Building a Lasting Writers' Group

Writers' groups need commitment, planning and focus to succeed

by D.M. Rosner

Often, 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.

Common pitfalls

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 [1999] 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

© 1999 D.M. Rosner
First appearance, The Writer's Handbook 2000, Boston: The Writer, Inc., 1999
Second appearance, The Writer, November 2000, Vol. 113, Issue 11
Third appearance, The Writer's Handbook 2001, Boston: The Writer, Inc., 2000
Fourth appearance, How to start a writers group that works, The Writer, Inc., 2003 (print flyer)
Fifth appearance, The Writer website as .pdf file
Sixth appearance, online Finnish translation.

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