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8 Secrets to a Successful Writers’ Group

Writers’ groups, also called critique groups, can be invaluable resources for writers. They provide the structure and support of an MFA workshop without the high cost of tuition. But not all writer’s groups are equal. Get in the wrong group, and you may do more harm to your writing than good. How do you know if a group is right for you?

1. Ask questions before you join. Find out how many writers are in the group and what kind of experience they have. Then ask to sit in for a session. This should give you the opportunity to read the other members’ works and discover whether the group is a good fit for you. If you’re a poet, for example, you may want to join a poet’s group. If you’re a literary writer, you may not feel comfortable in a group full of sci-fi and thriller writers.

2. Groups work best when there are rules. There should be page- or word-count limits on submissions. Find out if writers expect written feedback in addition to verbal feedback. There will likely be a set number of writers who get critiqued each night. (For example, my group has a limit of 20 pp per person, three people are critiqued each meeting, and we meet every two weeks.) Some groups don’t allow the writer whose work is being critiqued to talk during the critique to prevent her from getting defensive. Some groups give critiques one at a time followed by a more free-for-all discussion at the end during which the writer whose work is being critiqued can ask questions and the others can respond. Others follow a more open format during which anyone (except the writer whose work is being critiqued) can jump in at any time. It’s important to have a time limit for each writer, and to avoid too much repetition of critiques.

3. Don’t take the criticism personally. Remember, it is your work that is being critiqued, not you. There are no good or bad writers, just beginning writers and more advanced writers. Everyone started at the beginning.

4. Practice humility. This is one of the most challenging aspects of being a writer. It’s not always easy to take criticism—not when you’re a newbie and not when you’re an experienced writer. But if you think your writing is perfect and you refuse to heed anyone’s advice, you may find yourself with six unpublished books in your drawer. Make it your goal to put your ego aside and learn as much as you can from your fellow writers. Do everything you can to improve your writing through better dialogue, a stronger story climax, more well-rounded characters, etc.

5. Don’t make every change everyone suggests. While practicing humility, be careful not to assume that every writer knows more than you, or that they are always correct. They are not always correct. Take note of which suggestions were made by two or more people, and consider making those changes. But do what feels right to you. You can’t please everyone all of the time, and if you did, your writing would be too plebian to be interesting.

6. When giving feedback, use the sandwich technique. A popular method of critiquing someone else’s work is to start with something positive followed by some constructive criticism, and then close on a positive note. Remember, it’s much easier to criticize than to praise. Make an effort to point out the positive aspects of the author’s work. And when providing criticism, don’t just point out what doesn’t work. Make suggestions for how to improve the piece. Your job is to help the author figure out how to become a better writer.

7. Don’t get hung up on copyediting the author’s work. A writer’s group isn’t a place for you to show off your editing skills. Feel free to correct glaring typos and spelling errors in the text, but don’t use your critique as an opportunity to lecture on the virtues of the Oxford comma. Focus on what does and does not work in the dialogue, story arc, character development, descriptions, etc.

8. Read each piece twice—once straight through to get the gist of the story and then a second time with your red pen. If you mark up the text on your first read, you’ll find that many of your questions are answered later in the text. Give the piece a chance to stand on its own before providing it with crutches. Then go back and read it a second time while making notes in the margins.

What about you? Are you in a writer’s group? What suggestions do you have for someone joining a writer’s group for the first time? What has and has not worked for you?

32 comments to 8 Secrets to a Successful Writers’ Group

  • When I attend a group, I do my best to give them my "most polished" draft. I go through with a checklist, because I don't want them to be worried about a typo or an odd space issue. I want them to give me story feedback. I think No. 5 is key for writers. Sometimes you need to go with your gut — it's your story afterall.

    • meghancward

      Stacy, That's interesting because I find I get more out of a writer's group when working on an early draft. One of the greatest benefits of a writer's group for me are the deadlines. I spent all day Sunday writing in order to submit this week. If I hadn't had that deadline, I wouldn't have written at all.

  • Great list. I'm especially grateful for #7. This is why I prefer a group where work is read aloud instead of passing around copies. The "red pencil" groups almost always end up with some grammar policeperson trying to make every work of fiction into a Chicago/MLA thesis.

    It's also important to remember that critique groups are terrible for story arc and structure problems. They don't see the big picture. And they often make you over-explain, because nobody remembers what happened in the last chapter.

    • meghancward

      Anne – I meant to mention how important it is to incorporate time into the group for reading entire manuscripts. Thank you for reminding me. It's a HUGE disadvantage when writers' groups don't do that.

      And reading aloud in a group is something I have done only at a writer's conference. It's definitely something writers should consider when forming a group.

