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How (and Why) to Start a Writing Club

By Joyce McPherson
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #89, 2009.

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Joyce McPherson


When my daughters were 13 and 15, we attended a conference on myth and C.S. Lewis. The highlight of our weekend was meeting one of my daughter’s favorite authors, who was receiving an award at the conference. When we told her that both girls liked to write, she asked if they would like to talk with her that afternoon. What a delight! When they met, she encouraged them to practice writing and to keep learning everything they could about their craft. “And when you are ready for it,” she told them, “form a writing club so that you can receive critiques on your writing.”

I smiled at that comment. My oldest daughter shared her writing with no one but her younger sister.

When we got home, however, she declared that she thought she was ready.

Getting Started

We sent an email invitation to a wide group of middle-school and high-school students. Those who showed an interest came to the first meeting, and we shared our idea of forming a group to critique each other’s writing. We would meet once a month and email the students’ writing pieces to the group in advance.

We also explained some practical rules, which our author friend had given us.

Rules for Writing Clubs

Joyce and the members of the writing club
The first rule for the group was to come prepared. Everyone must read the stories before we met. We found this to be one of the most important rules. When we later organized formally, the president made a habit of reminding students to send in their writing pieces by a certain day. Another email reminder served to exhort students to read the stories before the club meeting.

Begin with Positive Comments

The second rule for our club was directed to those giving critiques: everyone must begin with what they liked about the story. When it was time to mention problems, the key was to focus on the work, not on personal emotions. Instead of saying “I didn’t like . . .” a student could say, “This part didn’t work for me because . . .” In this way the author could understand the critique and decide whether editing was in order.

A third rule was to be honest if the genre or message of the story did not interest the person giving the critique. It helped for the author to keep this in mind as she listened to the evaluation.

Being a Good Listener

The third rule applied to the author. During the critique the author was not allowed to speak, except to ask for clarification, until everyone had a turn. This kept the discussion from turning into a platform for the author to persuade the “audience.” We wanted to remember that the goal of critique was to help the authors learn where their writing was not communicating effectively. If an author had been allowed to explain beyond what was written, then the strength of the critique would be weakened.

Writing for an Audience

Dressed up and ready for action
One surprising result of our writing club was how much it motivated our children. Club members urged each other to write another chapter so that they could learn what happened next. The club provided a reason for writing now. The critiques also provided the impetus needed to improve the stories. Some students shared their first chapters several times before they were satisfied to move on to the second chapter. We enjoyed watching how our feedback enriched the stories. Writing can be tough, but having an audience makes all the writing and re-writing worthwhile.

Enrichment

Over the years other activities enhanced the writing club. For example some of the mothers shared insights into writing (like, “Use active verbs!”). The students also hosted discussion topics, such as, “What makes you sympathize with the character’s emotions even if they are not entirely justified?” The students also tried their hands at exercises, such as writing a letter in the first person from one of their characters. It helped them understand the personalities of their characters better.

At one point we had five novels being written at once, with about one chapter delivered to the group each month. It was humorous to see how attached some of the students became to certain characters created by their friends. At Christmas we invited the group to write Christmas stories including any of the characters in the five novels. They emailed them to each other in time for Christmas and enjoyed some new twists on their creations.

A Writer’s Sketchbook

Writers can have sketchbooks, just as artists do. We challenged our members to keep a verbal sketchbook with sections for “character sketches,” “plot ideas and problems,” “interesting names and words,” “sensory descriptions,” and “interesting pieces of conversation.” The sketchbook was a place to think of fresh ways to describe the basics of a character such as age and physical characteristics. For plot ideas, students were challenged to think of ways to introduce unsolved problems that would “hook” their readers. The section for interesting names and words included names for people and places, as well as words that intrigued the author. (New verbs are always handy when writing.) In all descriptions for the writer’s sketchbook we reminded the students to use several of the five senses and to aim for vivid details. Some of the verbal sketches grew into stories.

Using the Internet

Intense discussion of writing concepts
Since we first began our writing club, the Internet has developed into a more useful tool for groups. My sons now participate in a group that posts their stories to a password-protected site. They use email to announce meetings and remind members to check the website. The Internet could also be used to form a club of members who meet by Internet rather than in person.

Sharpening Our Skills

One of the reasons our author friend had given for forming a writing club was to understand our audiences better so that we could write for them. The students were often surprised at how certain plots intrigued their readers while other plots fell flat. There was often a gap between what they imagined in their minds and how it translated onto paper. The writing club sharpened each person who participated. It also taught them how to critique the work of another person in an effective way.

My daughter is now in college. The day they evaluated each other’s work in her first video-editing course, she came home and told me how glad she was that she had the experience of writing club, because it taught her how to critique. Yet perhaps most importantly, the writing club bridged the gap between creating for oneself and creating for others.

BONUS TIPS FROM JOYCE

Good Books for Writing Clubs

  • Don’t Sabotage Your Submission by Chris Roerden

  • The Elements of Style by Strunk and White

A Checklist for Critiques

  • Did the opening grab your interest?
  • Were there enough details to see the setting in your mind’s eye?
  • Was the point of view consistent?
  • If background details for the story were presented, was it done in such a way that it didn’t confuse the reader or bog down the pace?
  • Did the characters seem real? If not, why not?
  • Was the protagonist a captivating character?
  • Was the pacing appropriate? Too slow or too fast?
  • Was there a good balance of narrative and dialogue?
  • Did the dialogue ring true?
  • Did you identify any typos, grammatical errors, clichés, etc.?

Writing Exercise

Write in the first person as one of your characters and answer the following questions:

  • What is your name?
  • How old are you?
  • Where do you live?
  • What do you look like?
  • Describe one thing you feel strongly about.
  • What is the most interesting thing that has happened to you lately?
  • What are you good at?
  • What is one of your weaknesses?
  • What is your idea of fun?
  • What is one thing you would change about your life if you could?

A Sample Writing Exercise

We used this during a club meeting. Type the paragraph starters and leave large spaces for the students to write. Print them out, cut the pieces apart, and give each student a strip to complete. Allow about fifteen minutes and then read the compiled story aloud.

Jane sat in the window seat watching the snow falling softly through the trees. She was . . . (Describe Jane)

Jane sighed and wondered how much longer she would have to wait. The sound of hurried footsteps heralded the arrival of her young cousin, Plum. (Describe Plum.)

“Has it come yet?” Plum asked.

“No,” replied Jane. (Add more to this conversation.)

Jane lit a candle. “Let’s go to the front hall so we can be the first at the door.” Plum followed her down the hall. (Describe the hall.)

Jane and Plum lived with their great-uncle James in Sudley Hall, which had stood for over 500 years in Cherleton. (Describe the house.)

Jane and Plum had fallen into the habit of avoiding their great-uncle James. He was . . . (Describe the great-uncle.)

Joyce McPherson is the creator of the online programs “Homeschool Tools” and “Shakespeare Tools,” as well as the author of a series of biographies for Greenleaf Press. With her husband, Garth, she homeschools their nine children. She can be reached through teachingtools.org or at mcpclan@comcast.net.


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