A writer’s guide to feedback and writing groups

Guest post by Elizabeth Markham.

For most of us who write, the desire to share our stories with the world (and maybe even get paid for it) means we can’t write in isolation – we need feedback.

There are many ways to get feedback, including through editors and manuscript assessors (for a fee), and sometimes even through the comments that may come with a rejection. But this feedback comes quite late in the drafting process.

So how do you get feedback on a work in progress? I recommend joining a writing group – sometimes called critiquing group.

What writing groups offer

While here I’m going to focus on feedback, the benefits of a writing group go beyond that. They offer a chance to socialise with other writers, discuss experiences and read a range of stories you might not otherwise read. But feedback…

If you’ve ever received ‘it was good’ as the sole comment on your work, then you know that not all feedback is helpful.

The advantage of having other writers reading your work is they are usually avid readers too (so know what they like). They should also have a better understanding of story and craft than non-writers.

With luck, the writers in your writing group will have had some practice giving feedback. Through giving feedback yourself, you should also find you learn to be more analytical when reading your own work, which can quickly lead to cleaner first drafts!

Opinions

The thing to remember about receiving and giving feedback is that you’re dealing with opinions. Like getting an opinion on anything in life, you need to find people whose opinion you trust and respect.

But if you ask for their advice, you can’t get angry with them for what they say. And just because it hurts your feelings doesn’t mean you shouldn’t listen! Whatever that person disliked about your story, there’s a good chance other readers will too – and one of those readers might be an editor deciding whether to publish it.

When giving feedback, don’t forget to praise what made you smile as well as what made you frown, and always talk about the writing, not the writer. You might think it’s just common sense, but always use respectful language.

Good writing groups and bad

First the bad. If a group contains too many inexperienced writers, you may still essentially get feedback like: ‘It was good’. A group can also have members with an agenda – from wanting contributors for their pet project to hating a particular genre.

Sometimes, writing groups will have writers who fancy themselves as experts and will drone on, often without providing much useful feedback. Groups can suffer from a belief that tearing people’s work into itty-bitty pieces is the same as giving constructive criticism. It’s not.

What about good groups? A good group will usually be organised, with a regular meeting date and a few rules to keep the critiquing moving along in an orderly manner. I have to say that a good group will also usually have at least half its members older than 25 (less partying and more robust egos).

These days there are also a lot of online critiquing forums and groups. These have the advantage of always having people available to critique, and you certainly get diverse readers, but it can be harder to convey meaning through text alone, and there’s not always the social aspect. It might, though, be perfect for you!

Pick and choose

People often form groups after meeting in a workshop or course. It might develop into a fantastic group. Or not. They might be wonderful people to socialise with but not so good on the feedback. You might even feel you learn a lot at the beginning, but then reach a point where it’s not working for you.

You need to be willing to leave, or join a second group (time permitting). And if you’re getting feedback from readers, editors or agents that says your craft needs work (grammar, pacing, etc), then it might be time to look for a new group that can help you with that.

Starting a writing group yourself

Some suggestions:

  • Each person should have a few minutes to deliver their comments (it controls the ramblers).
  • The author shouldn’t speak during the comments, but can have a ‘right of reply’ at the end (avoids defensive or argumentative comments).
  • Pick a regular meeting day and stick to it (everyone knows when it is and can organise to be there).

It’s also worth talking to potential members to check that they’re a good fit for your group before letting them join. Other things to consider include how often you meet, whether you have a submission schedule or people just submit when they want, and whether you meet in a hired room or someone’s house.

These are all matters of taste and convenience, but work them out in advance. All groups need at least one organiser (and you may get stuck in that role), but a good group is always a community, not a possession.

Personal experience

It took me three groups to find a good one, and I’ve been privileged to belong to an excellent group for the past six years. In that time I’ve learnt a lot about the technical aspects of writing and about the publishing industry, and gained valuable insight into how readers read stories. Looking back I can see the growth in my work.

