July 25, 2010

How to Facilitate a Writers' Group

A writers group provides support, encouragement and critique.   It is a great way to give structure to your writing project and to get good feedback.  The group does not have to be large; 3 people is great.   Over 6 people will require more time for the meeting and to read manuscripts.   I've used the following guidelines to facilitate groups.  

Guidelines for Writing Groups
for a critique group: 3-6 people

Plan your group process with the members of the group.   

Are you a closed group or an open group? Multi-genre or single genre? How will you take in new members? When and where will you meet?   I've found that it works well to meet at a coffeehouse or restaurant, especially if you can reserve a quiet corner.   It's a neutral territory and eliminates worry about housekeeping or managing pets or displacing family members at home.   Decide the length of time that you will meet.  One hour is good for a small group. Over two hours is too long.  What is the primary goal of each person in the group? (This is important. Some people find having a deadline is what they need. Some just want to get started and don’t want a lot of critique that might be discouraging. Some have a large manuscript or past published work and want “deep critical examination.”

This is a good time to decide if you want to designate one person as a facilitator or time keeper.    This person can help manage the group process.   

Prepare for your writing group session.   

Make a clean, readable copy of your writing.   Format it in the same way that you would if you were sending it to an editor or publisher.  Bring enough Xerox copies of the work you want comments on—hand these out.

Be courteous.  If you will be late or must miss the group, notify the facilitator or other members.   Don't bring uninvited guests.  Writers are often reading works in progress and might prefer to have more private sharing.    Also, writing tends to be personal.  A new person might cause others to feel uncomfortable.
Learn to detach from your writing.   

Read the work aloud (or an excerpt of the work aloud) while members read along with you. Don’t apologize or dismiss your work. Reading out loud in itself will reveal some flaws or things that need to be added or omitted. If you have specific questions about the work, you can ask your reviewers to consider those.   It's a good practice for the writer to remain silent when members are giving feedback.   Resist explaining your decisions.   The readers must rely on what is written on the page and should respond only to that. 

Let your work stand on its own. Members of a group should practice ‘detachment’ from their own work when it is reviewed. Remember it is the work that is being scrutinized, not you the writer. Don’t take things personally. The feedback is an opinion and you don’t necessarily need to follow any advice or suggestions. Simply hear the feedback and then deliberate on your own. 

Don't monopolize the time.   Each member should have roughly equal time for reviews.

Give good feedback.  

Reviewers should make observations about the work. Notice what works well. Identify the strengths. In poetry, you should be attending to the sound, rhythm, pattern, imagery, metaphor, word choice. Be specific. Avoid general or vague comments like “this is good” or “I don’t like it.” Explain what exactly works for you and why. Note the shifts or confusing things. Reflect about what doesn’t seem to work. In prose, give feedback about dialogue, setting, action, point of view, and other aspects.    Note discrepancies or things that don't make sense.   Sometimes reviewers will disagree—all the better! The writer should sit back and listen to the feedback.

It is not necessary to tell the writer how to “fix” the work.  This might feel supportive, but it also might feel overbearing. Recommended solutions may not reflect the writer’s own style.   Ultimately, the writer will need to make the decisions to bring the work into line with his or her vision.  

Check in with each other regularly.

Take time to review group process. Your group will want to discuss how much time to spend on each work, and you will also benefit from talking about the individual writers process as well. Try to avoid distracting yourselves with personal information or experience. It’s easy to get sidetracked. Perhaps assign somebody to be a time keeper or to remind people to stay focused on the written work.

Set up an email list. Notify each other if you can’t attend. Respect each other’s time.

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