The 10 Commandments Of A (Functional) Writers’ Group

Writing can be a lonely craft – solitary hours turning into months as the writer navigates plot and wrangles characters. This is an essential part of the process. But every now and then it might be useful – even advisable – for the writer to get up from their desk and re-join civilisation in the form of a writers' group.

Writers’ groups can provide a safe space to share one’s stories and learn about the craft. They can be a great boost when you have spent just a little too long on your own (mental health for creative writers is an important issue) and they provide a valuable community – and writers need a literary community.

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Some of the benefits of writers’ groups include:

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  • Being part of a community of likeminded folk – all bound by a mutual love of books and writing!
  • Being able to discuss plot, POV, and character development with people who care about plot, POV, and character development
  • The opportunity to “test” out early drafts of your work on a real, live audience
  • The opportunity to learn from other writers
  • Great place to get writing related information and tips on events, competitions, and publishing opportunities
  • Can provide motivation to finish that draft or sticking to your daily word count
  • Writing fodder – writers’ groups can bring together the most eclectic mix of weird and wonderful people
  • The chance to help fellow writers and contribute your experience, wisdom, and expertise

If you are nervous about joining a writers’ groups, just remember we are generally a super friendly, helpful bunch. There are many place to find them and www.meetup.com is a good place to start.

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You can make your choice by genre, location, reviews, or pure instinct. While some of the groups have lots of members listed (hundreds, in some cases) general turn out for meetings tends to be around 10 people or so. If in doubt, just send your chosen group a message with any questions, thoughts, or concerns you may have.

So – writers’ groups are great. But sometimes things can go wrong, so in order to avoid conflict/chaos it’s important to consider these few helpful tips...

1. Thou shall approach politics with caution

One great thing about writers’ groups is that they bring together people of all backgrounds and political/social persuasions. It is a place where you will have the opportunity to get to know people very different from yourself, who may hold views opposite to your own.

While this will provide you with the opportunity to explore different perspectives (which is essential for all writers) these conversations should be handled with care.

In-between the business of writing and writing related talk, it is inevitable for politics to eventually creep into the conversation. Generally, this is after the first four or five meetings when the group has relaxed and exhausted more superficial convo (“where are you from”, “what do you do”, “hot/cold, isn’t it”).

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This is when someone will suddenly make a bold statement about immigration, welfare, Aboriginal people, women/men, sexuality, the environment, or “What’s Wrong With This Country Is...”

It will be a telling statement, which will immediately position them on the political spectrum. Some people in the group will nod in agreement while others will pale with outrage. A heated conversation is likely to commence and, if things get out of control, some people will not return to the group.

If you happen to agree with what was said be sensitive to the fact that other’s might not.

If you happen to disagree…

  • Do not lose your temper or try to force your world view on others – that’s not how you change opinions and attitudes
  • Stay calm, listen, and try to understand – that’s how you change opinions and attitudes
  • Use the discord to learn about yourself – Why do certain topics trigger you? How do you deal with conflict? Why is your view correct? Are you able to be kind and patient even when frustrated?
  • If what was said was truly offensive register your disagreement calmly and walk away – remember that the most frustrating people make the best characters
  • Also remember that you don’t have to have anything to do with that person outside the writers’ group

Bear in mind that other people believe their beliefs as fiercely as you do (here are some helpful tips on talking politics). Remember that you are all humans, with different experiences of the world, and that what has brought you together is your love of writing.

2. Thou shall keep feedback friendly and constructive

People are sensitive to perceived criticism, so make sure you provide feedback in a considerate way. Remember that, however wise your input, it is just your opinion.

Always provide feedback with the goal of helping your fellow writer. Feedback is about the piece of writing – not about you or the writer. Whether you loved the story or hated is irrelevant – you can always offer constructive feedback. A useful tip is to focus your feedback on the seven key elements of fiction:

  • Character – are the characters believable?
  • Theme – is the theme clear, which means is the writer clear on what they are trying to say?
  • Plot – is there one and does it have a good flow?
  • Point of view – is this consistent (or purposely and effectively inconsistent)?
  • Setting – the writer create a strong sense of place and atmosphere?
  • Tone – is the tone even and consistent or does the writing jar?
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If you have nothing to say on a certain piece – that’s ok too. This might be because the story is just so brilliant that you can’t think of anything to add. Or it might be because it’s just terrible. Either way, it’s just fine to step back in the conversation.