A final word

Possibly the best thing about a writing group is the practice it gives you in tucking your ego in your back pocket and accepting that the story you are so proud of needs to change. Not an easy thing for any writer, but this is exactly what editors and agents will expect you to do with grace. Which is not to say you should always yield.

You’ll also learn how to stand-up for what you think definitely shouldn’t change.

  1. Despite the fact that I’m on the older side of 25, I’d add something to the comment that good writing groups should have at least half it’s members over 25…
    The writing groups I’ve attended in the past have been characterised by most, if not all the members being over 50 – and perhaps I’ve been unlucky but these groups were an utter waste of time – egos, defensive criticism, cliques and stroking-instead-of-feedback abounded.

    I don’t think it has anything to do with age – artistic humility, an openness to a reader’s response and the ability to give that response in a constructive and helpful way are not attributes that are confined to the over 25s. I’d far rather my work be critiqued by a young, enthusiastic writer who knows they have a lot left to learn rather than an older, arrogant writer who assumes that age and experience = talent and writing ability.

    1. @Elizabeth First of all, thanks for the article! All very good, common sense advice.
      @Jenn I thought someone might pick up on the under 25s reference, but I thought I’d wait before I mention it myself!

      The thing about writing is that people can, and do, take it up at pretty much any age. I know when I took my masters, I was just 22 but had more writing knowledge and experience than quite a few people who were on the course with me. And yet I was the youngest by far.

      So I think it depends on your writing group. If you can find one that has a genuine mix of people – age, gender etc – then that’s likely to provide better, more varied feedback. But even then, there are no guarantees. Like Elizabeth says in her comment, find what works for you.

      And feel free to shop around!

  2. Jenn,A very good point about older writers assuming age = ability to write. I’ve experienced that too. In fact, in the worst crit group I’ve experienced for arrogance and tactlessness I was the only person under 40!

    My experience of groups that were entirely / mostly writers in their early 20s though was that the groups failed because of the study, work and social commitments typical of that stage in life.

    I was that age myself when I had the most contact with these groups, and got very disheartened for a time because few of my peers could give a tactful crit or take criticism. It’s struck me since that we just didn’t have a more experienced critiquer around to learn from.

    The groups I’m currently a member of both have people from 22 to 60 something, and are really good groups.

    But the core of my advice is just; find what works for you!

  3. Elizabeth,
    I am so impressed by this level headed approach to writing groups. It can be so hard to find just the right fit and I’m glad you recommend searching until the right group is found.

    Smart feedback givers know that onion sandwiches work best: The more onion you’re asking someone to eat, the more bread you need to give them to help the onion go down.

    Congrats on this guest post, Iain. These things are why your site is one of the best on the web for writers.

    George

  4. @Iain – Again I think this is a preference thing, but I personally disagree about the importance of being ‘at the same level’ writing-wise.
    I mean I’d hate to be the only experienced writer in a group of newbies, but I’ve learnt a lot from people who’s writing isn’t at the same ‘level’ as mine.

    I learn from their mistakes, and I learn from having to put into words the principles of craft that they’re missing. Mind you I’m an trainer by trade, so it could just be I enjoy the aspect of imparting knowledge!

    Seriously though, what’s been most important to me in the groups I’ve enjoyed & am enjoying, is that everyone is at the same level of seriousness about their writing, and level of commitment to the group.

    1. @Elizabeth Sorry, that’s exactly what I meant by level – that the people you’re working with take their writing as seriously as you do and are prepared to turn up each month/week having done the work. I do think it’s good to have a group where people aren’t too far away in terms of ability, but it’s perhaps not as important as those other elements.

  5. @George – Very glad you enjoyed the post.I was really pleased to be able to contribute something to Write for Your Life.

