View Full Version : Starting and running a writers' circle?

05-15-2011, 01:55 PM

So I really want to interact with other writers in person. I already meet a couple every week for a few hours writing in a cafe but I'd like something more now. I was thinking of starting a proper writing circle in North-ish London specifically for genre writers. So far the groups I have organised and managed were around NaNo and slowly died out as the NaNo only writers disappeared. I don't know much about running a structured group.

Google's been good for telling me the basic dos and don'ts but a more human experience would be welcome. I've looked for existing groups to join but the ones relevant to my interests are too far away.

05-15-2011, 08:10 PM
I co-founded a genre-specific critique group in 1992. We're still meeting, and all current members have been published. We did have one major bump in the road which tore the group in half, but I think the other half has since disbanded, while we're still going strong.

And I co-founded a second genre-specific group which had its first meeting last Friday. We'll see how that goes.

I have a handout on how we work, but it sounds like Google's told you the basic dos and don'ts. So pardon me if this repeats a lot of what you know:


A group formed for the purpose of writing critiques must agree unanimously on its standards and its goals. These unwritten ‘rules’ have worked for 13th Precinct since 1992--use them to help your group form the rules that work for all of you.

Goals: Purpose Of Critique
People write for all kinds of reasons—pleasure; as an outlet for creativity (or anger, frustration, loneliness, etc.); to be published; to be rich and famous; to pay the bills or save for a special purchase; as a part of self-discovery; because they have to, and so on.

The members of your critique group will write for their own reasons, but you all have to agree on what you hope to accomplish as you critique each manuscript. A good critique on a manuscript written solely to explore the writer’s feelings won’t be the same as a good critique of a manuscript written in hopes of publication. Why should it?

Our group’s goal, publication of short stories in the mystery and suspense genre, has mutated over time as the market for those stories nearly disappeared, but we remain focused on paid publication. We know that lots of talented authors are competing for the same publishers’ attentions, and we critique with the purpose of making our author’s manuscript the one that publishers choose.

However, there’s nothing wrong with setting a different goal and critiquing with that goal in mind—so long as everyone in the group shares the same goal.

Standards: Manuscript Distribution And Format
The writer provides a paper copy of the manuscript (ms.) to each reader. The writer is responsible for mailing or delivering the ms. to anyone not in attendance. (We considered switching to email or our Yahoo group, but one member does not have regular internet access.)

We don’t distribute mss. until the end of a critique meeting. Passing them out earlier can be distracting to the people who have already delivered their critiques (some pretend to listen while reading it), and can even seem like permission to leave.

Each ms. has to be in submission format as per Writer’s Market. It can be typewritten, an original letter-quality printout, or a high-quality photocopy. The story appears on one side of the page. Pages are numbered. The ms. is double spaced. Fonts are limited to Courier 12 point (preferred) and Times New Roman 12 or 14 point; smaller print is unacceptable. Margins are at least 1, preferably 1.25 to 1.5 inches all around. Paragraphs are indented 5 spaces, and no additional lines are skipped between paragraphs. The pages are held by a paperclip, or in an envelope, sleeve, or folder—no staples.

The ms. should be as perfect as possible: spelling, grammar and punctuation checked, few or no changes or corrections written in, etc.

We try to keep mss. 25 pp. or less. (That’s more than 6,000 words, on the average, plenty for a short story.) Longer stories are also fine, but writers submit no more than 50 pages without prior approval of the group—and it’s not always granted.

Some groups agree to “outlaw” certain language and content (or to provide written warning on p. 1), to refuse mss. outside the genre, to reject mss. which don’t meet submission format guidelines (small margins, small print, two-sided copies), or to refuse to treat chapters of a novel like a series of short stories. In practice, though, this can be difficult—someone always presents a ms. that breaks the rule the group agreed on, and nobody wants to confront him or her. (Somebody has to!)

Rules about the ms.—including what to do when and if someone breaks them—should be in place before anyone presents an iffy ms. Our group, for instance, is dedicated to mystery and suspense, but at times critiques a member’s writing in another genre—but anyone who doesn’t care for the genre is excused, without hard feelings.

We never schedule due dates for a particular person to present a story for critique. In a group of four or five serious writers meeting every two weeks, usually one has something. If your group doesn’t, it either needs more members or less meetings.

