5 Ways to Evaluate Your Writing Group
by Mark Nichol
by Mark Nichol
The writing group you started three or six months ago is still going, but there’s something not quite right about it. It’s time to step back and evaluate it:
Are the charter members all still attending? Or, if one or more people have dropped out, was it mutually beneficial for them to do so, or do you wish they had continued to participate? If the latter is true, and you haven’t already done so, send them a note asking for their frank appraisal, assuring them that you want the truth so that you can apply their response to improving the group. They might have simply found they lacked the time or the motivation, or they might have had a personality clash with someone else in the group or a problem with the meeting format.
If one or more people is regularly tardy or absent, ask them why. You won’t know whether you can help them if you don’t know the reason they aren’t on time or present all the time. It might be as simple as needing more time at home after work before heading to the meeting, or they might just be hesitating about quitting.
Are the skill levels of the members basically on par? Not everyone needs at exactly the same place in terms of facility with writing, but it helps to have an only slightly divergent range. An especially skilled group member might make others feel inadequate, and someone who is noticeably deficient in talent may be dragging the group down.
You will likely feel uncomfortable about approaching either type of outlier, but the more skilled writer will probably take it as a compliment if you suggest that they seek a writing group with higher collective abilities and may be glad to have “permission” to do so. For the person not quite up to the group’s level, it may take no-punches-pulled criticism — respectful but candid — to prompt them to look for a group more suited to their level of development.
Are group members keeping up with the workload? If members routinely come to group meetings unprepared — lacking either a writing sample for others to critique or completed evaluations of others’ passages — perhaps the amount of preparation required is excessive.
Consider reducing the frequency of meetings or the length of submissions, or mix up the way submissions are presented: If group members usually email their pieces for others to review and critique before the next meeting, alternate this approach with cold critiques (responses to writing samples that have just been distributed at that meeting).
Alternatively, have members submit samples at every other meeting rather than each time, or skip critique meetings in place of tutorials (everybody presents a fifteen-minute lesson about character, plot, narrative structure, or some other element).
Do group members feel that the writing group is helping them develop as writers? Set aside part or all of a meeting to discuss how everyone feels about their progress. Are other members too timid about providing feedback, so that one or more people feel that they aren’t getting anything out of the critiquing sessions?
Is criticism writer centered rather than writing centered? Critiques that focus on the author rather than on the writing samples not only hinder development but may also make members feel uncomfortable, which may also be the cause of absentees or dropouts. If you haven’t yet done so, model constructive comments that are specific and that respond to the piece, not the person.
External feedback, that is. At three months after the group’s launch, this step will likely be premature, but for a group that’s met for six months or more, it might be time to step up to the plate. Talk everyone in the group to committing to submitting: With a given period, everyone must send an article or poem or short story to a certain number of publications or writing competitions for consideration.
That’s certainly one way to evaluate a writing group. If one or more people get a prize or get published, also-rans might feel resentment, but try to forestall any bad feelings by suggesting ahead of time that if anyone hits the jackpot, it means everybody has the potential to do so.