  6. I have visited a few writing groups over the years and while I am certain that there are good ones out there, I have yet to find one whose members can handle anything other than the congratulatory back-slapping. They also persist in running morning meetings on a weekday and then wonder why they are struggling for members.
    I have come across groups whose members are worse than your own family; everything you write is awesome and it’s really odd that the book you’ve been working on for twenty years ain’t on the Waterstone’s tables yet. Then, of course, God help the poor soul who is trying to break the news gently… you’re and your are two different things, as are affect and effect and breath and breathe…

    I perfectly understand that many people are happy to stay at amateur level for ever. They don’t seek publishing deals or any other validation beyond reading a little piece in a small group and be told that it was really nice. I am fine with that. What doesn’t thrill me, however, is the prospect of one or two writers who have the abilities to jump from amateur to pro muddling themselves with a certain type of writing groups. They are the kiss of death when one knows no better.

    And the whole under-25 vs. over-25 thing has its own issues too, as noted above. If your group is entirely made up of over 60 (as often seems to be the case, I don’t know why, but it may have something to do with meeting at midday on a weekday), you will end against brick walls, especially when you suggest that an online platform is vital to a writer these days because publishing is changing rapidly and blah-di-blah. ‘Well, books are still made of paper, so I don’t see why I should go on the internet’. Oh my, yeah right, ok. Good meeting.

  7. @Steph – you put it much better than I did, and I agree with you. Have you thought about setting up your own group?
    I’ve recently started my own creative writing critique group and we’re in the very early days, but it seems to be working. I invited people who I knew were serious about their writing and made it a private, closed group – we’re not open to new members right now, and if ever we decided we would be, new people would be auditioned through a reading of their work and everyone in the group would have to agree on the new person joining in.

    So far, the feedback has been a well balanced combination of what works, what doesn’t work and a discussion as to why – most of us have been published already or are aiming for publication so people are already putting in a significant time commitment and it’s been clear from the beginning that if you want careful feedback you’ve got to put in the effort to give it and commit to coming to the meetings…

    I think Elizabeth’s comments on how to set up a writing group are really useful – it can feel a bit strange to be so formal about it, especially if you’re setting it up with friends, but in actual fact I’ve found that if everyone knows the level of commitment and feedback that is expected, then you can have a lot of fun with it.

  8. Jenn, I think that is a fab idea and I am impressed that you went through all that trouble in order to create a quality group but then, I am also not surprised that it is working well, as a weeding process is often necessary in order to establish what you’re about from day one.
    I have considered the whole writing group thing on and off for ages but I must confess to have encountered a mental block of sorts because of what I know and the education that I’ve acquired (PhD in critical theory which, while not being the be-all-and-end-all of useful educated opinions seems to put, not me, but ‘people’ off). I have noted that many are comfortable to work with those at THEIR level or below (which is silly to high heaven) and whenever they perceive someone to be as much as half a step ahead, they go incredibly defensive.

    Of course, this leaves me greatly deflated for two reasons:

    1- if I had had the opportunity to meet someone who ‘knew better’, at least in some areas, 10 years ago, I would have jumped at the chance, if anything, to sit and watch until I felt comfortable enough to speak; AND

    2- it’s not like what I do translates into thinking that nobody can say anything of value. I LOVE to be involved in person, not just online, with like-minded people and I find that my best ideas always creep on me when I have shared the creative process with someone.

    However, I don’t like the resistance that I perceive hanging in the air simply because I’ve edited a few books or because I’ve got my own little book coming out. I believe that there is much value to be found in our exchanges about the creative process, but people seem to get cold feet at the mere *idea* that an editor is running a writing group. In a roundabout way, I can understand that (just) but… If they wanted to become pro Cordon Bleu chefs, would they go to chef school or would they prefer to teach themselves at home? It’s depressing for those of us who love an intellectually stimulating environment.

  9. @Steph – Sounds like you’ve experienced some very frustrating groups! And I think you’ve hit on something very difficult about writing groups; some member’s can have a lot to learn. This can make the grammarian / editor types seem like niggly nit-pickers. It can also lead to one person taking the lion’s share of the group’s time and energy. That’s tricky territory!
    @Jenn – Good luck with the group. Sounds like it’s off to a great start. 🙂

    Very interested in your vetting process, because that’s always a tough thing to work out, though I must admit the group I’ve been with longest didn’t vet potential member’s work or even meet them before they joined when I started! By some magic this has worked, but it’s probably not how I’d set one up myself.

