Earlier this month I ran a session at Writers Victoria titled, Writing Groups: How to Find, Build, and Maintain an Effective Writing & Critique Group. So I thought it might be a good opportunity to wax lyrical on the advantages and occasional pitfalls of writers’ groups, with a few hot tips thrown in.
I am a long-term member of a writers’ group and can attest to the many benefits that come from meeting and workshopping regularly with peers. As a high-school teacher, I also facilitate students who are keen to have their work critiqued. While planning these sessions, I thought carefully about the rules that should govern them, because groups such as these have the power to build writers up and to tear them down…
Luckily, my writers’ group is in the business of construction. What began as three women, grew steadily over the years to a neat number seven. Big enough to provide a range of feedback, and small enough to get to know each other’s work. We are all mothers too, which helps in terms of context. Sometimes, these commonalities are useful. We all understand, for instance, the juggle that happens while writing with children. It’s also one of the reasons we’ve become firm friends, a wonderful by-product of bearing the soul!
In normal, non-pandemic times, we meet once a month at a café or in one of our houses to discuss work emailed the week before. There are no restrictions on genre or form, and over time I’ve witnessed ideas develop into novels, picture books and articles. Our workshop pieces generally range from 1000 to 2000 words, and we use track changes to edit. We’ve got workshopping down pat now, due mainly to the fact we respect the process and each other.
But writers’ groups aren’t for everyone, and it’s important to be discerning when you’re starting out. We all know that offering a piece of writing for critique can be terrifying. This is especially true for emerging writers, who haven’t yet developed the tough skin required to bounce back from criticism and rejection. Because, as a writer you encounter plenty of both – from publishers, agents, peers, your mum (unless she’s too busy telling you you’re a genius). For this reason, writers should be kind to their kin. In saying this, I’m not advocating false praise or sugar-coated feedback, but an awareness of the dedication that’s gone into the piece you are reading. So, it’s best to find a group that feels right on a personal as well as writerly level.
First, know what you want.
Finding or starting a group is a little like dating. You should think carefully about what you really want… (you should!)
What does your work-in-progress need? How much time do you have to commit? Do you want verbal or written feedback? Would you like to meet virtually or face-to-face? Do you want a group that works in the same genre as you or who has the same level of experience?
If you are a group of emerging writers, seek a facilitator to begin with, or a more experienced writer who can guide you through the process. Consider too, the size of your dream mob. If it’s too large you might not get through all the pieces. In my experience, three to seven enables meaningful feedback.
Be clear from the get-go on how feedback should be delivered (virtual or face-to-face, with time-limits etc), and that it should be constructive and respectful. Brutal honesty and false praise can be equally damaging to a work in development, not to mention the writer’s ego. Set firm rules. Aim to suggest and question, rather than dish out orders, or offer examples of other authors’ works that might be useful. Be openminded when reading. Your peers’ style or genre might not be to your taste but that doesn’t mean you can’t be objective. And to avoid confusion, be clear on the number of words you’ll exchange and how often, and where you’d like your group to meet. I recommend the pub (if they ever open again).
Be true to you.
When it comes to incorporating feedback from your group, it’s important to remember you don’t have to use all, or in fact any, of it. One of the pitfalls of workshopping is the myriad of opinions you’ll receive. An attempt to include every recommendation will not only prove confusing, but probably counterproductive too. Explore instead, the common threads of advice or that which really resonates with you. Leave time too between meeting and incorporating this feedback, especially if it’s been difficult to hear. Then before you finally do sit down for another look, take a deep breath, and be clear about what you want to achieve. Remembering, that the most difficult advice to hear, is sometimes the best…
So, back to my original plug, ‘writing might be a solitary pursuit but with the support of a good writers’ group you need never feel alone!’ But be fussy. A good writers’ group should support you to develop your work and technique. Shop around, if need be. And, if the first group doesn’t feel right, keep searching. After all, there’s plenty more fish in the sea.
Emily Brewin is a Melbourne author. Her first novel, Hello, Goodbye, was published in 2017 and her second, Small Blessings, in 2019, both with Allen & Unwin. Her short stories have been published in a number of anthologies, including We’ll Stand In That Place and Other Stories by Margaret River Press and the Bristol Short Story Prize anthology. She has written for The Age, Meanjin, Kill Your Darlings, Archer, Feminartsy, The Victorian Writer and Mamamia. She is currently working on her third and fourth novels.