Writer’s Toolbox

Ask The Writer

Your most pressing and perplexing questions about writing answered here by Gotham teacher Brandi Reissenweber.

My writing group needs some inspiration and structure. Can you suggest activities or formats that have worked with other writing groups?

Writing groups take many different forms. As a first step, clarify your group’s goals. Do you want to use the time to critique works-in-progress? Or to develop skills, begin new material, experiment? Do you want to focus on the progress of longer work and the challenges of the writer’s life? Perhaps your group values more than one of these options and wants a combination. Discussing expectations and goals can help you establish (or reinforce) your group’s purpose and keep the experience relevant and productive.

Groups interested in critiquing works-in-progress often thrive when there is a set schedule in place so that each writer knows well in advance when she will have work up for consideration. Writers should distribute their work in the session before it is to be discussed in order to give everyone an opportunity to consider it thoughtfully. Some groups with shorter works—like flash fiction or poetry—will present the work and discuss it during the same session. I prefer distributing ahead of time with even the shortest work. Sometimes the true realizations about a piece come not in the immediate reaction, but in the thoughtful contemplation afterward.

Many groups critique with a free-flowing discussion, but if this feels daunting or unfocused, you can go around the room and let each person have his or her say. Another option is to designate a leader, someone who asks questions and brings up points of concern for the group to address. Then change leaders when you switch to a new manuscript. Many groups find it useful to have the author listen during the critique and ask questions at the end. Others let the author be an active part of the discussion of their own work. I prefer the former, as it allows the writer to really absorb how the work was received before contributing to the discussion.

Groups that are interested in learning, and experimenting can focus on writing exercises. These can be done during the meeting or in preparation for it, and members can share and discuss responses. Designate a different person to bring in a writing exercise each time. Seeing how others respond to the same prompt can be both instructive and inspiring. There are many excellent resources of writing exercises, and your group might even work through a book together. Gotham Writers’ Workshop’s Writing Fiction has exercises that reinforce specific lessons about the craft of fiction. Poet’s Companion by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux has informative chapters on writing poetry, each followed by a series of exercises.

If your group has a variety of different needs, you can still work together with just a bit of compromise. One good approach is to run the group where each member gets a block of time to discuss or address what is important to her. You might designate two people for each session, with each writer having half the time to direct the session. One person might want her work-in-progress critiqued. The other might use his time to bounce ideas off of everyone regarding the next steps in his novel. Another might use her session to discuss a short story she read that intrigued and puzzled her.

The success of a group depends upon how well it meets the needs of its members. So make sure to clarify those needs up front and stay open to the possibility of change as your group moves forward.