Writing Groups: How? Why?

September 30, 2021 § 11 Comments

By Aimee Christian

A few years ago, I took a ten-week class at the creative writing school in my city. As the sessions drew to a close, we talked about what we would do next: a break, another class, a writing group, work with an editor? I couldn’t decide. I was so fired up about my writing that I wanted to do everything but take a break. 

I went for coffee with a classmate who seemed to have all the answers. I downed my Americano and asked her if she wanted to be in a writing group with me. 

“No,” she said with confidence. “Writing groups and classes are too much work spent on other people’s writing. I don’t want to read and edit other people’s pages anymore. I’m going to invest my time and money in an editor to work on my own pages.”

I thought she was wrong, so I wished her well and took another class. And another one. She was right: the classes were a lot of work on other people’s pages. But I was learning. With every editorial letter, every line edit, my eye got sharper. With every reading assignment, I was becoming better-read.

And when it was time to keep revising the same pages I’d generated in class, it was time for writing groups. During the pandemic, I’ve created and participated in groups that have helped my craft, my process, my accountability, and my entire writing life. Writing groups have solidified writing in my life in seven ways: 

1) Accountability

Some of my writing groups provided, or were specifically for, accountability. People who commit their goals to another person are more likely to accomplish them. Knowing someone can see me keeps my ass in the chair! I have ignored my family and foregone beautiful weather, woken early and stayed up late in the name of completing assignments I said I would.

2) Process

Making time for thought. Making time for my words to breathe. Making time for revision. Having two and three and four opportunities to workshop the same piece. Having group members to read something on deadline at the last minute, or cry with when something gets rejected for the tenth time. Making time to try again and again. Having a proverbial drawer for all those drafts moving through revision cycles and the many pairs of eyes they need. That’s process. 

3) Learning

Writers are notorious introverts—but we also love to talk, and we memoirists love to talk about ourselves in particular. Even in my silent Zooms, we use the chat function like crazy. Ask a memoirist for help and you will hear all the details about how they edited, who helped them, what classes they took, what books they read, where they submitted, what tier rejection they got, and more. You will get offers to read drafts—maybe even an offer to edit. 

4) Editing  

Editing other people’s pages and writing feedback letters have helped me see similar issues in my own writing. When I resisted someone’s feedback suggesting I kill a particular darling, cut a section I loved, or clarify something I felt the reader should understand, it became crystal clear to me why only when I found myself giving that very same feedback to someone else.

5) Motivation

Connecting with other writers and seeing their growth is powerful. Hearing where they’re submitting, where they’re being accepted, helping them achieve their goals always makes me feel like their success could rub off on me, and often it does! I belong to one online group that holds submission parties, and another whose participants commit to getting 100 rejections in a year. 

6) Hive Mind 

I subscribe to lots of writing newsletters and scan calls for pitches and submissions on Submittable and elsewhere, but a group of writers means a lot more sets of eyes. I love getting texts, Slack messages, and emails with calls for pitches and notes saying “Thought of you!” or “Have you seen this?”

7) Camaraderie

Meeting other writers, whether newer or further along in their work, is the best thing about any group. Writers are the kindest, most generous people I’ve ever met. Writers better-published than I have read and edited my pieces, recommended and loaned me books, connected me with other writers, and suggested outlets to pitch. In turn, I have done the same. We are the only people who understand each other’s writing woes, and because of this, I’ve made lasting friends.

So yes, a writing group is time and work spent on others’ pages. But it’s also time and work for your own. A group can improve your writing and introduce you to a life of literary citizenship. Want to know more about how? Create one. 

