in their work a day late or who doesn’t do the assigned reading and can’t contribute to the discussion. Don’t be that person.
2. Don’t Flake On The Meetings
There will be some nights when the workshop will roll around and Netflix will be calling and you’ll be so tempted to bail. It’s disappointing to others when you’re absent, but you not showing up for yourself has even greater implications for your writing life. Unless it’s unavoidable, go to class.
3. Give More Positive Feedback Than Negative
Workshop isn’t elementary school show-and-tell. It doesn’t benefit anyone to sit around blowing sunshine in each other’s faces. But workshop is not an opportunity to shred people’s work and it’s just as helpful for people to know what is right in their work as much as what is wrong. Be an encourager.
4. Don’t Dominate The Discussion
This is as much of a time management issue as it is a respect issue. Everyone deserves their chance to talk, including you. But a frequent problem in workshop is the commenter who rambles and can’t get to the point. The timer is usually ticking, so be succinct.
5. Do Speak Up
I often wonder if some of the best comments go unspoken by a reticent class member who tends to yield the floor to others. The group will benefit from hearing what you have to say, even if (and maybe more so) if you’ve got an idea that goes against the group consensus.
6. Be Specific in Your Feedback
“I liked this” or “I couldn’t relate to this” doesn’t give the writer much to go on. What exactly did you like about it? What exactly doesn’t seem to be working? Give specific examples from the text. And don’t offer advice as to what you would do were it your work, but consider what the author is trying to achieve with the piece.
7. Sign Your Name To Your Critique
It’s so helpful to the author to have the opportunity to follow up with you. This might be something your workshop leader requires, but if not, make sure the manuscript you hand back has your name on it. The writer might want to get back with you about some valuable feedback you’ve given.
8. Offer Up Only Your Art for Critique, Not Your Heart
Sometimes we’re so emotionally tied up in our work that we cannot separate our feelings from it. If a piece seems too emotionally raw, set it aside and let your sensitivities dull a bit. Workshop is not therapy and your colleagues there are not adequately equipped to care for your soul, they can only help you with your writing.
9. Take Notes
I’m always amazed at the workshop folks who sit and don’t write a word during their workshop. For one, it comes off as arrogant, as if the author doesn’t have anything to learn from her fellow workshop members. A workshop is a valuable opportunity to develop your writing and editing skills. Don’t pass it up by not learning all you can.
10. Be Gracious When Accepting Feedback
Don’t be thin-skinned or defensive. Listen to every comment with consideration. Instead of thinking of criticism as negative, imagine that your workshop-mates are offering you discriminating observations. How you feel about the feedback you get is in part what you choose to make it mean. Might that “harsh” feedback be thought of as “frank”? But ultimately, you are the boss of your work and you can take their advice or leave it.
The Last Word
To find a workshop that might interest you, Google “literary centre classes” and you’ll find all sorts of in-person and online workshops. Writers Write also has a selection of courses. If you don’t want to shell out money right away to enrol in a class, I’d recommend you check out your local writing organization or public library to see if they are offering free groups. The benefits to you and your writing will be worth it.
by Kim Lozano
Kim Lozano is a teacher and creative writing coach from St. Louis. Her poetry, essays, and fiction have been published in The Iowa Review, North American Review, DIAGRAM, The Pinch, and many other publications.
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