25 Top Tips for Writing Group Success

Here’s the thing about writing groups. A good writing group can hone your skills, give you concrete accountability, and let you share your highs and lows with people who truly understand the challenges of this often lonely profession.

A bad writing group saps your energy, steals your confidence, and eats up time you could spend just writing. It can be a seriously bad scene.

But how can you tell the difference? Once in one (or starting one), how can you set it up for success? Nobody goes into this with the purpose of wasting their time, It’s just that most writing groups are composed of people who’ve never been in or run one before.

To help you make the most of your writing group — whether you have one or are starting one up — here are the 25 Top Tips of Writing Group Success.

25 Commandments for a Successful Writing Group

1. Thou Shalt Have a Mission

Your writing group should have a clearly worded, ideally written, mission statement to keep all members focused on their goals. This helps in two ways. First, it makes sure everybody in the group is heading in the same direction — writing groups don’t help much if half the group is writing fiction for publication and the other half is putting together memoirs for their grandkids. Second, it’s something you can look to during meetings to keep folks on track.

2. Thou Shalt Be Neither Too Large, Nor Too Small

If a writing group is too large, it’s hard to get good enough feedback to everybody, and the meetings become bulky and hard to manage. If it’s too small, there aren’t enough voices to get varied feedback or achieve a critical mass of energy and motivation. Good writing groups have at least four and at most seven members.

3. Thou Shalt Have a Mix of Experience

One problem faced by a lot of writing groups is that they tend to consist of writers all at the same space in their careers. This is fine, but it’s even better to get a group from different levels. The veterans can mentor the newcomers while the newcomers can provide a level of enthusiasm and energy.

4. Thou Shalt Have a Mix of Genres

One of the most important things a writing group provides is to give you access to a variety of voices and opinions about your work. If everybody in your writing group writes in the same genre, it limits that variety. Branch out. The different perspectives will make each session more worthwhile.

5. Thou Shalt Start Each Meeting Right Away

Listen. Your writing group people will become your friends — but friendly visiting time is for hours outside your writing group meeting. You’re all working a regular job, or taking care of a household full time, and writing, and working in the writers’ group. Start immediately with the first business, and keep side conversations to a minimum. It can help to send an email with the evening’s agenda out a day or two in advance, so everybody knows what the first minute of the meeting is supposed to look like.

6. Thou Shalt Know Each Other’s Goals

This is a good thing to go over in the first get-together of your writing group, where you’re deciding organizational stuff, rules, and the like. If you know your group members’ goals, for their writing and for any specific manuscript, you will be better able to give the most useful critique possible.

7. Thou Shalt Not Submit Your Whole Manuscript

Books are long, and time is short. If you wait on your writing group’s ability to go over every page of your work in progress, you’ll end up years behind schedule. Provide the key points of the plot and story, and especially the pieces you’re having the most trouble with. If you have to give a little summary before diving in, that’s perfectly okay.

8. Thou Shalt Give Homework

At the end of each meeting, go around the table and commit to what you will read, write, and critique by the day of the next meeting. Be as specific as possible: word count/page number, degree of review, times and dates. Setting these goals out loud in front of your buddies is one of the best accountability tools.

9. Thou Shalt Honor Thy Promises

I know: you’re busy. Number 5 above stressed how busy you all are. That said, do everything you can to keep the commitments you make to your writing group. That means write what you say you will write, read what you say you will read, critique what you say you will critique, and show up to the meeting on time. Everybody is counting on everybody else, and you would be amazed how quickly one broken link breaks the whole chain.

10. Thou Shalt Decide Oral or Online

There are infinite ways to organize the work of a writing group, but most fall into one of two broad categories:

  • Having the critique read their work aloud, then have other members critique afterward.
  • Having members critique submissions online, then meet to discuss the critique

Neither is objectively better or worse than the other, but keep two things in mind. One might be better or worse for you, and it is always better for any given writing group to use only one method. Decide early how it will go for your group, and stick to it.

11. Thou Shalt Have a Moderator

Somebody in each meeting should have the role of moderator. They keep conversations on point, move along agenda items, call people out if they’ve become aggressive or defensive, and keep the wheels of the meeting greased. In some cases, a writing group will have a member who’s natural for the job. Most of the time it’s best to rotate through moderators to keep the power dynamic balanced.

12. Thou Shalt  Remain Open

This one is less about the group and more about you. You want a writing group because it gives you access to opinions outside your head and immediate family. If you’re not open to those outside perspectives, a writing group only wastes your time. Listen closely, and be open — even (especially) to the things you don’t want to hear.