Join me in conversation about writing groups! How to form one, why to form one, how to improve yours. Leave with tools to make the most of your time, minimize your efforts, and achieve your goals. First session is Sunday October 10th7:00 – 8:30 pm EST. Info and registration on this page

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Aimee Christian writes creative nonfiction, essays, and memoir about identity, adoption, parenting, and disability. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Cognoscenti, Pidgeonholes, Entropy, Hippocampus, the Brevity Blog, and more. She reads creative nonfiction for Hippocampus and is an instructor at GrubStreet. Find out more about Aimee and her writing at aimeechristian.net

Use Your Words (and Everyone Else’s)

April 13, 2021 § 5 Comments

Perhaps you’re in a writing group. Maybe you give each other live feedback, maybe you write it down, maybe both. And maybe, each time you look over your marked-up pages, you think:

Well…Bob certainly added a lot of commas…

Wow…Jane left like 30 comments. Now I feel bad I only gave her 4…

Cindy, that word doesn’t mean what you think it means…

“Enjoyed reading”? I made thoughtful comments on every one of your pages and I get back “Enjoyed reading”?!?!?

And yet, a writing group is still a great place for critique without spending a fortune on professional editing or getting an(other) MFA. How can you make your group effective for each writer?

Set clear ground rules.

Ask writers what they need.

Deliberately apply not only the feedback you got, but the feedback you gave.

Ground rules: Ever spent 22 minutes on one person’s pages and 7 on another’s? Ever needed big-picture feedback but got proofreading? Establish specifically what the group is going to do. If you have a defined leader, ask them for guidelines (they might feel weird about imposing rules unless you ask). If your group is egalitarian, bring it up yourself: “Hey, can we set a timer to give each person about the same amount?”

Set expectations for the amount and type of feedback. Frustrated with the number of comments you’re getting versus those you’re receiving? Ask! “Hey, am I overdoing it? I’m leaving 15-20 comments on y’all’s work, and I’m getting back 2-3. Is my feedback overwhelming or should I be asking you all for more?” Then you’ll know—do you need to ease off, are they slacking/unaware, or do you need a more rigorous group?

Ask what they need: For live feedback, you could choose the Liz Lerman critical response model, in which you ask, “Do you want to hear a thought on X?” The artist responds that yes, they do, or sorry, no, they aren’t working on that right now.

Control your own feedback by asking for what you need. Write at the top of your submitted pages, or say when it’s your turn, “Today I need to hear whether the sequence of events makes sense, and where I could add more tension. Please don’t bother to proofread or fix punctuation—I’m not at that stage.”

If you’re new to a group, try for at least one comment every other page, plus 3-5 sentences of your overall impressions at the end. Comment on what’s working as well as what isn’t. Be specific, and ask questions rather than dictating answers:

I’m getting that she’s a spy, from the radio she’s carrying, but then she says she’s just a mom—is that her cover?

Should we think he’s a jerk from stealing the bike? How much time will we spend with him in the rest of the book?

Then see what everyone else gives you and calibrate accordingly, or follow the example of the writer you think gives the most helpful feedback.

Particularly if you’re in a group of writers widely different in experience or skill, feedback often says more about the giver than the words. Pay attention to what each person says about everyone else’s work. If you think they’re off-base about another writer’s pages, take their advice with a grain of salt. If you find yourself agreeing with Janet that yeah, Sally’s pages lack a clear dramatic action, take Janet’s feedback more seriously on your own work.

Apply the feedback: Write down the verbal feedback and read your marked-up pages. If you agree and feel excited, get in there and revise. If you’re confused or unhappy, take a couple days, then go back and see what your critics agreed on. Chances are those places are worth your attention. But don’t just use the feedback you got—apply the feedback you gave, too!

Spotting problems in someone else’s writing is much easier than finding issues in our own work, or in published work from experienced authors whose books have been through serious editing. We’re not lost in the story. We don’t feel intimidated by polished prose. It’s like someone walking into the emergency room with a pickaxe in their skull. You don’t need to put them in the X-ray machine to spot the problem. By noticing “good grief, six adjectives in one sentence!” we can return to our pages and spot the one unneeded adjective in our own sentence.

Approach it like an assignment:

This seems like backstory—we know they’re hiking, when does something happen?

I count 13 adverbs and 15 adjectives in two paragraphs.

Telling us the brother is mean is repetitive, because we’re about to see him shove the narrator, so we don’t need both those things.

Pick one of the problems you critiqued and look for it in your own writing. Are you also starting the story too late? Have you repeated information? Does a word or sentence pattern stick out?

Writing groups can be frustrating, maddening, time-consuming…and incredibly helpful. For free. So grab your writing buddies and use your words. You’ll all be better writers for it.

Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She loves her writing group. You could meet your future writing buddies at the Rebirth Your Writing: Craft & Publishing Intensive May 16-20, as well as improving your platform, learning to query, and polishing your writing skills. For essayists, memoirists and novelists!

Take Another Little Piece of My Heart

October 6, 2020 § 23 Comments

By Eileen Vorbach Collins

I met them at a writer’s conference, my first ever. They have become my muses. The people I go to for inspiration, validation, celebration.

There were 12 of us in a memoir workshop led by Ann Hood. Each of our 25-page submissions were dispatched by group email weeks ahead of time, providing ample opportunity for intimidation. I read bios filled with MFAs, published books, impressive university teaching credentials and a two-time recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts. I looked for a reason not to go. There was the cost. Then I won an award for an essay that covered it and decided it was fate. I’d go, be humiliated, and finally give up this writing that’s taken too much of my time. My garden, choked by weeds, applauded this idea.

To trust another person—much less a group of 12 strangers—with your writing is practically a sacred act. Much of my writing is about my fifteen-year-old daughter’s suicide. It’s hard to write and harder to share. In a memoir workshop you can’t help but forge some relationships while strangers read and discuss the words you hemorrhaged and sweated, cried, laughed, and scrabbled onto a manuscript that somehow got you in.

I kept in touch with two women who’d stayed at the same hotel. Eventually, I got up the nerve to ask one if she’d like to share our work, one excerpt a week, for feedback.

At first, I thought of it as a temporary substitute for my local writing group, no longer able to meet due to the pandemic. When we started, we were cautious, not wanting to offend. There were a lot of “I like…” and “So powerful” comments. To make it easier, we started using LT! (love this) and SP (So powerful). We began to email outside our Sunday Google Doc, sharing writing we’d come across. Things we loved, some that we hated. We invited another woman we’d both gotten to know from the workshop and hotel. She joined us and quickly became an essential member of our little group, offering astute observations, gentle suggestions and years of experience in academia. We share submission opportunities. We champion one another’s successes on our tiny social media platforms. Every few weeks, we Zoom.

As our trust in one another grew, we came to incorporate IMHO (in my humble opinion) and “I’m channeling Ann here.” We all signed up for Dinty Moore’s webinar, The Power of Story: Finding the River of Meaning in Your Memoir or Essay , For the next few weeks we referenced his “Invisible Magnetic River” metaphor. “Take me to the river.” “I’m not seeing the river.” “Should I toss this one in the river?”

Recently, I sent an essay that was very difficult to write. They picked at it. Looking back at the first draft, I count twenty comments. “I think this moves too fast.” “IMHO it’s more than one essay.” “Need to go deeper here.”

Oh, hell no, you sadistic bitches! I’m not going deeper. Just that much scraped my skin off. I can’t look at that any closer, it will affect my heart. My spleen. My liver.

I put that one on a back burner. Nevertheless, they persisted. I revised and re-sent. Still, they weren’t satisfied. The hell with them. What do they know? I left it to fester and roil for another couple of weeks. Then, I took ten giant steps backward and reread their comments. I made a few more revisions. IMHO, it turned into my best piece yet.

My muses agreed.

Before that memoir workshop, before I found my muses, my essays tended to have Hallmark endings. I wanted to fix things. But what I needed to write wasn’t fixable. I didn’t want to sound whiny. I didn’t want sympathy. But there were no happy endings to be tied up in a pretty bow. Because I learned to trust these women, my writing has improved and I am not so much afraid of putting it out into the world—even when it’s ugly.

Despite the isolation of the pandemic, and also because of it, there are many opportunities for writers to make connections. Find your tribe, even if it’s a tribe of one. Send out that smoke signal. Put that message in the bottle. Scroll through Tweets and posts until you find your kindred and reach out to them. Search for the support you need to write the things that need to be written. The stories that it hurts to tell. Be that support for other writers. Get by with a little help from your friends.

