Download the PowerPoint presentation that accompanied the workshop
from “Tips for Successful Writing Groups”
Chris M. Golde
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Association for the Study of Higher Education
The Importance of Having a Watch
Time is a precious resource for graduate students, so it is important that the group be an efficient and constructive use of everyone’s time.
- Be on time.
- Write regularly. Writing bi-weekly, or monthly can be a good prod to making progress.
- Produce work when it is your turn. Hand it out in a timely manner, for most thoughtful feedback.
- Be strict about time keeping within the group. If you only have an hour, agree how the time will be spent, and be firm about moving on to the next topic.
- Agree on the amount of time each person will spend reading and preparing feedback in advance. Establishing these norms can also help the “on” person focus their requests and the amount of text they provide.
Great Expectations: Building Trust
A good group has a high level of trust between members. This has to grow and develop; it is earned. There is a difference between a group of colleagues and a good writing group. You can trust it and count on a good writing group, which allows room for other kinds of shared experiences.
- Laugh together.
- Read each others work in advance. Set aside time to do this thoroughly and thoughtfully, and review it before the meeting.
- Be honest and thoughtful in your feedback.
- Hold each other accountable for the commitments you make. Don’t accept excuses for not reading work, or for skipping meetings.
- Don’t apologize for your work. Don’t be embarrassed by it.
- A group is a safe place to try out new ideas and present work very much “in progress.” Use it to take intellectual risks.
- Set time to update each other on milestones, triumphs, frustrations, personal lives, etc.
- Celebrate together.
- Creatively develop and employ the strategies that most effectively motivate you and your group. In one of my groups we mandated that the last person to arrive must bring cookies the following week. This cut tardiness dramatically. We once wrote a timeline for one person’s proposal writing, and we all signed it!
- Ask for and give focused feedback. I often attach a cover note to the draft I am handing out explaining what is new, what I am trying to do, and what I would like in the way of specific feedback. I might say: “Please focus on the explanation of and integration of the conceptual framework,” or “I really need some positive feedback, so tell me what you particularly like,” or “Please be picky about grammar and wording this time.” The more clearly you know what you want and can articulate it to others, the more likely you are to get the help you need.
- On some occasions, we have had the “on” person listen and take notes, without responding to the feedback and discussion. This may continue for 30-45 minutes. While it is awkward and frustrating at first to listen to people discuss you as if you weren’t there, it can be illuminating to hear the group try to understand and explain your work to each other (rather like discussing a reading in class). This can lead to a nuanced understanding of how you are expressing your ideas which might never emerge if you had been able to respond and explain immediately.
- Have someone else take notes, or tape record the session. This frees the “on” person from having to record the discussion in detail, and allows them to focus on the discussion and their participation.
- Alternate bringing snacks to the meeting. This makes the meeting more enjoyable.
- One group took a weekend retreat together. This was a time for team building, and longer discussions of work in progress.
Warning Signs: Possible Pitfalls
There can be negative aspects to group work. Occasionally conflicts of personality or expectations arise, and must be addressed. Some other pitfalls to be alert for include these.
- Intellectual property rights are increasingly debated on college campuses. If you are studying topics similar to that of other members in your group, it is important to air these issues. How do you acknowledge and cite each other? Who retains the “rights” to ideas developed within the group?
- Conflict may arise, for example, one member may demand more than they give back. Conflict resolution techniques may need to be employed.
- The time of renewal for a group, when considering adding new members, can be a difficult period. Discussions of who to include must be conducted with candor and confidentiality. The integration of new members requires patience.
Writers’ Groups Need Commitment, Planning and Focus to Succeed
By: Rosner, D.M., Writer, 00439517, Nov2000, Vol. 113, Issue 11
Database: Academic Search Premier
Ofter, writers are their own worst critics. As a member of a writers’ group for more than 10 years, I’ve found that participation in a good critique group not only helps me keep perspective and polish my writing, but also brings me inspiration during those inevitable dry spells. Experience has also taught me, however, that there are a number of pitfalls any new writers’ group should avoid. The following suggestions will help you get off to a good start.
Forming your group
All you really need to start your writers’ group are other writers and a place to meet with them. Here are some ideas:
- Ask any writers you know if they would like to form a group. If you don’t know any other writers, try visiting a local college campus, (evening writing classes draw writers of all ages and abilities) or writers’ conferences. You’ll find listings in most writers’ magazines.
- Try to keep the group small. Having more than five or six members limits the ability of the group to critique one another’s work. If you have a larger group, you may need to limit critiques to a few members’ works per meeting.
