The friends I’ve made in writing workshops over the last 18 years are some of the best friends I’ve ever had in my life, and I believe this is partly due to the guidelines of the workshops in which we met. These respectful guidelines invited us to treat each other with appreciation, deep attention and generosity of spirit and, over the weeks, months and sometimes years of working together in this way, we came to love each other. (Well, I love them. Hopefully they love me back. JK, girls!) Such kindness can’t help but engender warm feelings.
However, human beings can’t be generous and appreciative all the time and so I’ve added a few tips of my own to these guidelines for dealing with jealousy and irritation that have allowed me to preserve these precious and infinitely useful relationships.
So here we go. First, you do the groundwork to find other writers. Stick a note on your library or town hall or community center notice board announcing that a new Writing Group is forming locally, or visit your closest college. (Online is my least favorite option – who needs more screen time? – but there are good ones. Check mediabistro.com.) On your note, put an email address as a contact, and, since you probably won’t know the respondents, arrange the meetings in a public place so you can stop/take a break easily without having compromised your privacy.
To make this super simple, here’s a list for the first meeting. Just print and hand out. Modify as necessary for your group.
1. Introduce yourselves, the type of writing you’re engaged in, and your goals.
2. Decide the following, knowing that later these guidelines can be amended if the group wishes.
3. How often to meet? (Once a month can be too infrequent, once a week can be too much.)
4. How many pages is each person willing/able to read in between meetings? (For many years, whilst writing short shorts, I opted out of reading massive chunks of a novel because it interfered with my writing rhythm and wasn’t a fair exchange of time. If you state this before the group gets going, people don’t mind.)
5. Will you email the writing to each other? How many days prior to the next meeting?
6. Should you set up a schedule for each person to submit so the group’s time and attention are shared reasonably fairly? (If the group is large, this can be helpful.)
7. What sort of response does each person want? (Writers of first drafts may only want to know if the content is moving or engaging, whilst writers getting ready to submit will want the most rigorous editing possible.)
8. Do people want suggestions for a better sentence, transition, etc? Or is it enough to know that something isn’t clear?
Once the work has been swapped, and you’re sitting around the table ready to respond to someone’s work:
1. Tell the author what stands out, what works.
2. Ask gentle, thoughtful questions about what wasn’t clear, and consider using the phrase, ‘I didn’t quite understand why…’ instead of ‘You don’t make it clear why’.
3. To be time-efficient, the author being critiqued should spend little or no time defending their work. It’s enough to understand the questions a particular reader has, and review them later when you revise, along with the other readers’ responses.
4. Also to save time, it’s best to discuss characters in the writing as if they’re fictional, and avoid those time-consuming and non-productive yes-this-really-happened-to-me conversations.
Additional Tips for Maximum Success – Jealousy and Irritation
Be cautious in how you phrase your comments about someone’s work. Bear in mind that everyone responds to a piece of work in their own way, and the beauty of a group is that you will become familiar with each person’s approach and can incorporate it (or not) into your revision.
Try to meet at a time when when you’re reasonably fresh and alert.
Try not to critique a piece when you’re tired. It’s hard to focus on what’s right when you’re pooped, and even harder to be generous. (I rarely edit my group’s work after 3pm. I just can’t extend myself as well later in the day.)
When someone achieves something fabulous, of course you’re going to be delighted for them, but it’s only natural to feel the sting of jealousy, too. That’s human nature. Just remember that your group is a rising tide and, if you’re working with successful writers and keep working hard, your successes will come too.
Want to Get Published and Paid?
If these are also goals for your group, set aside 15 minutes at the end of each meeting to discuss submissions. Come up with three target markets and a date to submit a particular piece. Commit to each other that you will follow through and follow up via email or in person to confirm it’s been done. If you’d like somewhere to start, look at eChook’s submission page for our app deadlines and submit 750 – 2,000 words to us. We pay up to $100 plus 10 free apps. We look forward to reading your work!
Lastly, remember what Martha Graham said (I have this stuck above my computer):
“There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique, and if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium; and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how it compares with other expression. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”