  • Kristan

    Yep, I'm in an awesome group now, and I definitely think your guidelines are right on the mark.

    I would add that finding a good crit group can be a bit like finding a boyfriend/girlfriend. It takes time and patience and trial and error.

    I found my crit group after a couple years of attending a larger group. I knew the larger group was the right track (after trying a different group before that, which definitely was NOT a good fit) but I didn't fully click with any individual writers, just the group overall. Finally, over the course of a few months, the 3 women I now meet with joined the larger group, and eventually we splintered off. (Note: That was not my plan, necessarily, but that's how it happened.)

    • meghancward

      I'm envious that you're so happy with your group! I'm not 100% happy with my group, but there's something attractive enough about it that I keep returning to it every couple of years. I've had opportunities to join other groups and just wasn't that excited about them. Not sure what my ideal group would look like. All brilliantly talented published writers with a mix of genders and race and genres, I suppose – but only 6 or so people. That sounds ideal.

  • Kathy Schrenk

    I'm trying to start a writers group right now! I want to stick with other moms of young children, partly because of scheduling issues. And I think we'll "get" each other and our writing in a unique way…

    • meghancward

      Kathy – I think part of what makes my group attractive is that it meets at night. Another group met on Friday mornings, and I didn't think it was worth paying a nanny to attend.

      Anne made an important point above that I meant to mention – make sure the group builds in a way for everyone to read completed manuscripts as well as chapters because otherwise you find yourself with a lot of well polished chapters but no story. That's what happened to me!

  • Risa

    Meghan, thanks for posting this. My group just meets once a month. We email pieces to each other in time for us to read and offer feedback. We've had the chance to read entire manuscripts after seeing individual chapters and it's been a huge help to those writers who have written novels or short stories. Our meetings last three hours, we bring no-fuss snacks, and there is a minimum of small talk and chit chat once we get going. We call ourselves the Crawford 7. It 's good to have a name!

    • meghancward

      Risa- Thanks for this feedback. Reading entire manuscripts is key to a successful writers' group! I need to update this post to reflect that 🙂 We have a name, too: The Rockridge Writers' Group – even though we don't meet in Rockridge anymore.

  • She Started It

    Thanks for this Meghan. I haven't been able to find a group where the whole manuscript is read, unfortunately. The chapter to chapter critique groups aren't that helpful to me, since structure and pacing tend to be my weaknesses. Will keep searching though!

    • meghancward

      Maybe you could CREATE a group that does both! I think it's important to critique chapters, too, for those who don't have completed manuscripts yet. I have a friend whose group does both. I'm going to ask her how they structure it.

  • […] Ideas: 8 Secrets to a Successful Writers’ Group, by Meghan Ward – “Writers’ groups, also called critique groups, can be invaluable […]

  • […] groups can be a support and an inspiration, if you find the right one for you. Meghan Ward lists 8 secrets of a successful writers group. Tim Kane finds inspiration from words he squirrels away like nuts, and S.J. Whipp explores where […]

  • Two books about writing critique groups that I particularly like are The Writing and Critique Group Survival Guide ( and No Red Pen ( Megan, you've also provided a helpful guideline here. It can be difficult to find a good group.

  • Tracie Bennitt

    Hi Meghan, I'd like to introduce your readers and writers to 10 Day Book Club. It's an online manuscript development site. Upload you manuscript into a public or private bookclub, have readers (either yours or from around the world) register to read your work and then comment in the online blog about your story, edits, etc. It's a great site and a way to expand your group from just the ones in your local area!

    • meghancward

      Interesting concept, Tracie. I'm not sure I understand how the private book club works, though. For $49 a writer can share their book with 10 of their friends? Why wouldn't I just e-mail the book to my 10 friends? What advantage does the book club offer?

  • Pam Parker

    Great post — I live in Milwaukee where I'm so fortunate to have a writing studio, RedBird-RedOak, that offers facilitated writing groups. We pay for it, and it's worth every penny and then some! Thanks again.

  • I've been through so many writing groups that crashed and burned or just weren't a fit for me until I found my current group. I have to say, after every meeting, I drive home counting my blessings.

    • meghancward

      That's great news, Shelly. Do you have any advice on finding the right writer's group?

  • Well as you know since I was in your group for a long time, I agree 100% with your list. I would add that although sometimes you might find a group that meets all eight of the good practice points, it still might not work out. If you're in a group that consistently gives you feedback that leaves you scratching your head and going "Huh?" then it might be that the other writers in the group don't get you or your genre. If that's the case, you'll still find value from general feedback, but the value may start decreasing in the comments.

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  • aziz

    Well thank you megan for that. My group always meets on every week.

  • aziz

    We always meet every saturday of every week and I wish you could be updating me on every new event and new Idea..