Guidelines For Writing Groups

Writing gets better by reading, practice, and response. The first two you can do for yourself by selecting books that stimulate your interest and show you interesting prose styles, and by writing regularly in a journal or on a computer and not settling for drafts that don't please you. But at some point, to get really better, you need to hear other people respond to your words and ideas. If you are using this book in a class, chances are that your teacher confers with you individually about your work, and chances are that you meet every week or so with your classmates in a writing group where you take turns receiving and giving responses. During the last several years my students and I worked together to develop guidelines to help writing groups work even more smoothly.

TO THE CLASS

1. Writing groups work best in classrooms where there is a sense of community and trust. All members of a given class share the responsibility for making this happen.

2. Permanent writing groups of three to five work best in most classes. Fewer than three makes a weaker dynamic—though twos are fast and work well for ad hoc situations where you have only fifteen or twenty minutes. More than five becomes cumbersome for time and equal participation—though larger groups work very well outside of class where time is less restricted. So I shoot for groups of about four and plan for these to stay together for the duration of a given assignment, meeting preferably once a week for a series of weeks. For new assignments, I suggest forming new groups.

3. The length of a given paper determines what happens to it in a group. It's possible for three papers of four or five pages each to be read and commented on in their entirety in a fifty-minute class. With longer papers, or larger groups, writers need to read selections from their papers, or take turns being featured. (I use a rule of thumb that it takes two minutes to read a page of typed double-spaced writing.)

4. Groups work best when they become habit. Keep the groups meeting regularly and keep the group meeting time sacred. Jettison other things before you jettison group time in class. What does the teacher do while you all meet in groups? I stay out of all groups for the first few meetings, then participate in a group if invited.

5. It's helpful to distribute papers before class so that readers have had a chance to make private comments. However, in most classrooms, early distribution is very difficult. The following suggestions are made on the assumption that people show up in class, on time, with fresh papers to be talked about.

TO THE WRITER

1. Plan to read your paper out loud to the others in your group. Hearing a paper read by the author adds a special dimension to the writing—for the reader as well as the listening audience. There's no substitute for a little rehearsal reading aloud before class—you'll be surprised at how much you notice, both positive and negative, about your writing when you hear yourself read it.

2. Prepare enough copies of your paper for each person in the group. If finances are short, two could look at one copy together, following you while you read aloud. Without duplicate copies it's difficult for your audience to remember all the language they would like to comment on. (If you cannot make extra copies, plan to read your paper—or portions of it—out loud twice.)

3. Direct your listeners' response: Sometimes ask for general reactions: "How does it sound?""Is it believable?"" What do you like best?" "Where does it need more work?" "What questions do you have?" "What do you expect next?"

4. Sometimes ask for more focused responses about the parts of the paper that you most want to hear about: "Does my introduction work? Why?" "Which evidence for my argument is most convincing?" "How would you describe my tone?" "Am I too colloquial? too formal? inconsistent?""Does my conclusion conclude?" "Does it sound like me talking?" (You will notice that you get more mileage if you are able to phrase questions that can't simply be answered "Yes" or "No.")

5. Sometimes ask for assignment-specific responses: "Where is my interpretation most convincing?""What holes do you see in my analysis?" "Where do you think I show versus summarize?" "Does effect clearly follow cause? If not, why not?"" What details tell you that I was really there?"

6. Try some response exercises, such as those Peter Elbow describes in Writing with Power (Oxford, 1981): Ask people to tell you the "movies of their mind" as they listened to you—what impressions the language created, emotional or otherwise, as you read. Or ask for metaphors stimulated by the writing. Or ask them to summarize your paper back to you. Each of these exercises gives you a different kind of information to help you rewrite.

7. Listen more than talk. The writing group is your chance to hear others' reactions unaided by your own biases. Listen to your groupmates, say as little as possible, and try not to get defensive. Instead, take good notes and plan to use your verbal energy revising for next time. (It's very nice to hear nice things about your work and very hard to hear criticism, but both are very instructive.)

8. Keep track of time or have a timekeeper do so for you. You each want your fair share and it's a good idea to allocate it evenly at the start: If you've got three papers in fifty minutes, stick pretty close to fifteen minutes apiece.

9. At the end of your time, collect copies from people who have written responses to you and say some kind of thank you.

10. It's your paper. Revise based on your own best judgment, not necessarily what the group told you. This is especially true if you hear contradictory responses. But to ignore the group suggestions altogether may also be a mistake, especially if you find more than one group member making the same comment. And remember that if you have a chance to read to the same group again, they will be especially attuned to whether or not you took any of their suggestions.

TO THE AUDIENCE

1. Look for what the writer asks. Follow along silently as the paper is read and try to focus on the kind of response the writer wants, at least at first.

2. Mark small things such as typos and errors in spelling or punctuation, but do not spend group time on such comments. Plan to return your copy to the writer at the end of the session with such items marked or corrected, preferably in pencil, never in red ink.

3. Say something nice about the writer's work. In spite of the value of critical comments, we grow as much by comments which confirm that we are doing something right. People are much more willing to listen to critical comments once they feel confident that much of their work is good.

4. Ask questions. If you find problems with the paper, the most effective comment is often a question to the writer about the spot or intent or language or format or whatever: "What did you mean here?" "What would happen if you told this story in the present tense?""What were some examples that might support you here?" Questions point to problems but do not dictate solutions.

5. Share emotional as well as intellectual responses. Sometimes it's good for a writer simply to know how you felt about something.

6. Be specific. Try to identify the word, sentence, paragraph, or page where you had this or that response. That way a writer has something concrete to react to.

7. Don't overwhelm the writer by commenting on absolutely everything you found bothersome about her paper. Try to mention the most important issues out loud in the group and let others go.

8. Share your response time equitably among group members. One good way to do this is for each of you in turn to say one quick thing, asking the writer to remain quiet while you do. This guarantees that you all participate at some level. The discussion will naturally go on from there.

9. Be honest. If you really find nothing you like, don't invent things that are not true. But in thirty years of teaching, I've never found a paper about which something positive could not be said (and I don't mean inane things such as "Nice spelling!" or "Deft use of commas"). So maybe the best advice here is "be honest, gently."

10. Stick to the paper. While it's fun and sometimes fruitful to digress into related but peripheral issues, keep in mind that your time—if you're critiquing in class—is brief. And keep your comments focused on the writing, not the writer—that helps keep egos and personalities out of the work at hand, which is writing good papers.

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