  10. @Steph – Your 2nd post came in while I was writing the above so this is a response to that…
    I know of at least one successful writing group that formed after people met at an intensive workshop. (There were editors and a mix of published /unpublished authors among them.) Aside from having bonded during the workshop, they all had a similar seriousness and approach to improving their craft (that’s what led them to the workshop) so the group worked really well.

    Maybe you should try an environment like that – you might meet the people you’re looking for.

  11. Thank you Elizabeth! And it’s confession time… I am running a workshop in Manchester at the end of this month and I secretly hope (well… not so secretly now!) that it may blossom into something else!!!

  12. @everyone Ace conversation folks!
    A bit more of my own experience. I think it’s important to make sure that your writing group is at roughly the same level as you are. If possible, with some people further on and more experienced.

    When I started my Masters I was terrified. It seemed everyone was so far ahead of me. And some of them were, of course, but the very fact that we were all on a Masters course, and had gone through a pretty tough vetting process, meant that the standard of writing was pretty high.

    More importantly, it meant the feedback would also be of high quality.

    That said, if I have learnt one thing from being amongst other writers, it’s to take all feedback on board. You can do what you like with it from then on, but never dismiss someone’s opinion without thinking about where it’s come from first. Because writers are also readers, you know.

  13. Iain, I think that dealing with people who are much further ahead of your own writing game, although intimidating at first, is going to pay in spades in the long run. It forces you to up your game, if only you manage NOT to feel too inferior and pointless. But then, even well-established authors go through the anxiety of influence, it isn’t just the prerogative of those who are learning or are hoping to make it to pro.
    Working with the best one can find is extremely rewarding, even when you feel like you cannot possibly have anything of value to say (that soon passes…). In fact, it is ignorance I fear much more than knowledge. My academic background has shown me, sadly in painful ways, that it is always those who know less who create problems for themselves and others. Working with the ones on a par with us (or, worse, below) invariably squelches our ability to grow. In short, it either makes us worse than we are or it infuses us with a misguided sense of being better than we are.

    By the way, it sounds like we are hijacking your lovely online home with lots of ra-ra-ra-ra-di-rah, hahaha! No, really, this convo’s great, thanks for hosting it! 😀

  14. “You might even feel you learn a lot at the beginning, but then reach a point where it’s not working for you”
    Hope you don’t mind me joining the conversation, but this really resonates with me. I’ve been writing for the past five years or so, and have found the things that help me have changed over time. To begin with I joined an online writing community, which was great as I learned a lot about the craft of writing, the different genres, and what I actually liked and didn’t like to read. But after a while everyone became too friendly and the critiques were less and less effective. I’ve stayed in touch with a lot of the people I ‘met’ there, but after a couple of years I decided to try a real life writing group.

    At first the writing group was a revelation. It was a really mixed bag where age and background were concerned, and everyone was completely honest in their critiquing, which was refreshing. We would all sit together and each week three or four people would read and everyone would comment. But when the group got too big and we started splitting into smaller groups to critique, I found it far less helpful, not least because some of the people were pretty deluded when it came to the standard of their writing. Gradually, people drifted in and out (myself included), and when I tried to go back recently I felt that some of the original magic had been lost.

    I also came to realise that going to the writing group every other week was turning into just another distraction from my writing, and that it was therefore becoming counter-productive. So for now I’ve decided to go it alone once more, though that’s not to say I would never go back to a writing group. In many ways it was an enriching experience, but I do think it can be damaging if it gets to the stage where it’s so self-congratulatory people lose sight of their own strengths and weaknesses and think they’re better than they really are. Therein lies failure, in my opinion, and no would-be writer wants that. You have to keep it fresh and in perspective to succeed.

  15. @everyone Great discussion folks – keep it coming. I honestly think the reason so many writers fail to improve is because they’re utterly deluded and think they don’t have to. Humility goes a long way in all walks of life.
    @Miriam I know that the forum over at Editor Unleashed is pretty popular. Although it looks like they’re currently suffering from the much talked about GoDaddy hosting problems.