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Eileen Vorbach Collins is a Baltimore native. Her work has been published in SFWP Quarterly, Lunch Ticket, The Columbia Journal, Reed Magazine and elsewhere. Her essay, “Love in the Archives” received the Diana Woods Memorial Award for Creative Nonfiction. “Two Tablespoons of Tim” was the winner of the Gabriele Rico Challenge Award. Eileen is working on a memoir about bereavement by suicide.

Two By Two

February 20, 2018 § 20 Comments

I’ve never been a writing group person.

We can’t leave until Janie gets back from the bathroom. Again.

1) I travel a lot (you may have noticed) and it’s hard to commit to meeting regularly with the same group.

2) It’s hard to find the right group.

Honestly, “right group” is the biggest obstacle. I would–and have–driven hours to write with the right people. I’ve extended stays in cities where good writing people live, fought down jet lag, gone through airport security twice on a layover to meet a writing pal in the landside coffee shop. Why go to the hassle when there’s plenty of Meetup groups in my hometown?

The right people are worth a lot of effort.

The wrong people, on the other hand, are a waste of writing time. Groups focused on genres I don’t write, or on self-publishing (no shade, but I need writing time, not marketing chat). If a group is way above my level, it’s hard to get good feedback–they aren’t working on the same craft issues I am. If they’re all beginners, I end up teaching people I don’t know for free. The jolly glow of literary citizenship is great, but it’s not what I’m looking for in a writing group.

Over at LitHub, Kaethe Schwehn points out why many writers are reluctant to start or join writing groups:

Though I don’t explicitly remember talking about writing groups in graduate school, I think many of us there subconsciously believed in the myth of the solitary genius. You know, the writer who tirelessly believes in himself, day after day, month after month, year after year, although no one offers him accolades or affirmation. The one whose faith in his own work is unflinching. And then one day THE WORLD UNDERSTANDS HIS GENIUS and he sells his books and buys a home on Cape Cod. The serious writer always did it alone. Sure, he might have a trusted reader or two to whom he sent a draft of his manuscript but he certainly didn’t have a group of friends over on a monthly basis for merlot and brie and casual conversation. Writing groups were a swamp of gossip and sentiment into which no serious writer would descend.

Schwehn also sings the praises of finding a group that’s the right fit, saying the mix of cheerleading and critique can be more effective than only picking work apart. That having a small writing community lets authors discuss craft and concepts beyond specific manuscripts, and that working in a group without an official leader allows freer exchange of ideas, without jockeying to earn the teacher’s approval for ‘best critic.’

I absolutely hear this. And I have it. Just a little differently. My writing ‘group’ is two great buddies I meet with 3 days a week when I’m home in Dubai. They haven’t met the writing buddy I sit down with when visiting my mom in Florida, or my first reader/muse I email and text and phone. Peripheral members include the blogging community I sat down with in a London co-working space, and the NaNoWriMo groups I sidled into last November. I wasn’t doing a novel in a month, but timed writing sprints among 30 people focusing in a Pret-a-Manger basement got me to my daily goal on a cold and lonely day. Sometimes, my group and I read to each other out loud or exchange work. Sometimes we set a goal at the beginning of a writing session–number of words, a blog post, number of submissions sent out or pages edited–and check in at the end on how we did (my favorite!). Sometimes we smile and say “Nice to meet you,” while packing up our laptops and forgetting each other’s name.

I wish I was a solitary genius, but I’m not. I can and do write alone, but it’s a lot more fun with other people around. The energy of showing up (and let’s face it, showing off–look, I’m still typing! Everyone else keep going!) fuels me, makes me finish that chapter I wanted to quit in the middle of–but everyone else was still going.

Your writing group might be on Meetup or the NaNoWriMo forums or online at Wattpad or Absolute Write. It might be a friend you know is typing something–anything. (I finished my chapter! You finished your expense report! Go us!) There’s no right way to do a writing group.

Yeah, sometimes people think it’s weird that I showed up once for their group meeting and came back a year later. But when I come back I’m ready to work, with whoever wants to work with me.

Read Kaethe Schwehn at LitHub on finding and keeping a great writing group. And let me know if you’re ever in Dubai–I know a great coffee shop.

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Allison Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. She’ll be leading a writing-group-ish-thing in India in June.

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