13. Thou Shalt Critique, Not Criticize

The reason for feedback is to help writers improve. Every member of your gang should feel safe sharing their work, which means all feedback should be delivered kindly, with positive language, and with the intention of helping the writer build a better story. Hold yourself unerringly to this standard, and if a member of your group doesn’t…they’ve got to go.

14. Thou Shalt Use the Cone of Silence

This rule is one of the few absolute, 100%, no-exceptions rules for effective writing groups. When it’s time for a member to receive feedback, they must be absolutely silent until the feedback has been delivered in full. This is for two reasons. First, it keeps things tight by preventing the critique from becoming a conversation. Second, most people need to sit with critiques and suggestions for a couple minutes — the cone of silence gives you those minutes.

15. Thou Shalt Ask Rather Than Argue

It is never appropriate to argue with the feedback you receive in a writing group. That’s disrespectful to the person who critiqued you, and wastes your time. Responses to feedback should only be questions that clarify or expand on what you’ve heard. It’s your choice whether to act on or ignore those thoughts afterward, but arguing is simply bad form.

16. Thou Shalt Do the Work

No member of a writing group gets to “audit the course.” Anybody who’s part of the group submits writing, critiques writing, and shows up. If a member can’t, they’re welcome to take a hiatus and rejoin when they have more time, but everybody needs to have real skin in this game.

17. Thou Shalt Not Be a Book Club

Everybody in your writing group is a reader (or should be — writers who don’t read will not succeed in this craft, and do not deserve to). You like and are excited about books, so the temptation to talk about the latest novel doing the rounds will be very, very strong. Resist that temptation. If needs be, head to the local pub or coffee shop after your meeting to talk about books.

18. Thou Shalt Meet in Person

This isn’t always possible, and long-distance critique groups are better than no writing group at all. However, meeting in person gives you all the facial expression, voice tone, and body language that communicates about 80% of what a critiquer means. It’s also easier to maintain attention and focus — a fact we all know from our Covid-era business meetings.

19. Thou Shalt Avoid Forming Cliques

Although some members of your group might be closer than others in real life, your time at the meeting should be a council of equals. Cliques and in-groups can be absolutely destructive to the feelings of trust and safety that make a writing group work.

20. Thou Shalt Not Share Another’s Work

Unless you have gotten permission first, never, ever, EVER share other peoples work outside the group — not even to your romantic partner or to an editor you’re sure will buy it. People are nervous about sharing their work, and trusting you with something so personal it’s almost a secret. Do not break that trust.

21. Thou Shalt Critique the Words, Not the Author

This is a subsection of #13 above, but so important it deserves its own entry. Never make a personal attack while delivering your critiques. This might feel obvious, but it’s easy to fall accidentally into this modality. Consider the difference between “this page seems to….” and “you seem to…”. The latter suggests a personality trait, a personal flaw. The former diagnoses an issue to solve on the page.

22. Thou Shalt Remember Thine Own Bias

Remember that to provide constructive feedback, you need to look at the quality of the work within its own context. You see the opposite of this in Amazon reviews all the time — feedback that amounts to “one star because I wish it was a different kind of book”. Don’t do that. Look at the words, story, characters, and plot in their own right without the filter of what you prefer to read.

23. Thou Shalt Have a Trigger Policy

Every member of every group has trouble from time to time. A trigger policy is a set of bylaws you agree to that describe under what circumstances somebody need to leave the group temporarily or permanently. This sets you up to succeed in two important ways:

  • It takes worry and pressure off solid members having a bad week. If the rule is “You’re out if you miss three meetings in a quarter”, then missing just one meeting for a dentist appointment isn’t a source of stress.
  • It lets you make the rules the “bad guy” instead of the group if you have to boot somebody. It’s not you doing it, it’s the rules you all agreed to when you started.

24. Thou Shalt Take Nothing Personally

As a flip side to the coin of critiquing words, not authors, you should always take feedback as asking your work in progress to change, not you. This can be as hard as remaining dispassionate when somebody says something about your child, but it’s important. You won’t be able to effectively vet the critique if your feelings are hurt.

25. Thou Shalt  Remove Trouble Members Immediately

Nothing kills a writing group faster than people who won’t abide by the rules you agreed to. It disrupts flow, erodes trust, and makes the whole thing a waste of time. Use the trigger policy to remove people who won’t respect the meeting and its members. If you’re bringing on new people, a probationary period can help you swiftly oust problem newcomers.

One Last Hard and Fast Rule

There’s one more rule to consider, and it’s one nobody can ignore. To get the most out of a writing group, you have to be in one.

That’s your homework for this month, whatever month you’re reading this in. Go find, or make, a writing group, and have your first meeting less than 30 days from right now.

Mark your calendar.