Over a decade ago, in one of my first college writing workshops, I commented that a story’s eclectic vocabulary jarred me out of its narrative. The author’s suave, privately-schooled best friend was in our class, and he volleyed my critique back: “It would’ve taken seconds to look up aquiline on your iPhone.” I had a meager public school education, primitive flip-phone, and no desire to admit this. Though our professor swept us on to more productive feedback, I remember the skirmish vividly. Any space where artists are giving and seeking feedback is fraught with misdirected criticism, volatile alliances, and layers of shame. But this winter, as my Paris-based novel writing group celebrated our one-year anniversary, I told my four fellow writers they’re my healthiest relationship. This is not necessarily because I’m destined for literary polygamy, but because my cohort and I have co-created a supportive, productive dynamic. If you’re seeking or participating in a writing group, here are five ways to make it a healthy writing group relationship:
Come in with clear intentions
Whether you’re joining a community workshop or forming a smaller, more focused group, be clear about what you and your peers are getting out of the arrangement. A meeting can be a deadline, an idea generator, or a place to polish your work. Sharing your level of commitment will help you understand if it fits with the group’s — I’ve seen a well-meaning community workshop hijacked by a zany drop-in who insisted we didn’t appreciate his exquisite haiku. A classic case of rampant ego seeking only validation, the solution might be to…
Set and respect boundaries
On a functional level, having a healthy writing group means establishing a general structure and organization. At my novel group’s first session, we decided on bi-weekly meetings, approximately 3,000 words submissions, and comments via Google Docs. Everyone sends their work with enough time to read, critique, and prepare notes on the group’s feedback. Respecting boundaries makes them real and reinforcing the system reduces interpersonal friction. This means when we meet, our full focus is on our writing rather than guzzling wine to assuage petty frustrations. Which isn’t to say, there’s never wine…
Having a healthy writing group means giving freely. The more I read my group’s work, the more my pseudo-parental pride bursts from me — I’ll be biking home from the library and I’ll have an idea about someone else’s book. I’ll be more excited to read their chapters than edit my own. So I tell them. By giving freely, the group becomes more than a bi-weekly three-hour video conference with additional reading and editing work. It’s a nurturing ecosystem of support, ideas, and writerly energy. That said, if someone casually quadruples their word count, I’m comfortable re-establishing the discussed boundaries. Rules two and three go hand in hand.
Create space for diversity and differing opinions
The essence of writing is translating your thoughts to the reader, and having diverse editors — be it in race, age, gender, sexuality, nationality, and even writing experience — helps enormously with this clarity. Diversity also means creating a space for differing perspectives to be heard. If someone is shaking their head or pursing their lips, I’ll dare myself to say, “You look like you disagree.” Other times silence can be an indicator: “Do you have any thoughts on this?”
As satisfied as my college classmate must’ve felt when his best friend parried my criticism, workshopping isn’t about always having someone in your corner. Constant affirmation may boost your ego at the expense of your manuscript. And if you’re not in a place to integrate feedback, maybe it’s better to share your work with a kind friend or furry companion.
Embrace the process over the outcome
This is also known as “growth mindset,” a wonderful concept in life and writing. While I have dreams of a book deal which lands my novel on both sides of the Atlantic, this fantastical outcome is not the main reason I’m in a writing group. I show up because I want my book to be the best it can be, and as my cohort patiently corrects my bad habits, my writing is improving.
What’s more, it’s a virtuous cycle — as I become a better reader and editor, I also become a better writer. And the process is so enjoyable, I find myself diving into revisions eager to implement the ideas that came from our previous meeting. After slogging through years of drafts of my first novel, I’m so much happier and more efficient, I can’t even self-identify as a tortured artist.
A few days ago, another woman in my group and I submitted our novels’ final chapters. Paris’ bars and restaurants are closed and we have a 6 P.M curfew, so after our weekly library writing date, we took a bottle of wine to the quays. It was a cheeky 4:30 P.M happy hour and worth every minute. As we toasted to our hard-earned progress, I couldn’t have been further from the intimidated freshwoman with an inadequate vocabulary — that workshop skirmish was merely a misstep on the path to healthy literary relationships.
In case you’re feeling inspired to start a new relationship, I host a monthly writer’s workshop through Paris Lit Up. We’re free and currently virtual, and you’re welcome to join and put this list to Practice.
Gracie Bialecki is a writer and literary coach who lives in Paris, France. Her work has appeared in The Atticus Review, Monkeybicycle, and Epiphany Magazine where she was a monthly columnist. Bialecki is the co-founder of the storytelling series Thirst, a poetry editor at Paris Lit Up, and the author of the novel Purple Gold (ANTIBOOKCLUB).