Writers Group Success Depends Upon Attention to Organizational Priorities.

John J. Hohn and dog Jessie

I decided to try it again. Join a Writers Group. I have participated in four different writers’ groups over the past several years. Only one was a positive experience. While I am willing to allow that the negative outcomes may have had a little (or even a great deal) to do with my own dynamics, I think that the larger share of the failure falls on the group itself in that they did not take the time to establish rules of order, criteria for membership, and a clear statement of their mission. For my part, I do not plan to participate again without these essential organizational priorities addressed.

  • A minimal acquaintance with group dynamics is important. New members joining the group should be introduced at the opening of the first meeting that they attend. Allow some time for the new members to present background on themselves. Nothing builds trust and acceptance like having things in common with others.
  • Any writer wishing to present a piece should be required to submit it in writing to all members at least 72 hours before the meeting takes place. Internet makes this easy. Anyone failing to make the deadline should not be permitted to present. Comments can be annotated and be more thoughtful as a result.
  • Any participant who has not read any of the pieces submitted by the time the meeting takes place should not be allowed to participate in the critique of the unread pieces.
  • A review committee should be established to review applications for membership. Application should include a representative sampling of the candidate’s work.
  • Acceptance of new members should be based upon the appropriateness of the new member’s submission as to genre, level of artistry, and stated reason for wanting to participate.
  • Officers should be elected. Every participant needs to know who is in charge.
  • Meeting should be run with stated rules for presenters including time limit for reading, discussion, and feedback.
  • Presenters should be encouraged to make a second presentation of the same piece at a later date.
  • Criticism should be expressed in the form of questions only. For example, “You used too much dialogue,” would be expressed as “What were your reasons for using dialogue as much as you have?” The meeting moderator should invoke a rule of order and request a rephrasing if necessary whenever the format is not followed.
  • The play is the thing. Writers’ groups usually are not established as therapy groups. While deeply personal subject matter may be introduced by a piece, the focus of the group should be on the writing and not how the author coped or survived the situation.
  • Groups should allow only new work to be presented. Presenting previously published work is trolling for applause.

The Risk is Greatest for New Members

Reading without providing the text to the group in advance rarely produces a positive outcome. The presentation is dependent upon the listeners’ attention. A couple of simple examples may prove the point. A commenter observed that the writer had used the word “group” too often in the closing paragraphs. Upon inspection, however, the word “group” appeared only once in the entire article. Another commenter said that she was “tired of hearing about ‘officers’ boots crunching on the gravel.’” The phrase to which she objected appeared only once in the text itself.

Submit Pieces for Review in Advance

Writing is not strictly an auditory art. The appearance on the page is extremely important in poetry and prose. Shifts in the narrator’s point of view are more obvious in print than in a recitation. Shifts in verb tense, likewise, become more apparent in print. A reader must rely on inflection to do the work of punctuation. Many writers are not gifted readers. Even if they are, it is very easy to give a line the wrong emphasis or inflection. The punctuation in print, however, is fixed and should resound in the reader’s ear without fail when it is noticed.

It is a disservice to participants if no criteria for admission enforced. Experienced, published writers may want to devote time to writers who are just beginning. They can find opportunity for doing so apart from the group. A piece of bad prose is like a bad golf swing. There are so many things wrong with it that it is difficult to find a place to start in rectifying the trouble. “You should take a course and the community college,” one writer was told in a meeting I attended recently. I felt like saying, “Yes, and the group made a mistake by inviting you to attend in the first place. You will find a more receptive and helpful audience in the classroom.” Keeping an unqualified writer in a group is misdirected kindness. There is nothing kind in having inferior work panned by the group in every meeting. Likewise, there is nothing considerate in requiring experienced writers to listen to criticism from someone who is not a peer and undertake explaining themselves when everyone else considers it lost time in doing so. Perhaps the analogy with music again might make the point. A beginner musician  is not expected to play at the level of a concert orchestra.

Several years ago, in another group, a young woman joined and presented a well-written piece of fiction. Zombies attacked a stranded icebreaker in the Arctic. Every writer in the group was seriously focused on realistic fiction and poetry. The new member’s genre did not receive the welcome it might have received in a group that chose to include fantasy in their charter.

Writing is a lonely business. We write for the same reason we read—to discover that we are not alone in life. Writers groups are serious business. Playing golf or joining a bridge club is a better choice for fellowship. Writing is the pursuit of an art. For some it is a hobby. Hobby writers need hobby groups and I am all for them. Serious writers need serious groups. Anyone who does not know the difference should start with a hobby group. Hobby groups should turn away writer who are overqualified to participate, or allow them to participate only if they are clear about the groups mission and the level of writing produced by the members.

I realize that others may have a great deal to add to this topic and I encourage a response by commenting on this web site or on LinkedIn where I will be posting notice of this article.

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