A listening ear can be the best medicine when I need writing help, and writing groups are the perfect place to find that ear. I remember the first time I was part of a writing group in high school. I felt that nervous anticipation of reading a piece of creative writing to a small group of my peers. I was nervous – would my words make sense? What would my peers thinks of the inner workings of my mind? It turned out to be a great building and learning experience and the place where I discovered that I had hope as a writer. The feedback was positive. And while not necessarily constructive, it gave me a good taste of how writing groups and it hooked me. I have since had many nights of my writing career spent participating in writing groups, and the things I’ve learned and feedback I’ve received have been invaluable.
Why Work with Writing Groups?
Writing is a process where we oftentimes bare our soul, our innermost thoughts – especially when writing memoir, autobiography, family history type work. When doing creative writing there is also some soul baring too. It can feel a bit awkward to read aloud your work to a group for scrutiny or even for praise. But it works. Why does it work? Because feedback is a vital tool for improvement and success. In our work with clients and students here at Evalogue.Life, we have found that it to be a universal need that people need and crave feedback on their projects.
There are several key reason why writing groups work:
- Writing groups give you a deadline. There’s nothing like a date on a calendar to get you working on your project. If you know you have a group to be accountable to, you tend to get in and get it done. For me, I make personal goals, but if I don’t have another human to be accountable to, I will extend the deadline. In one of the most productive writing groups I was in I would often write my vignette the night before, or even the day of the writing group – but I got it done nearly every time. There were some months I didn’t get it done, but I wanted to show up for my fellow writers and it hardly seemed fair for me not to do my part. As you join a writing group, you discover you are a part of a team and it becomes easier to meet a deadline.
- Get ideas from other writers. No two writers are the same. Writing groups help greatly to see how other writers work and it helps our own personal craft. Some writers are no-nonsense and stick to the facts while others write with lots of words and description. I fall somewhere in between. It is always good for me to see that all writing types have positive qualities, and this helps me to be a better writer. I think I have learned the most from writers who write the most different than me because that perspective has taught me volumes. Writing groups have also helped me to realize that everyone has a little writer inside of them, and our writing talents are what make us unique just like our individual personalities. I love seeing people’s personality traits come out in their writing and learning more about my fellow writers as people, but also seeing how they hone their craft. But also remember, comparison is the thief of joy. Don’t get too wrapped up in thinking other writers are better. Listen to the writers in your group and find what is good in their writing and in yours.
- Feedback is priceless! This is one of the best reasons to join a writing group. When you have a group with good chemistry, the feedback you receive really improves writing. If we take feedback in the positive way it is intended, it helps us to see how we can improve and make progress. There is nothing I love better in a writing group than watching the members take notes as feedback is being given. That’s how I know the writing group is working because the feedback is striking a chord with the writer.
- It helps with writer’s block. I don’t know about you, but I have moments where I feel stuck – not knowing which way to go with a story or even a short vignette. Am I over telling my story or not telling enough? Do I need more action, dialogue or description? This is all why a writing group can be magic. The people in your group can offer suggestions to help you move past the block. Sometimes the suggestions seem so simple, it’s a wonder why we don’t think of them on our own, but when we are feeling blocked, we just can’t make it past. Oftentimes, the group feeds on each other and you will come away with multiple ideas on how to move forward. And while they may not all work, you are successfully out of your block!
- It’s a great idea exchange. We often are in different places in our writing or working on a few different projects. The writing group will often have tips on all parts of the process because everyone is in a different place. Do you want to publish your work but don’t know how? There’s bound to be someone in the group that can help with that. Don’t know which software program is best for layout? Someone can help with that too. Feeling sluggish one month and can’t get past one or two paragraphs? Someone else has done that before as well.
Rules for Writing Groups
Before starting a writing group it’s important to set some solid ground rules. If there aren’t guidelines things can get out hand fast, and frustration will ensue.
- Have an expert on board. If you put together a group of struggling writers, your writing group will still be struggling writers when the group wraps up, which can be frustrating. By having a professional or expert on board you will have the chance to learn and get feedback from them and improve. As you do so others in the group will grow with you and better writing will result. In one of the writing groups I participated with as a young mother, the leader of the group was a junior high school English teacher with quite a lot of other writing experience. She was an expert at writing and thinking critically. Her feedback was mostly positive, but she wasn’t afraid to offer suggestions for improvement. Because the setting was one of love and understanding, the suggestions never seemed off balance, because she was a professional taking a professional stance. In light of her suggestions, then other could follow her lead and the writing improved in the group.
- Always have a moderator. The moderator does not have to be your professional and it oftentimes works to pass the baton at each writing group to different moderators. They keep track of time and keep the group moving along. It’s really easy to land on one writer and not move quickly along. All of sudden time is up and not everyone has read and people leave the session feeling less than optimum. A moderator keeps things on task. Make sure your moderator isn’t afraid to be assertive.
- Listen! Make sure the writers come as listeners. Encourage everyone to remove distractions and put their listening ears on. This is why the aforementioned moderator is important. If people are concerned their story won’t be heard, it is harder to listen because they are worrying about their own piece. If they know they will be heard it is easier to listen and pay attention.
- Critique – yes, criticize – no! It is important to critique a piece but not criticize it. This can be a delicate balance. Some questions to ask yourself as a piece is being read: Did you enjoy it? Did the main character go through a change? Was there a beginning, middle and end? 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 to the characters? Often asking these questions helps you to critique the story and offer advice or positive feedback. Sometimes writing groups will be filled with writers during the process of a writing a story so there may not be a beginning, middle and end, but there will be an underlying theme to discover.
- Each piece should receive three or more comments. It can be discouraging when someone gets done reading their writing and there is dead silence or a comment like, “That was really good.” Offer more! Offer specific things you loved or specific things that may need work. But never let there be silence. That is a killer in a writing group. It’s a good idea to remind the listeners at the beginning of the group to offer at least three to four comments.
- Be open to new ideas. You won’t improve as a writer if you don’t listen tot he feedback. Be open to new ideas and to change. Try the suggestions. If they don’t work for you, that’s okay, but be open to it. Writing groups take an open mind and an open mind is needed for growth to occur.
- Watch the size. A robust group of four to eight is good. Eight may be pressing the size. Six is ideal in my mind. Some sessions may vary, but you don’t want to feel tired by the end of the of the group or make your last reader feel hurried. It’s important to watch your size and do what works best for you. If you have a group larger than eight, consider breaking into smaller groups and mixing it up.
Find the magic in writing groups
There is true magic to be found in a good writing group. I love being a part of them. Here at Evalogue.Life we offer writing groups through the year and after our personal writing classes offered each spring and fall. Please feel free to inquire here to find out details. Writing groups can propel your writing to the next level.
Rachel J. Trotter loves family storytelling. A graduate of Weber State University, she has had articles featured on LDSLiving.com, lds.org, FamilySearch.org and Meridian Magazine. She has been a speaker at RootsTech, Weber State University Family History Conference, Conference on Family History at BYU and the Southern California Genealogy Jamboree. She helps people tell and write their life stories and has written six life stories with several more in production. She has also helped several others write their own stories. She and her husband Mat have six children and she recently became a grandma! She and her family live on the East Bench in Ogden, Utah.