Tips for Writer’s Group Etiquette

By Julie Rogers and June Ford

My editor and I frequently talk to writers—many who are or have been members of writer’s groups. More and more we find ourselves pulling out these tips because we believe healthy writing etiquette among peers encourages good writing habits. When a writer begins working professionally with an editor, the carryovers from training, etiquette, and experience become clear. If a writer is inflexible or impatient, that comes out in the process. On the other hand, if an editor is a frustrated writer, the end product will be overwritten and stylistically untrue to the writer’s original vision.

We encourage struggling writers groups to put the following tips into practice for at least three meetings. We believe the best writing comes from writers who, by hard knocks or intention, are moving into higher realms of personal growth. Above all, we encourage all writers to continue becoming good writers, a process we believe never stops—by studying the craft, reading, and of course, writing your dream.

  • Inventory—Who are the participants in the group, and what are they writing? A writers group with longevity caters to the writing interests and skills of the entire bunch. Periodic surveys are helpful in determining whether needs are being met.
  • Involvement—Encourage members to speak to the group on topics they feel comfortable presenting. Topics don’t necessarily have to center around the craft of writing, but can pertain to work, experience, hobbies, etc.
  • Reviews—Book or movie reviews teach writers about elements of critique and how to examine their own work. Encourage members to present reviews, allowing ten-to-fifteen minutes, or one per meeting. When writing a review, include all statistics (genre, author, screenwriter, publisher, producer, director, year of copyright, etc.). Give a brief synopsis of the story, including the protagonist’s external and internal conflicts. Compare the work, if applicable, to other works that author/writer has produced. List strong and weak points of the work.
  • Written Critiques—Divide into subgroups of writers who share the same writing interests. The subgroup should be no larger than three people. Members should bring a predetermined amount of material (usually around five pages) to be read. The subgroup will read every set of pages silently for ten minutes and make notes or corrections on the copy. When all sets of pages are read, the group or subgroups will discuss each manuscript for ten minutes.
  • Oral Critiques—Divide into subgroups of writers who share the same writing interests. Each member should bring a predetermined amount of typewritten pages (no more than ten) to be read out loud. Allow ten minutes after each reading for oral critiques from other members of the subgroup.
  • Guest Lectures—If the group has no coffer for paying guest speakers, seek out possible freebies from new authors, editorial services, agents, area experts, and area colleges. Remember that these lectures should not center on the craft of writing. Area newspapers, and radio and television stations are good resources for who’s who or the latest up-and-coming in your area.
  • Positive Feedback—Read the entire work. As a general rule of thumb, find and list three positive points first about the work you’re critiquing.
  • Negative Feedback—Critiques that offer solutions to correct a problem are preferable. If you offer negative criticism, be prepared to present two possible solutions for every negative comment.
  • Share the Work—Whether by election or by proxy, members should rotate secretarial and moderator duties to avoid staleness and burnout.
  • Socials/Outings—Downtime and socials provide a more casual, less structured and intimidating atmosphere for discussing lengthier projects or writing woes. If the group consistently meets at one location, this change of setting can do wonders for fueling creative energies.
  • Respect Craft—Writers who truly love the craft will respect its difficulty and be enthused by any effort to write. Whether a manuscript is great, good, or terrible, someone took the time to write it. That’s commendable. No one writes the best work the first time out. We encourage writers groups to respect writers who really work at craft regardless of ethnicity, background, or education. These writers may be the very ones who become really good working writers.
  • Second Opinion—Most writers share the experience of limping away from a critique. Subjecting your baby to criticism—even good criticism—is tough. Collect a spread of criticisms, usually between two and five, and never, ever rework a manuscript on one critique alone. Good critiques will adhere to the feedback tips given above and will genuinely seek to be helpful, versus simply ripping someone’s work apart. If a writer in your group goes home, puts away the project, and never pulls it out again, due to a critique—there’s a good chance it was a bad critique.
  • Read, digest, study—Writing is challenging enough, and making time to read can be even more challenging. Purchase a cassette or CD Walkman for listening to audio books while doing house chores or exercising. Stowaway books and audio books in your car. You’ll be surprised how much time you have on the road, waiting in line at the bank, or the post office, or at restaurants—even if it means reading in snatches.Share book and movie reviews with other writers. You obviously don’t have time to read everything, but a comprehensive review from another writer or book club member can broaden your horizons. Read good, acclaimed works, classics, trades, magazines, breaking news and events.

    Read what interests you, but also try broadening your perspective (and writing capabilities) by reading a variety of genres. Consider forming or joining a book club. Reading lists are available from Writer’s Digest as well as some editorial services, book clubs, and online writers’ web sites. Reading story analyses and summaries is good practice, as well. Study what works. Cliff Notes usually offer good story, character, and writing element analyses.

  • Golden Rule—Sadly, many conferences and online critique groups today feel they have to post requests for participants to be kind to each other. Cutthroat behavior can permeate a writer’s world at any level. We encourage writers not to play that game. Working writers with longevity in the industry establish their careers with genuine courtesy and appreciation of other people, especially other writers.

Julie Rogers’ articles have been featured in numerous self-help, inspirational, and fiction publications, including Coping With Cancer, Daily Meditation, Complete Woman, and the annual anthology Writes of Passage: Every Woman has a Story! She is the author of Happy Tails: How Pets Can Help You Survive Divorce.

Julie is a journalism graduate of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, the 1999 Writer’s Digest Writing Competition Grand Prize Winner for her short story “House Call,” and has received numerous awards for her stage and screenplays. She is a producer at True Grit Films and represented by Jeff Ross Management.

Rogers’ book Happy Tails is available on www.amazon.com. You can read more at her blog.

June Ford has worked in a variety of editorial positions for publishing houses, magazines, and newspapers, including in-house for publishing companies as a managing editor, project editor, and editor. She has been commissioned to write trade books ranging from psychology to business and finance, coffee table pictorials to true crime.

In the genres of children’s, juvenile, and young adult, June has worked with everything from board, picture, and educational books to nonfiction and fiction series. The majority of the books she has worked with have been or are slated to be nationally or internationally distributed. June has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas.