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.