I’ve been in more than my fair share of writing groups. I find them to be interesting spaces where magic can happen and sparks can fly – good ones and bad; Sometimes one writer inspires another. Sometimes one writer annoys another. The question is; how do you keep a writing group going? How do you keep it useful, and engaging?
Here are some things I have learned along the way:
Agree on ground rules
Who chairs the meetings? What happens when someone misses a meeting? Or two? Or three? Do members send in their work before the meeting so others can read it or do they present it at the meeting?
How are members selected? Do not get your group going until you agree on these and other guidelines. It’s very easy for your writing group meetings to morph into social gatherings. Ground rules help keep it all about business.
Have an agenda
What do you do during the time you meet? Do you spare time for writing? Do you read each other’s work? Should writers bring printed copies for other members? Should they email them to everyone before the meeting? How far ahead of time?
Some groups set aside time during the meeting for writing, some keep the agenda primarily focused on critiquing each other’s work.
When you have structure, everyone knows what to expect and what to prepare for. You can also change the agenda over time to suit the changing needs or experiences of the group.
Keep it small
If your group meets for, say two hours, and there are four of you, it means you can spend about 25 minutes critiquing each writer’s work and still have time for announcements, etc. If you double that number, say, there is much less time for everyone. This may be fine too, depending on what your aims are as a group and how much writing you expect each member to submit.
It’s also harder to keep track of everyone when there are more people. The bigger the group the more the admin.
Give the group time to settle
When you first form your group, things may not work out as expected; there may be clashes of personality. There may be people who do all the talking while others do not contribute anything.
Use the first few meetings to establish norms that will help level things out, have everyone heard, and help members decide if they really want to be part of that group. Sometimes the chemistry just isn’t right for some people and so they leave. That’s all part of the process.
Active writers only
The first commandment for any group should be that only active writers are welcome. An active writer, in this sense, is one who has committed to writing regularly, to finishing a writing project at some point in the near future, and to supporting other writers to do the same.
If you have someone who has a published book and is no longer interested in writing, they are not welcome to the group – even if their book did well. Active writers only.
The desire or willingness to support other writers is crucial, otherwise, you should just write at home. There is nothing wrong with this. It actually works well for some writers.
In my own experience, having a community of supportive writer allies is the best insurance against many writing career pitfalls.
One of the primary functions of writing groups is to motivate members to write more and to finish their writing projects. It’s hard to achieve this when the group meets once every two months.
I recommend no less than once every two weeks. But as with all things writing, adapt the schedule so that it works best for the members.
The groups that I’ve found most useful for me have been the ones where we meet every week. It keeps the seat under me hot, so I can never relax too much and when I’m working on a big writing project, it helps me to keep my momentum.
Create a safe space for members to be vulnerable
I met a woman some time ago, a writer in her late 50s who said she didn’t like writer’s groups because she was part of one once and she was ripped apart by the criticism of her work. It traumatized her so much that she couldn’t bear the thought of being part of another group.
It’s really hard for many of us as writers to take criticism. Heck, it’s hard for anyone to take criticism. This is why it’s important to make sure that everyone feels trusting and trusted and to establish ground rules for critique.
In one poetry group that I am a part of, we start with a round of praise for the poet’s work. We ask “What worked? What words, phrases, or constructs struck me the most? What am I left with after reading the poem?”
Once we are done with that round, we move on to a round where we ask the question, “If it were my poem, how would I change it?”
When I first joined this group, about two years ago, this format was a lifesaver. I was with people I had never met and I was sharing my work with them. Their own work sounded so good. The last thing I needed was to hear that my poetry sucked – even if it did. These days, I want them to go hard with me. I want them to rip my work apart and to challenge me each time I read a poem. I have grown to trust them and so I am less sensitive to their comments.
In the book Writing Alone and With Others by Pat Schneider, there are several chapters that give really useful tips on how to write with others, how to offer criticism in a way that doesn’t shame the writer, and how to be supportive.
