Writing groups, workshops, or getting insight from people you trust are all necessary in the artistic process of writing. No matter the genre or the scope it's important to have a critical eye look at you first draft (or drafts) and help you flesh out your novel, story, poem, personal essay, etc. Definition A writing group may be just that: a group that writes together. Or it may be a group that writes together and critiques one another’s work within a session. The basis of a workshop is that the entire session is dedicated to appraising each other’s work. It’s important to differentiate the two in your mind and decide what you may want in terms of help with finished pieces or just a push to write on a consistent basis.
Atmosphere Writing groups and workshops are overly available and not, which is a Catch-22 of sorts. Mind you there are many groups/workshops out there full of "writers" but not necessarily writers with a critical eye. From high school on I've been in workshops and among people that vary from being overly analytical of your work (If you’ve never done that how can you write about it?) to not giving a damn because they aren’t serious (This class was supposed to be an easy A.) or just want to get as much feedback as they can for themselves (Enough about me, what do you think of me?). When you hit the jackpot and find not just one, but several people in a group who are outgoing and help you tackle the problem(s) in your manuscript it can be the best thing ever. When you experience those who just don't know what it is they do and don't like about your work, people who go on to focus on simple things like the overuse of one word, or simply say “I liked it” can make you downtrodden.
I’ve experienced good and bad writing groups/workshops in and outside of the academic environment. Students in my undergraduate and graduate courses were not “in the know” in regards to proper workshop etiquette and would either blatantly bash your work or roll their eyes at the thought of it or remain mute throughout the semester. In a smaller writing group outside of class things may be better or worse. Perhaps you have a thick skin and want to hear every last issue with your piece or maybe you want people to handle you (and your work) with kitten gloves therefore you need to hear the good along with the bad, preferably in that order. In the real world, with no instructor acting as mediary/Yoda there’s even more of a chance that people won’t stick to their guns about attending group regularly or providing feedback as there’s no threat of a bad grade on one’s transcript.
Etiquette For those of you who may not be familiar with the workshop environment here are some tips:
1) Sharing means caring – Everyone has a story to tell, so try to be polite and professional when attempting to critique another writer’s work. Sharing one’s work isn’t an easy thing to do and to be bashed by people you may or may not know can hurt the ego. So be kind and try to acknowledge the good and bad of a piece to show you care about the work itself and seeing it progress. Example: “I enjoyed the visuals in this piece and how much you made me feel in the moment as a reader in the first few pages. I completely saw the environment I was in in 1920s Mississippi. I did think there was a bit too much description at times and would suggest cutting certain parts. For instance...” 2) Don’t be afraid to speak up if something doesn’t make sense – Some may gloss over the points they don’t understand and just focus on what made sense to them in a piece. This can hurt the author because they can’t see what you as a, hopefully, objective reader can. After rewrites and plotting the author is so connected to the piece they may not see the glaring holes that you do. So if there’s anything that didn’t strike you as clear make sure to mention it and not worry if you may be the only one that missed something. Example: “I’m not too familiar with The War of 1812 so there were aspects of the battke scenes I couldn’t get into fully. Maybe you could be a bit more descriptive of the lay of the land and the machinery used then or add footnotes to certain things for those who may know to skip and those who don’t to take a look at?” 3) Multiple reads are a good thing – When writing a formal report sometimes you re-read portions of the work your focusing on to get a clearer sense of what you’d like to say about it. The same goes in a writing group/workshop. What you may have missed the first time around you may suddenly see in the second or third read. Or you may notice elements of the story that don’t work upon an additional read. I’d suggest reading a piece at least twice before providing feedback to the author, more if time and length of piece allow. 4) Keep an open mind – Many of us have our favorite genres. Some love science fiction and fantasy while others abhor it. Some love chic lit, others prefer literary fiction, some literary non-fiction, some historical books. We all have something we prefer over something else. Yet in a writing group (unless it’s focused towards speculative fiction, sci-fi/fantasy, YA, erotica, etc.) we have to be open to all sorts of genres. Just because you may not read YA doesn’t mean you won’t be able to provide suitable feedback to a member in your group. If character development is off or the setting isn’t clear than these are things that can be helpful whether you’re a fan of the genre or not. Example: “I was really into this. The narrator is funny and brought me right into the plot with his acerbic wit. Some of the more technical aspects of what makes speculative, speculative and not solely sci-fi I may be not know, but as a story I am entertained and would continue reading after the first few pages because I like the characters and setting.”
