Rules for Writing - Rule #9 - Thou Shalt Get Thee a Writer’s Group

Years ago, my fiction instructor/mentor, Richard Cortez Day, instructed we newbie writers that regardless of genre, regardless of practice and regardless of experience, every writer should get her or himself a writer’s group.

More valuable than going it alone, more essential than participating in a creative writing degree program, the writing group can provide writers of any experience level with a venue for collecting immediate and intimate feedback for their works in progress, which is a service few people in our lives can provide us.

(For all their good intentions, the non-writing supporters in our lives aren’t always sensitive enough when reading through an in-progress manuscript because they are looking for the finished, transporting—and transformative—experience of a completed work; whereas we eternally-struggling writers often need advice and encouragement that will keep the writing process moving forward. A tricky skill-set is required.)

By almost pure accident, I have the good fortune of being part of a writer’s group here in Portland, OR. Twitter led me to Cait Spivey (@CaitSpivey) and Kisa Whipkey (@KisaWhipkey), and for nearly a year we have been meeting almost monthly to review each other’s work, however complete or incomplete that work may be. Cait and Kisa challenge me as both reader and writer to confront my myopic views and limited capacities. We have fun, (or at least I do) and I appreciate the time and energy they’re willing to put into our ragtag group.

So how do you set up your own writer’s group?

We may as well use the same criteria that Day gave us:

  • Keep the Group Small -  3-5 people max
  • Make the Group as Diverse as Possible - Not diverse just by gender and race, but also in writing style/genre
  • Include at Least One ‘Shark’ - By ‘Shark’ Day meant include a writer who will brutally rip through your manuscript, leaving chunks of bloodied chum bobbing in the crimson wreck of your manuscript. (Day’s belief—and it’s a sound one—is that if you can make that Shark if not love but at least respect your book, you have probably made the manuscript stronger and better in the process.)

While I agree that diversity is essential, I don’t adhere as either writer or critique partner to the Shark methodology. We’ve all had those assholes in our creative writing classes who like to use our stories as platforms for their own brilliance. (Full disclosure: I’ve had this charge levelled at me in my past creative writing classes, and although I didn’t intend to be a Shark, I like to think that I learned from the experience since then. We are all in the shit together, after all, and empathy and compassion should always guide our criticism.)

So invite the Shark at your discretion. I advise caution here.

The truth is that there is a redeemable component in every draft (God knows I’ve had to mine the tiniest of jewels from the voluminous piles of excrement I’ve put on the page.) And there’s something positive to say about every manuscript. There really is.

The right writer’s group participants, in my mind, go beyond just complimenting a manuscript. The good reviewer engages the writer in a discussion that through the course of the dialogue leads everyone involved to a fuller, more complete understanding of the work in progress. Every writer should walk out of a critique session invigorated with new ideas for how to make his or her story better. Yes, there may be a lot of work yet to do, but no one should leave a review session feeling defeated. 

As a writer (and as a human) I still have a lot to learn. A lot. If a fellow writer can help me solve a narrative or character-driven problem, that’s a precious gift. If I can provide that same service for another writer, then I’ve helped along the entire writing endeavor and isn’t that what really matters?

Writer, get thee a writer’s group!