Focus on the writing
When listening to someone share their work, it’s easy to get sidetracked and start thinking about how this reminds you of some movie you watched or event in your life and then to focus your comments on this. Remember, you are all there to help each other write more and write better. So focus on the writing. What is strong? What can be improved?
Share news & opportunities
Part of the joy of being in a writing group for me has always been having time to share news of writing breakthroughs, publication success, and opportunities coming up in the writing world.
The simple idea here is that the power of a network is greatly amplified when each node in that network is a potential source of energy, ideas, information. It’s also awesome to be able to share victories with people who understand the journey you’re on.
In the first writing group I was ever a part of, over 15 years ago now, someone shared the news of a competition that was taking place. I wrote some poetry, sent it in, and won an all-expenses-paid week-long residency in the United Kingdom.
So many other writers in that group managed to take advantage of opportunities that they otherwise would have never heard of – thanks to the few minutes we spent, each time we met, talking about opportunities.
Talk about process
One of the writing groups I attended until COVID-19 changed the world, had a session where we talked about process. How did the writing go today? What worked? What did you struggle with? What helps you to get in the zone? When you hear other writers voicing their struggles and wins, it can strike a chord because you realize you are not alone in the struggle and it lights up the inspiration to do better. It also helps you commit to and refine your own writing habits.
Support each other outside the writing group
What’s the point of meeting every week or so, talking about writing, and never interacting outside the meetings? Once you have a solid group of writers, make sure that you walk the talk of supporting each other. Follow each other on social media. Attend each other’s events; poetry readings, book launches, etc.
Share deadlines and commitments to projects
In some writing groups, you can go in and read whatever you decided to write that day and do this for a year and still not have anything to show for it. The most productive writing groups for me have been those where I need to commit to a project, tell everyone what it is, and share some sort of timeline for it.
Then at every meeting, we all give updates on progress and the challenges being faced. This is useful in many ways. For one it commits you to your project as hopefully, you don’t want to seem flaky to your colleagues. Secondly, when your colleagues are aware of what you are working on, the challenges you are facing, and what success would look like for you, they are better equipped to help you.
I was in a group a year or so ago where one of the writers was doing a book about towns in America that met certain criteria. Every time other members in the group read about a small town that fit that description, in the news or elsewhere, they would pass the article on to him.
Have good moderation
Writing groups need moderation. Someone needs to know it’s their job to remind people about meetings, deadlines, etc. A good practice is to rotate this responsibility so that everyone has a turn with the different duties needed to run the group.
Strong moderation does not mean dictatorial tendencies; just consistent reminders, urging and a bit of tough love every now and then. Remember, everyone in the group is a grown-up. They don’t need parenting, just stimulation.
Have an identity
What is the is group about? What does the group help writers do? What are your aims? A name for the group may also help solidify this identity, but don’t belabor this. You’re not registering an organization, it’s informal. If you do this, find something quick. A good starting point is to pick a famous writer’s name, e.g. The Soyinka Writing Group. A name also helps when you’re setting up digital communication channels on WhatsApp, Slack, Facebook, or other app. Instead of just saying ‘Writing Group’ you have an actual name that members can identify.
Acknowledge each other’s humanity
As a group, it’s important to acknowledge that when we meet around a table or on sofas in someone’s lounge, we bring with us everything that is happening in our lives, and it’s never possible to be present as just a writer. We are there as mothers and fathers, brothers, sisters, employers, and employees.
We are not machines and sometimes the writing won’t come because – life. Members should be able to attend and say they will not share anything that day. Sometimes we need a break, from writing, maybe even from the group. Sometimes we need a different kind of support and a strong group can provide that.
We also need to put it out in the open that things like envy are normal. We all envy a good piece of writing and sometimes wish we had written it. That’s ok. Backbiting and jealously, on the other hand, are not.