Of course, there may be times when you really cannot get into the work because you’re just not too into the genre for specific reasons (language seems too artistic and not focused, reminds you too much of Virginia Woolf and you can’t stand her) this is also a good time to mention you’re not the reader for this person’s particular style and can note the reasons why. Either way you’re helping to provide the author with some feedback as to who their audience should be, in which case this also helps them to know to narrow things down when submitting pieces to magazines or agents. Example: “I’m sorry. I tried reading it and it made me a little uncomfortable because of the heavy religious undertone throughout. I thought it was well written and held the main argument in the piece. But also felt it was kind of biased, so I’m afraid I couldn’t give it a fair read as you may have wanted. I just don’t think I’m the reader you may be reaching out to in this piece.”
The Good and the Bad There are writing groups that are open call and some that tend to interview participants before allowing them to enter the arena. In the case of the latter it may be a payoff because you know that the interview process is routine and that others have been through the same thing. Knowing a group takes applicants and their work seriously can only be a plus. I would warn one to be weary of groups where no meeting is necessary and one just throws their work into the fire. It’d be best to meet with members first, see how they treat one another and critique, then make a firm decision.
Something else to be weary of is writing groups with friends. Like everything in life there can be a good and bad side to this. I became friends with writers I met at an international writing conference. When we returned to our respective homes I got in touch with those in my area and we decided to meet monthly and discuss each other’s work. Since it was established that we were serious enough to pay through the nose to go overseas for a writing conference it turned out to be a positive meeting of the minds locally. On the flip side, I’ve attempted writing groups with friends of mine I knew wrote and these get-togethers were more happy hour hangout sessions than writing/critique sessions. Plus, friends may flake out more than those you don’t know because they expect you to understand. Hell, you saw your friend just last week at karaoke, you know what the deal is! This can make things murky so that the excitement in the beginning drops off slowly then steadily once other things get in the way. In these cases if you have friends who are serious pin them down, now. If it’s easier to just do some e-communication with them to get feedback on your work and vice versa this may be the route to go.
Move Forward Just because you may not have anyone with a critical eye to readily look at your finished draft(s) doesn’t mean you should pump the brakes on your writing completely. Continue to progress and proceed with other work. Heck, it wouldn’t hurt to give a piece a rest for a bit if you’ve been living with it for months or years before taking another crack at it. Let the manuscript marinate!
But in the mean time, be on the look out for writing groups/workshops in your area and see what they’re about. You might even consider going for a graduate or post-graduate degree to focus more on your writing and meet published authors that can give sound advice. Just. Don’t. Stop. Writing.
Here’s a list of places you may be able to give and get feedback on your writing: $ denotes fee
Online Writing Groups/Communities Critique Circle EditRed.com FanStory.com Goodreads Book Excerpts group Gotham Writers Workshop – Offers some free and fee-based courses online or in-person. ($) Mediabistro – Offers online and in-person classes/workshops. ($) Mike’s Writing Workshop Online Writing Workshop The MuseItUpClub Critique Group Scribophile.com ($) Writer’s Digest University (formerly Writing Workshops Online) ($) The Writers Studio
Workshops/Writing Groups Asian American Writers Workshop Craigslist - Every so often someone may post searching for writers to join a group in the Writing section. East Harlem Writers’ Circle (NYC) - Become a fan on Facebook! Freebird Writing Workshops (NYC) ($) Gotham Writers Workshop (NYC) – Offers some free and fee-based courses online or in-person. ($) List of Latin focused writing groups Mediabistro – Offers online and in-person classes/workshops. ($) Meetup.com – May list some writing groups/workshops seeking new members to meet regularly in various locations throughout the US. Morningside Writers Group (NYC) - Offers workshops in fiction, memoir, speculative fiction, and screenplays. ($) 92nd Street Y (NYC) Unterberg Poetry Center Writing Program for poetry and fiction workshops. ($) NYC Latinas Writers Group - Become a fan on Facebook or a friend on Myspace! NYC Writing Coach – Editor provides one-on-one help and workshops. ($) New York Writers Coalition New York Writers Workshop ($) The Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop (NYC) ($) The Writer Magazine list of Writing groups (USA) The Writers Studio
Local colleges/universities – Beyond workshop classes for degree students colleges/universities may also offer workshops for continuing education students. Alumni may be searching for people interested in starting a group on or off campus. (Here are a few places offering free writing courses online.)
Various writing conferences, residencies, and week-long (or longer/shorter) workshops go on across the country (and world) throughout the year. Poets & Writers has a list of residencies and conferences or you can try ShawGuides or Google ones by genre/location. You can apply for financial aid for many that are connected with colleges/universities or apply for grants you may already have from school or fellowships.
OR you can form your own group/workshop by placing an ad or conferring with friends (serious writers need apply!).