There are few things more frustrating that someone feeling the need to offer input when they clearly have nothing to add. It takes a certain type of maturity and self-awareness to say “I have no ready opinion on this.”

Instead you might ask the writer questions and try to understand where the story came from and what they were trying to say.

3. Thou shalt not form cliques

Separate – but related to – the contentious issue of politics are the many facets of personality that make people likeable/unlikeable. You are unlikely to become BFFs with everyone in the group, but you should be kind and considerate with everyone.

While you might have a natural affinity with some people try not to form little clubs or 'cliques' within the group. Make an effort to be inclusive and offer everyone the chance to have a say, read their work, or provide feedback.

Some people might find the notion of a writers’ group pretty intimidating. Other might be shy or socially awkward. Be nice. Take the time to really get to know people and you will be rewarded with unexpected friendships!

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Group dynamics are an interesting phenomenon and everyone has responsibility to set the right tone. Every group goes through different stages, and one helpful model defines the stage as:

  • Forming – people are getting to know each other and the group is getting established
  • Storming – differences in personalities emerge and conflict can arise (it is at this stage that differing political/social views will surface)
  • Norming – differences are resolved and the people start really cooperating
  • Performing – collective goals are achieved
  • Adjourning – the group breaks up. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing and it generally signifies a natural end. In a writers’ group this can happen when people move on to other things or other places. But it can also happen if the group becomes too disorderly.

In writers’ groups the situation tends to be more complex as new people tend to come and, sometimes, go. But there will nonetheless be a few core people who keep the whole thing going. If you become one of these core people it is especially important that you make newcomers feel welcomed.

4. Thou shalt not share stories outside the group (and other values)

This is an obvious but important point – unless you have asked for permission first, do not share other people’s work with your partner/neighbour/friend.

Most people are very nervous about sharing their work, especially if it’s their first time. While you might wish to share a story because you loved it, always ask for permission first. Never post anyone else’s work on social media.

This is all about creating trust in the group, which is essential. It might even be worth setting down a few ground rules and sharing these with new members. While this might sound a tad official (and perhaps pretentious) it can be very useful in creating the right atmosphere.

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The point of ground rules is not to “police” people or limit their input but to agree to a set of values. It might be that you only have one principle for your group, like mutual respect. But having clear values, and communicating these to new members, will help create a positive environment.

It will also give new members a bit of an insight into what to expect. This can be very comforting to someone who is joining a writers’ group for the first time. It creates boundaries and acts as a mini instruction manual.

You can chose to do this formally, by writing the ground rules/values down. If you can do this informally by simply mentioning these at the beginning of meetings. You may even chose to simply consider that values matter to you (like mutual respect) and demonstrate these by example.

5. Thou shall give and receive feedback

One of the great benefits of a writers’ group is the opportunity to have your work read. Having access to your very first readers is a special kind of privilege. It’s a brilliant opportunity to test your work and fine tune it.

At their best writers’ groups can be an incubator for seedling ideas or effective pruning for more complete pieces of writing. It provides you with the chance to ask questions of your readers and understand what works for them and what doesn’t.

But you have to be prepared to return the favour and read other people’s work. It is the worst of form to only show up to your group when you want feedback on something.

If you don’t have the time to attend a session ask that the piece up for evaluation be emailed to you. It’s ok if you aren’t able to provide feedback immediately but make sure that you do – even if it is in email form.

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As mentioned above, if you can’t think of constructive feedback ask questions instead. Use this as an opportunity to learn from your peers. Seeing how a story changes (for better or worse) over time and through different drafts is very interesting and instructive.

It can be hugely satisfying to walk alongside a fellow writer on their writing journey. We all know how frustrating it can be to get blocked in one’s work. Sometimes a fresh pair of eyes can really help. Be grateful for the opportunity to help.

6. Thou shall select a meeting chair

This helps keep the conversation on-point. A good meeting chair will also make sure that everyone gets a say so that discussions are not dominated by a few people.

As with the ground rules (which the meeting chair can remind people of) this can be done informally. And you don’t have to call them a meeting chair (which does sound formal). But having a process in place will help keep things running smoothing and will help prevent anyone feeling excluded.

