Michael A. Griffith teaches courses and workshops in public speaking, communications, and creative writing at the college and adult continuing education levels. His essays have appeared in Teaching For Success, Ripen the Page (where this essay appeared in slightly different form in August 2016) and Lehigh Valley Woman's Journal. His poetry has recently appeared online on sites such as The Blue Nib, Dual Coast Poetry, Stanzic Stylings, Poetry Quarterly, and Dissident Voices. He resides in Somerset County, NJ.
What Writing Group is Best for You?
Dave Kavanagh’s article from issue 13, “What use are writers groups anyway”, explores the pros and cons of joining a writing group near you. In this article I will give perspectives on what you can expect at writing group meetings. I know I would have benefited from much of this information when I attended my first meetings at various writers’ groups.
“Various writers’ groups” is important to keep in mind not only as you read this article but also as you seek out writers’ groups. There are several writers’ groups that meet within 25 miles of my home, each with different personalities and goals. For instance, one group which meets at a local coffee shop is devoted solely to provide a dedicated regular time and place for members to meet, chat a bit over a coffee, then get down to writing in quiet for several hours. There is no critiquing, no in-depth discussion; instead there is light conversation and socializing, then nose-to-the-grindstone working. Members can and do meet together outside of the regular group sessions for deeper talks and to sometimes work together, but this is not the outward intention of this group.
Most groups list their goals and expectations of members in their public postings on such platforms as Meetup.com, Facebook, Craigslist, their own websites, and fliers at local libraries. To determine which group fits your needs best, read the groups’ listings carefully. If contact information is provided, reach out to the contact person with any questions or concerns you might have before your first meeting.
Libraries are great places to hold writing group meetings, and most public libraries offer space for such groups to meet if they do not host such a group themselves. These groups feature a fairly fluid line-up of members as some people drop in for a try while other members are regular stalwarts who attend every meeting. These meetings almost always begin with friendly introductions and conversation, followed by sharing of local events of interest to writers, members’ success stories and writing/publishing advice. If members have brought copies of their latest work to consider, reading and critiquing occurs. Finally, highlights for the next meeting are discussed. Members tend to hang around a bit after the meeting proper breaks up for more conversation. (Good luck getting creative people to stay quiet for long!)
Beside the friendly camaraderie of writing group meetings, the reading and critiquing activity is what I find most valuable. I belong to a very active poetry critique group and each poem I have read at the group’s meetings has become much stronger as a result of other eyes and ears considering my work. Creators are very often too married to their works to see them objectively. This is where the coaching fellowship of a critique session can help.
If the group you attend offers time for reading and critiquing, be sure to provide enough copies for each member. Your name and page numbers should be on each page. At most, three pages per member per meeting should be considered. In the case of my poetry group, one poem per member per meeting is the norm. If you are using pages from a story, article, or play, be ready to give a brief set-up to the part you’ll be addressing at the meeting. Depending on the group, reading may occur in silence, one member reads another member’s pages out loud, or the member reads her piece aloud. Be ready to jot down advice you’re given, and copies you have provided may be given back to you with ideas from members written on them. The comments may seem a jumble at first, and not all of the ideas you receive will be as helpful as others. But taken carefully, they can do much to give your writing dimensions you could have never given it yourself, since an artist can not anticipate exactly how a work will be perceived by its audience.
Members’ egos may come into play before, during, and after a critique session. I will address the care and feeding of the artistic ego in my next article. For now I just give this advice: Have a thicker skin than you may normally have when going to an in-person critique group. It’s much easier to push a “Like” on Facebook after reading or skimming over a poem than hearing and reading one in-person with the expectation you’ll give and receive meaningful feedback. A life of fast and easy (and potentially impersonal) “Likes’ is worlds different from a life of carefully considering what works and might not work in a piece of art.
Beyond this, some critique groups are more challenging than others, treating pieces of writing like puzzles meant to be deconstructed and reconstructed, while others are more supportive in nature, seeking mainly to point out potential problem areas and leave the main body of the work alone. In like fashion, some members are much less tactful than others. Do all you can to accept each comment with thankful grace and, if need be, the grain of salt we all need to carry with us throughout our days.
So as you seek out writing groups, look at each group carefully to make sure you’ll find it a good fit for your desires. Joining a romance writers’ group when you are writing science fiction may yield some interesting results, but you’d probably do much better joining either a general writing group or, better, one more fitted to your specific genre.
Do you want a group to spur you to write regularly by meeting once or more a week at a set time and place to pretty much just write, a sort of writing gym? Would you benefit more from different perspectives when you examine your work? Are you mainly looking for a friendly group of other local writers to meet in a public place and chew the fat? Chances are, if you live in an urban or suburban area, there are groups to meet each of these desires already meeting nearby. And if no such group exists, what’s to stop you from forming one?
Writing Group Meeting Checklist:
Read group listing carefully. Does this group fit your needs? When and where is the next meeting? Contact the group with any concerns and questions you might have.
What to bring: Pad, pens/pencils, copies of your piece for each member (extra copies are better than too few). Consider snacks or drinks for you and other members and/or a drink for yourself.
At the meeting: Be courteous; don’t hog time (this is hard to gauge, since we often don’t allot ourselves time limits to speak), and be open to the comments of other members while offering helpful feedback when it’s your turn to do so.