Filed under Tips & Tools on May 10, 2011
Tagged: Jim Vopat, writing circles
If I haven’t come right out and said it yet, I’ve certainly dropped enough hints that I’m back in school. I am working on a Masters in Teaching, and spent the last year taking prerequisite undergraduate courses. They’ve mostly been literature classes, but two of them were teaching method classes: one on reading, the other on writing. These two classes were my favorite and reaffirmed my decision to go into teaching as a profession. I really enjoyed learning techniques and applying them through the crafting of unit lessons.
One of the techniques taught in the writing methods course was writing circles. Pioneered by Jim Vopat, writing circles create a collaborative, low-risk environment where students can develop their writing skills and begin to think of themselves as writers.
But there’s no reason it can’t work for any writer, student or otherwise.
I couldn’t help imagining how I would organize a writing circle for fellow writers as I read through Vopat’s book. This wouldn’t be a critique group, though peer feedback is certainly a component. This would be writing, stimulated and encouraged by other people who want to write. It would help to establish the habit of writing, and the freedom of drafting. It would be an opportunity to play with voice and explore genres.
I wanted to start a writing circle over the summer, and had some interest from a couple folks I spoke to, but those plans will have to be put off due to a recent decision to move. I’d like to share my thoughts on how I would organize a writing circle for those who might be interested in starting one of their own.
A writing circle needs to be small in order for there to be enough time for everyone to share their writing. Five would be a good number, and probably the maximum, though three or four could work if interest is low. Each member needs a writing journal to bring, and a pencil to write with.
Meetings should be weekly. Pick a time when everyone can get together consistently. Remember, part of the purpose of the writing circle is to establish a routine of writing. You should only need an hour.
Choose a location that would be conducive to writing. Somewhere quiet, so you can both think and share without distraction. It should also be somewhere that everyone feels comfortable and safe. The local library might be a good choice. Starbucks would not.
Writing Circle Activities
Start the session with a quick write. For the very first meeting, use an ice breaker as the topic. A good one is for everyone to write 3 truths and 1 fiction about themselves. Each writer will read theirs and the others will have to guess what is the fiction. Future quick write prompts will be assigned to members of the circle. The quick write should take about 15 minutes; no more than 10 minutes to write and the rest of the time for volunteers to share their writing.
This brings up the important point that you will need a timekeeper. It doesn’t always have to be the same person, but this is a must if you want to ensure equal time for everyone.
After the quick write, spend some time in the first session coming up with a fun name for the circle. This will help create a safe and comfortable environment by instilling a sense of team or unity. Once you’ve decided on a name, then it is time to pick the topic to write about for the sharing next session. There are many ways to go about reaching consensus, but one of my favorite ways is found in Vopat’s book:
- Pass out three index cards to each member.
- One topic idea, and possibly genre, are written on each card.
- Mix the cards together then pass them back out randomly until everyone has three new cards.
- Each member chooses one card and discards the other two.
- Pass the topic card to the right. On the card you receive, mark a plus (+), checkmark, or minus (-) to indicate your preference.
- Repeat step 5 until everyone has marked all the cards
- Discuss the most popular topic(s) until a consensus is arrived at.
Feel free to choose your own method for selecting a topic. Topics that weren’t chosen this time can be used later, if desired.
Any remaining time can be used to get to know each other better or iron out remaining organizational details. To summarize, here is the flow of activities for each session:
- Quick write
- Share writing on topic
- Choose a topic for next session
Note that the topic writing takes place outside of the writing circle session. If the rest of the group agrees, members can bring in another piece they are working on to share instead of the writing on the topic.
Sharing and Response
While there is an expectation of sharing and feedback in writing circles, the way members respond to each others’ writing is not the same as you might in a typical critique group. First and foremost, responses are to be positive. The point of the writing circle is to build an identity as a writer. Improvement in craft will come, especially as you hear your fellow writers read their work, but it is a secondary consideration.
The writing shared during the circle should be considered a draft. Responses need to take the lack of polish into account, but more importantly, they need to focus on the areas of importance to the writer. They should also be phrased in the first person (“I…”), and directed toward the writing, not the writer (“I really liked when this happened”). Here are some good examples of positive, low-risk responses:
- “I would like to know more about…”
- “I think the main idea was…”
- “I could really visualize…”
- “I wonder why/what if…”
- “I really liked the combination of these words…”
- “I really connected with this because…”
- “I wish [fill in the blank] would have…”
The writer may not ask for any type of response. It is important to respect this, but at some point they need to be encouraged to solicit responses, or they are missing out on a valuable tool.
Does a writing circle sound interesting to you? Have you participated in one before? Did you find it useful? I’d love to hear about your experiences.