  16. @Belinda – It’s really interesting how groups can change over time. In my case it was people starting families and other things that put a dent in my main group for about two years (which led to me joining a second group). Ironically my first group is picking up again now as kids get older and new faces join.
    You might also start a writers’ brunch or coffee group instead – I’ve been enjoying that with writing pals, where we just talk writing, books and movies rather than crit. Very handy when you need to talk out a plotting issue etc, but also just prevents the isolation of writing.

    @Miriam – Hopefully someone can jump in and make suggestions for online groups to look into (I’m a face-to-face person myself) but you should be able to find some just by searching as there are quite a few online now. They might be called Critiquing Groups / Circles though, I’m not sure. Good luck with the hunt!

  17. I think something else that’s important to remember about groups is that it is really vital to read and critique everyone else’s work with the same amount of care as you’d like them to critique yours. No-one is getting paid, and it needs to be reciprocal – because that’s polite, and because I think most writers learn as much from close reading and responding to other works in draft as they do to hearing these responses about their own work. I’ve noticed on-line groups in particular seem to be plagued with new members who post work and expect it critiqued but are unwilling to make a contribution to the community.

  18. @Miriam – I was a member of http://www.writewords.org.uk, and did find it really helpful for a time.
    @Elizabeth – I think I’m just at that stage in my writing ‘career’ (if that’s what you can call it!) where I need to cut out all unecessary distractions and focus on my own writing. I absolutely agree that writing groups have their place, but when you’re so busy you can hardly find time to write in the first place, it seems to me they can just put up another barrier to actually getting on with it. Does that make sense?

    @Jenn – you’re so right about people posting work and failing to reciprocate. That was one of the reasons I left my online writing group, because it was just too one-sided in a lot of cases. I was taking great care to critique others’ work thoroughly, but often would get only a ‘wow, that’s great’ kind of response to my own, which was just so frustrating.

  19. @Belinda
    It’s really irritating, isn’t it? I’ve been wondering for a while if there’s a correlation between polite people and good writing – maybe polite isn’t what I mean, but humble. I’ve noticed that people who don’t listen, don’t contribute to a group / community and think they don’t have much to learn are massivley over-represented in non-selective writing groups and their writing is usually awful too.

    Or maybe I’m just in a bad mood today!

  20. @Jenn – LOL You’ve mentioned one of the most aggrovating things about trying to find the right group of people. Some people don’t really think of it as community and others are just plain selfish.
    I wonder if the online environment makes it easier for people to not reciprocate because they’ve never ‘met’ the other people? Though I’ve seen it in face-to-face groups too.

    But suspect we’re making finding a good group sound like a lot of hard work, so I’d like to add that even though it personally took me quite a few goes to find a good group, the benefits of being in one have far outweighed the pain! 🙂

  21. Oh I know I definately need to improve my writing, there’s no dount about that. It is just trying to do that without all other distractions that happen in life.
    At the same time I feel a bit torn, as I would like to be in a regular writing group, but I think I need to get myself in a regular pattern with my own writing first, before that happens. But it also happens that I am quite shy when it comes to, what little, writing that I have done.

    But I’ll be sure to come back to this article in the future.

  22. @Matt – Sometimes a short course on writing can be a gentler way to get used to putting your work out for comment. Courses tend to have more new writers in them and obviously everyone is there because they want improve their craft. And there is nothing like paying for something to make you want to turn up!
    I found when I first joined a writing group that it was a real spur to write regularly – acted like having a deadline I guess. But I found it very hard giving and recieving crits at first as I was pretty shy myself. The thing to remember about writing groups, is that you can learn a lot (even from a not so great one!) and you get tougher and more confident too.

  23. Oh I know I definately need to improve my writing, there’s no dount about that. It is just trying to do that without all other distractions that happen in life.
    At the same time I feel a bit torn, as I would like to be in a regular writing group, but I think I need to get myself in a regular pattern with my own writing first, before that happens. But it also happens that I am quite shy when it comes to, what little, writing that I have done.

    But I’ll be sure to come back to this article in the future.

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