Generally, there will always be a person who takes on the role of facilitating proceedings. If that person does a great job – great. If they don’t do a great job – try alternating. This is especially important if the person leading the discussion starts dominating it.

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Obviously if you are new to the group it’s difficult making suggestions like this. You may wish to wait until you have gotten to know people a bit better, around the norming stage mentioned above. A gentle way of dealing with this might be to have a private chat with the unofficial “leader” and suggest they share the burden.

Generally a good meeting chair (or whatever you chose to call them) will:

  • Make sure everyone is included in discussions
  • Listen more than speak
  • Keep discussions on point

One thing to keep in mind is that a bad “leader” can really put people off. If you happen to be the person with the unofficial responsibility of facilitating the group, make sure you are doing a good job. Ask for feedback and take your cues from the group. It’s a bad omen if people show up once, never to return.

7. Thou shalt not take things personally

Nobody likes to hear their work criticised, but remember that your fellow writers are there to help you. Consider feedback carefully – not everything will be relevant or useful. What will be useful is seeing the reaction of your first readers.

As Neil Gaiman said:

Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

Another key point is making sure your work is ready for feedback.

Generally, you should avoid submitting a first draft. This is when you are still working things out. This is also an important part of the creative process. The very early stages of a story are delicate and fragile. This is the time for you to clarify your ideas and find your voice. It is not the time to bring in other, sometimes conflicting voices.

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It can also be a bad idea to submit work you feel is finished – unless you make it very clear what kind of feedback you are looking for.

Don’t be afraid to tell your group what kind of feedback you are looking for. You may want general feedback on how the story “feels”, specific feedback on characters/plot/dialogue/setting, or copyediting help with syntax or grammar.

Before submitting a story to your group it’s useful to consider that you need.

And make sure you actually want, and are open to, feedback. Do not submit work you think is amazing and complete just to impress your fellow writers. Best case scenario, it’s a waste of everyone’s time. Worst case scenario, you get your heart broken.

8. Thou shalt not be prejudiced by my own preferences

You have to be willing to read and provide constructive feedback on any genre. While you may not be a fan of erotic fiction, you should still be able to consider the main aspects of character, plot, setting, etc. This isn’t about what you like, but if the story works.

This can also be an opportunity to try different genre – both as a reader and as a writer. The thing to keep in mind is that when you are providing feedback you are doing so as a writer.

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The best feedback comes from people who are able to read as readers but feedback as writers. This means suspending your writerly judgment while reading and simply enjoying the process. Try reading the work at least once without taking any notes. After you have read it, consider:

  • Did you enjoy it?
  • What was the story about?
  • How did the story make you feel?
  • Was the place clear in your mind’s eye?
  • Did you feel a connection with the characters?

Giving constructive feedback involves being aware of your reaction as a reader and translating that reaction into craft. If you, for example, had no idea what the story was about, you may suggest the writer work on the plot element.

9. Thou shall be reliable

Try to attend meetings. Provide feedback if you have committed to it. We all have busy lives but it’s important to show the kind of respect to others that we want in return.

In writers’ groups there is always the question of critical mass. If a critical number of people are flakes, the group will unravel. Maintaining a functional writers’ group requires the same attention as maintaining any relationship.

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While you might not think that your presence or input are all that important they really are. You are part of a greater whole and each individual’s contribution, however subtle, is invaluable.

If you are uncertain about how much time or energy you have, be honest. If you don’t know how to best support a fellow writer, ask. You don’t have to have all the answers and you don’t have to be an expert – all you need to do is show up and be considerate.

10. Thou shall be generous

Be generous with your attention and with your feedback. Share great book idea, or resources like useful websites, competitions, or publishing opportunities.

Let other people have a say. In fact, encourage other people to take part in discussions. Sometimes people might not be ready to submit work for feedback in the early stages – keep inviting them to do so. This doesn’t mean telling them that they have to, but simple making it clear that they are welcome to do so.

Writers’ groups (like all groups) are dynamic. Generally, the tone is set very early on and new people fall into the groove. If you have established an open, respectful, and supportive environment, people will respond by being open, respectful, and supportive. But, like always, it begins with you.

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If you have never joined a writers’ group give it a go. Even if you are not ready to share your work, it will bring you a community of like-minded people – which can provide great comfort.

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