By the way, we never read manuscripts aloud. A good reader elevates a manuscript; a poor reader can destroy one. Fiction is meant to be read silently and stand on its own.

Delivering The Critique
The writer is obliged to listen to the written critique as the critic reads it aloud to the group. Nobody—not the writer, not the others doing critique—gets to interrupt, explain, or defend the manuscript. At the conclusion of the critiques, the writer should acknowledge the value of the critiques and the time and effort which produced them, regardless of her opinion of their content. The writer receives both marked mss. and written critiques.

Most members of the group delete old critiques, but some save everything. They note that some writers appear to learn from past critiques, while other continue to make the same mistakes again and again.

“Bad” Critiques
Be a professional. The writer might as well develop the thick skin needed to weather the rejections and bad reviews that are part of the business of writing.

The most painful critiques fall into two categories. First are the ones that criticize the writer rather than the writing. People who deliver this sort of critique just don’t know how to critique properly. Consider, too, that harsh judgment might be the result of a bad day, a hasty read-through and critique, the reader just not “getting it,” or even envy.

The critiques which seem the most painful are those which are negative—and correct. It may be a struggle to acknowledge the value of such a critique, and to be open to it, but for the work to improve, the writer must at least consider its points. It may help to put away both the work and the critiques for several weeks, returning to it with greater objectivity.

Even in her own mind, the writer shouldn’t make excuses, explain, or defend the writing; it must stand on its own. Recipients of highly negative critique must be scrupulously fair when the time comes to critique this person’s work. Be especially careful to use specific examples/quotes to back up anything negative about his/her ms.

If one critic is unable or unwilling to critique the work instead of the writer, it is the writer’s option to speak with him or her privately (and calmly) or the group’s option to either educate her or exclude her from the critique process. In a democratic group, this may be difficult. A large critique group may wish to appoint temporary leaders to whom fall such confrontational tasks as well as routine tasks such as scheduling meetings. Some groups may confront a poor critic en masse. Other groups dodge the bullet and pretend to disband, reconvening without the offending member. Still others may devote an entire meeting to refreshing their critique skills, hoping she’ll get the hint.

Remember that each critique, whether it is valid or cruel, is something which the writer asked for, and on which the giver spent his or her time. If the writer disagrees with a critique, s/he can ignore its suggestions. If it criticizes the writer rather than the writing, throw it away.

Running The Critique Group
A leaderless group may be fortunate enough to have one or more members who handle its business reliably. They provide free updated mailing/phone/e-mail lists of members, make calls when a scheduled meeting is canceled or moved, reserve the meeting place as required, and see that the bill for meeting space or food and drink is fairly shared and paid. A small group runs itself with one such member or several others each assuming a single task.

In a large group, establishing a phone tree (so each member knows who s/he is to contact) and/or creating a website where cancellations can be posted is smart. So is appointing a single person everyone else contacts in the event that the meeting may be canceled due to bad weather or other emergencies.

Lacking volunteers, members can take turns being the leader who gets all the jobs, large and small. She might be reimbursed for her efforts by the others paying all or part of her share of costs, especially if the job is unpleasant (such as ejecting a member) or time-consuming.

The group should discuss whether and under what conditions it will accept additional members before anyone asks to join it. Some groups are completely open. A few are open to people who meet certain qualifications such as membership in an organization or enrollment in a writing course.

The more selective groups ask would-be newcomers to submit a short writing sample and to attend a meeting. They may exclude those whose basic writing skills are far below the group’s. Potential members may find that they are not yet confident enough of themselves as writers or critics to participate in a critique group, once they’ve seen one in action.

Depending on your group’s size and interests, you can schedule field trips to places which will help you all meet your writing goals.

A member of your group can take a class, or go on a police ride-along, and share her notes and knowledge with you all.

The group can invite guests to share a bit of their expertise and agree to answer questions. Since many writers are somewhat shy, this can be the easiest way to approach professionals for their advice, and many will offer email or phone numbers for future questions.

Groups can share resources. Members can bring lists of reference books, so future loans can be arranged. They can assemble lists of friends and family and what they’re knowledgeable about--maybe you do have a connection with someone in auto racing, or law enforcement.

Best of all, a good group will help its writers celebrate their ups and support them through their downs.

Maryn, who'd love to add three members to hers