- At the initial meeting, decide how often, when, where and how long you will meet. For instance, our group meets at 7 p.m. every other Monday at members’ homes or at coffee bars, for approximately two hours.
- Decide what type of writing you want to be the focus of your group. My group is for fiction writers; others are for poetry. Some cover a wide range of genres.
- Discuss how much material each author can submit for critique at each meeting. Ten pages per person per meeting is generally a good place to start.
- Set up a system for critiques. Do the members prefer to read the work at home beforehand and bring their comments to the meeting or to have authors read their work aloud at the meeting and invite comments? Reading aloud helps catch errors or sound out dialogue.
- Set your ground rules, including how to choose a leader or mediator. Clearly establish the group’s expectations of new members either through bylaws or informally.
- Decide if members should report what they have accomplished since the previous meeting, and, if so, select someone to keep a record of this information.
A word about critiques
The purpose of a critique is to provide honest comments on members’ work. If your members are new to the art of constructive criticism, you may want to create guidelines for critiquing. These could be helpful in reminding participants to share positive opinions, point out areas that need work and provide reasons for each criticism.
Here are some tips for critiquing:
- Don’t forget that many writers–new writers in particular–have fragile egos. However, there is such a thing as being too nice. If some thing about a member’s piece isn’t working for you, it’s important to share that with the writer in a direct but tactful way.
- Give a balanced critique, taking care to point out the parts that work, as well as those that don’t.
- Explain the reasons for your comments or suggestions.
- Don’t argue with another member’s opinion of your work. If you don’t agree with the changes suggested, just don’t use them. If you don’t understand why the suggestion was made, politely ask the person giving the critique to clarify the comment.
Occasionally, we’ve asked a member to leave the group. We’ve learned from our mistakes over the years and have established bylaws and a screening process for new members. The following guidelines will help prevent problems.
- Be very clear about exactly what you expect from your members. Something as simple as expecting them to come to every meeting can cause misunderstanding and resentment.
- Be sure all your members share the same level of dedication. Your group can be serious or informal, but it’s best not to try to mix the two.
- Every member should be expected to put an equal level of effort into critiquing one another’s work.
- If you have a problem with a member’s level of participation or method of critiquing, the leader or mediator should talk to him or her as diplomatically as possible about the problem. This may not always work and the member may choose to drop out of the group. But sometimes, what seems to be .a major problem is nothing more than a minor misunderstanding blown out of proportion.
Keeping your group alive
This year my writers’ group celebrated its 10th anniversary. We’ve stayed together so long because, luckily, our members are serious writers who are dedicated to one another. Some members have come and gone. Many left only because they’ve moved out of state, and we all still keep in touch.
If you want your group to last, it’s important to find other writers who share your level of dedication. Whenever new members join, explain your group’s guidelines to them. Don’t feel that your group has to be limited to its scheduled meetings. Our group holds a variety of special events, such as:
- Novel Day, during which we meet for a full day of work on our individual projects. Writing in a room full of other working writers is very inspiring. (We hold three or more such days each year)
- Annual Halloween party, for which we write a story to be read at the party (and come dressed as one of our characters).
- Annual retreat, held over a long weekend, usually at a bed and breakfast.
Writers’ groups can be helpful, inspiring and a lot of fun. For more ideas, visit our group’s Web site at http://www.6ftferrets.com.
By D.M. Rosner
D.M. Rosner’s short story “The Black Cat of Antietam” appears in Dead Promises, an anthology of Civil War ghost stories. Her essays, articles and short stories have been published in Connecticut, where she has also worked as a radio journalist. Check out her web site at http://www.dmrosner.com/
Faculty Writing Groups
- The Writing Center Guide to Writing Groups
- MSU Writing Center – Faculty Writing Groups
- Writing Groups at Suite101.com
- Cal State Fullerton – Faculty Development Website – Writing Groups
- “Balancing Teaching & Research,” by Professor John Whalen-Bridge, Dept. of English Language and Literature, National University of Singapore in CDTL (Centre for Development of Teaching and Learning) Brief, August 2004, Vol. 7, no. 7. http://www.cdtl.nus.edu.sg/brief/V7n7/sec4.htm
- Hetzel, June. “How Critique Groups Propel Professional Writing,” in Delta Kappa Gamma Bulletin, Spring 2004, Vol. 70, No. 3
- Lee, Alison, and David Boud, “Writing Groups, Change and Academic Identity: Research Development as Local Practice,” in Studies in Higher Education, May 2003, Vol. 28, No. 2
Elizabeth Ahl, WAC Coordinator
Plymouth State University, MSC 40
Plymouth, NH 03264
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