The Writers' Group Manifesto
Novelist Katharine Davis explains why there's power in numbers—and how to make it work for you
I joined a writing group in Washington, DC while writing my second and third novels. “The Group,” as we called ourselves, truly changed my writing life. Having five readers, all novelists, was a tremendous help. I received page-by-page critiques of my chapters in progress, what was working and what wasn’t, along with specific suggestions like: tighten this scene, fix dialogue, add more tension here.
The unexpected benefits of working in a group proved to be many. The writers in the group asked the kinds of questions that helped me avoid pitfalls that might have required lengthy revisions had I discovered them later in the process. I learned not only from having my own work evaluated, but also from observing the others under review. Learning to critique the groups’ manuscripts led me to read my own work with a more critical eye.
The other writers helped me trust my process. It was reassuring to know my colleagues didn’t always know where their narratives were headed, either. I experienced firsthand the value of a writing community. The group not only offered criticism, but also encouragement. I learned that it was to all right to question, to falter, to doubt. Best of all, because of the group, I had to produce new work on schedule. I developed work habits that are still ingrained in me.
In 2010 alone, members of our group published four books: Beach Week by Susan Coll, Leaving Bayberry House by Ann McLaughlin, The Nobodies Album by Carolyn Parkhurst, and A Slender Thread, my third novel.
Not all writing groups are successful. Perhaps one of the reasons this group has continued over the years is that it has adhered to specific guidelines. The following is a set of rules, our manifesto, offered in hopes that it might be helpful to others.
THE WASHINGTON WRITING GROUP MANIFESTO
Guidelines for a Successful Writing Group
Membership: The Washington Writing Group had six members. The writers were all serious, dedicated writers who viewed writing as their profession and not as a hobby. They were all writing fiction, and for the most part novels. If a member left the group, the remaining group worked together to select a replacement. Suggestions were reviewed and discussed by the membership. All writers in the group had to agree before accepting the potential new member.
Meetings: The writing group met once a month on a designated day, such as the second Tuesday of each month. As several members had day jobs or children at home, the meetings took place in the evening. They were three hours long, one hour per submission. The group met in a neutral place, for many years in the office of a real estate company. That way, no one had to clean up, prepare refreshments, or feel they were on duty to entertain. Other possible meeting places were spaces in libraries or arts organizations. Restaurants and cafes tended to be too noisy and didn’t usually work well.
Submissions: Each member submitted a maximum of 35 pages every other month. When a writer was up for review, she would have to read and critique two other manuscripts. The submissions had to follow the usual format of double spacing, standard margins, and font. If the submission was from a novel, the writer always included a summary of the preceding chapters to help remind readers of where they were in the story. The manuscript pages had to be sent to the members of the group to arrive one week ahead of the meeting. By mutual agreement, a writer might switch turns with another writer if the need arose.
The Critique: The readers were asked to comment and mark up the printed manuscript pages before the meeting. They also wrote a page or two of comments for the author under review. The critiques included general reactions to the material, what worked, what didn’t, as well as more specific remarks: dialogue clunky here, why does character x react this way here?, need to pick up the pacing by now. Your job as a reader was to help the writer tell her story the best way possible and to avoid writing the story the way you yourself would do it.
During the meeting, one of the writers being reviewed would volunteer to go first. The person sitting to her left would begin, and speak briefly about her reaction to the work, summarizing her written comments. Moving around the circle, all the members of the group would have their turn to comment. Up to this point the writer being reviewed would remain silent and perhaps take notes. After everyone had commented, the writer had a chance to ask questions. In general, each writer being reviewed was given about an hour. It was equally important to point out what was working well in a piece. Lots of helpful suggestions came up during the discussion period. At the end of the evening, each writer being critiqued went home with five marked up manuscripts and five written evaluations.
Attendance: The only excuse for missing a meeting was illness, a family emergency, or a professional duty that could not be changed. It was rare for a writer to miss more than two meetings in a given year. If a writer did miss the meeting, she was still accountable for doing the written critiques and returning the pages in a timely manner to the writers being reviewed. She also had to be available to answer questions.
Our rules proved to be an immensely useful tool. While our writers have changed over time, the group has continued to work prolifically, and publish regularly year after year.
Katharine Davis began writing fiction in 1999. Capturing Paris, her first novel, was recommended in Real Simple Spring Travel 2007 and included in the New York Times suggestions for fiction set in Paris. Her second novel, East Hope, won the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance 2010 Award for Fiction. A Slender Thread was published by New American Library in 2010. She is now working on a novel set in Florence, Italy during the summer of 1969. She can be reached at katharinedavis.com.