Just the thought of a “critique group” used to send shivers down my spine. Now, I am convinced that my writers’ circle, a variation on the traditional critique group, was the most important part of my recent post, #5onFri: 5 Things that Saved my Novel from Oblivion. To me, a writers’ circle is more intimate, supportive, and dedicated than something like Scribophile or other “come one, come all” kinds of writers’ feedback forums.
Rather, a writers’ circle is intentionally formed by a small group of writers for the purposes of mutual support, accountability, and continuous improvement, for the long term. It truly “sings” when each member leaves each session wanting to belt out “Do You Hear the People Sing?” the finale from Les Miserables. Of course, feedback can be tough to hear. Sometimes it involves a bit of pain and soul-searching. Yet, everyone walks away uplifted and ready to dive back into writing “when tomorrow comes.”
I belong to a writers’ circle like that. We meet weekly, most times to critique, but sometimes to share insights or practice writing prompts. The common thread throughout is that we walk away with the feeling that the time we have spent makes us better writers and recommits us to our writing projects. I was a founder involved in the search and development process for this group, so I am in a unique position to share how we made it “sing.” Here are five key success factors that we built into our writers’ circle:
1. Connections—Common Ground
Connections, by which I mean common ground, was the first thing we looked for when we set out to identify possible members—those intangibles that draw us to want to engage with others. Gabriela’s DIY MFA 101 course was our initial sampling pool. Using the 101 Facebook group early on, two of us found that initial common ground and agreed upon some criteria for recruiting others. For the most part, we looked for people who were encouraging, yet probing, positive, yet candid, and non-confrontational, yet assertive. We found a third party who fit our criteria.
While the three of us were getting better acquainted, someone else in the 101 group organized an open, real-time session to discuss the coursework. The three of us decided to join in. From that session, we identified two others who fit our initial criteria and supported the next factor—diversity. We reached out to confirm some initial common interests, values, and objectives. Then we were five.
While connections were a very important factor in the search phase, later you will see how it also played a significant role in the setup and initial operations phase.
2. Diversity—Respected Differences
Diversity also played a key role in the search phase of building our writers’ circle. We sought it out even before we realized that Gabriela also recommended including diverse members in these groups. Our ongoing experiences prove this factor works—and it does so primarily because we continuously find ways to respect our differences.
Having people from different parts of the US and the world, with diverse ethnic backgrounds, various spiritual belief systems, distinct personality types, and assorted educational experiences is a powerful force for creativity and depth in our abilities to critique each other. Also, having people who are writing in a range of genres, target age groups, and types of writing (novels, short stories, poetry, and flash fiction), gives our writers’ circle unique perspectives that might not emerge from more homogeneous groups. Additionally, diversity makes each week a lot more fun!
3. Communication—Ways and Means to Relate
Communication plays a role in reinforcing the connections we talked about earlier. There are both tangible and intangible elements among the ways and means we use for our writers’ circle’s interactions.
On the tangible front, we created a dedicated Facebook group and a Google shared folder. These tools keep us linked and organized. The online group gives us a private, convenient thread for information, accountability, and encouragement. In that thread, we share reminders for meetings, target goals, status against those goals, and bursts of inspiration to keep writing. That same online tool also provides the means for video hosting our real-time, weekly sessions. The Google folder provides a convenient way to post/find weekly submissions, share our written feedback, and house other supporting documentation for our ongoing sessions. These tools are very helpful, but pale in comparison to the second aspect of the communication factor.
The intangible part of communication probably has the most significant impact on making our writers’ circle sing. After the initial formation of our circle of five, we used the Facebook group to deepen the connections. We posted personal data like what we write, and something about our families, careers, education, and personality types, to celebrate our diversity. At the beginning of each weekly meeting, we share personal and professional updates that honor our connections. For the balance of our sessions, we use some guiding principles, which have helped us form a bond of trust and true enjoyment of each other’s company.
4. Principles—”Rules” of Engagement
The guiding principles we use in all of our interactions were crafted and documented in a joint effort at the start of our journey as a writers’ circle. We keep a copy of them on the Google docs shared folder. These “rules” of engagement are simple, clear, and flexible guidelines that address the who, when, where, how, and why of our existence. They cover things like fair and equitable scheduling of critiques, the quality and format of our critiques, how we use our group tools, and the way we make group decisions.
It is very much like a project management team’s charter. That may seem like overkill for an informal group. As a certified project manager, I understand just how important it is to a team’s performance to have a common vision of how to work together. In large part through these principles, our writers’ circle is a prime example of a high performing team.
5. Commitment—Reliability and Integrity
Commitment speaks to our mutually respectful promises to provide honest, constructive feedback, a forum for accountability, and enthusiastic support. It is fueled by the reliability and integrity of our actions. That means…
We make it to every session possible and give notice when it is not. We understand that life happens and support members who need to honor their reality. We contribute as much as, or even more than, we take from the group. We share information that we know will be particularly relevant to others. We know about and actively support each other’s individual writing goals. We cheer on successes and help problem-solve challenges. We keep each other writing!
Making these five factors work is a continuous process for our writers’ circle. If you give it a try, you too may be able to “…hear the people sing.”
When the beating of your heart
Echoes the beating of the drums
There is a life about to start
When tomorrow comes.
Perhaps you’ll hear your own hearts in the group or the hearts of your collective protagonists. You will recognize the tune when it’s working!
Angyne Smith is a second generation American, wife, mother, grandmother, retired business professional, and most recently, a young adult fantasy author. She is a native Pennsylvanian, who has been living in the Garden State, (that’s New Jersey), for just over 40 years. Angyne (pronounced like the two names Ann and Jean stuck together) is inspired by Monet paintings and music of all kinds, from classical to classic rock. She is energized by gentle exercises like Tai Chi and leisurely morning walks, preferable along a warm, sandy beach. Reading was her passion even before writing, mostly in fantasy, science fiction, and historical adventures. Find her on Facebook at Angyne or on many of the DIY MFA Facebook forums.