Image: Matthew Loffhagen
The act and art of writing are usually solitary endeavors, even with a head full of a hundred different characters. If you’ve had enough of pacing around your living room trying to ease writer’s block, or terrifying your pets by acting out sword-fights, then a writing group might be just want you need. Maybe you’re even hoping to find the C.S Lewis to your J.R.R Tolkien.
But what can you do if there isn’t a writing group in your area, or the groups that do exist don’t meet your needs? Well, since writing groups can be so important for writers, maybe you should start your own. Here’s how.
Set objectives for your writing group
This is important to establish as early as possible. After all, success is based on achievement, so naturally you need something to achieve in order to feel like a successful writing group. And, without wanting to sound like a fun-sponge, it’ll also help give some structure to your meetings. Each member will probably have their own aims in mind already, so the best thing to do is discuss and collate all of these individual goals, then create a set of goals or a shared, singular goal for the writing group that everyone agrees on.What’s the overall goal of your writing group? Make sure everyone’s on the same page.Click To Tweet
This could be many things, but here are some common examples to get you thinking:
- To write more often,
- To network with other writers working in similar genres,
- To critique each other’s work,
- To support and champion each other,
- To become better writers and editors,
- To give each other industry or professional insight,
- To help strengthen each other’s manuscripts from first drafts to publication.
Settle on a format
Again, structure is the foundation on which success is built. Set guidelines on how the group will operate and establish clear expectations. This could include word or page counts for submissions, when and how submissions are distributed among the group, and how participation will work.
For instance, it’s worth considering how distribution will work in your writing group. Will you distribute printed copies on the day, read work aloud, send submissions out by email prior to the meet, or provide copies at one meeting to be critiqued at the next? Likewise, how will critique work? You could opt for spoken feedback, but written mark-ups are easier to refer to later. On that basis, would you prefer people write on their copies or type up a ‘report’?
Agree on a format with everyone and see how well it works. You can always try something different if it doesn’t.
Establish a critique model
Who really enjoys receiving criticism? No-one? Thought so. We all know how important criticism is, even if we’d also rather it didn’t need to exist and we could all just blindly agree to love everything equally. Criticism can be equally hard to provide, especially if you’re having to deliver it to someone’s face on a regular basis.
Firstly, you need to decide on who gets critiqued, for how long, and when. Will all members critique all submissions at every meet-up for an equal amount of time? Will there be a minimum participation system for each submission? Will you intensively critique a different member’s submissions each time? Your writing group’s decision on this may also depend on the number of members in the group.Writing groups need structure – who, when, and for how long?Click To Tweet
Then you need to decide on how the critiquing should be delivered. This can be tricky to balance, as common advice dictates that withholding feedback doesn’t best serve anyone, and yet needless criticism just for the sake of contributing can be harmful. Probably the most effective and universally-agreed-on structure for providing feedback is the critique ‘sandwich’. Here, the bread should be something complimentary and the filling should be something advisory. Positive, negative, positive. In other words, criticism is far easier to swallow when it’s presented inside encouragement.
Discuss the various options with the group and settle on a model before your first proper meet.
Bring notepads. Bring spare paper. Bring pens or pencils. Bring your wallet to keep coffees or beers topped up. But most importantly, bring critique notes with you if you’ve already seen the submission before the meeting. Have specific examples ready to serve up alongside the positives and negatives you highlight in someone’s work.Be ready for your writing group – bring pens, paper, and ideas.Click To Tweet
It’s not helpful to just shruggingly tell someone you liked or disliked their submission if you can’t tell them why. Have some questions ready to ask them, and in turn, note down any comments or questions directed at you.
Be open to change
This may sound like counter-intuitive advice considering how much I’ve banged on so far about setting ‘structure’ and ‘rules’, but flexibility is important too. Encourage feedback every now and again from the group to check that the established format and meeting schedule is still working for everyone. Is the group meeting too often? Not enough? Would a different day or time work better? Or a change of location? Is commitment to the group too much of a burden? Is there too much homework? Is everyone getting the same opportunities to contribute? Is one person contributing too much? Or too little?
You may also need to react to changes in membership numbers. If they increase, you might need to take another look at your format and submission guidelines to check they’ll still work if the group dynamic changes. If you experience a loss or stagnated membership numbers, maybe it’s time to review your recruitment policy, or push for a new recruitment drive.
Try out different ways to meet/communicate
Obviously, the main advantage of meeting in real life is the excuse to get out of the house and do some good, old-fashioned socializing (as well giving those traumatized pets I mentioned earlier a break from your one-person shows).
But, if you’re struggling to find warm, breathing, writerly human bodies within a reasonable distance, you could always use virtual space instead. Email, chat rooms, private Facebook groups, Skype, Google Hangouts, forums… the list of options just keeps increasing each year. Obviously, there are certain pitfalls associated with online, non-verbal communication, such as misinterpreted tone of voice and people’s propensity to be harsher when speaking to people they can’t see. For this reason, video or phone conversations for writing group critiquing may be best.Search for potential improvements rather than waiting for issues to present themselves.Click To Tweet
You could also use these methods as supplementary to physical group meet-ups. Conversations and support could continue online between each meeting, and those who are forced to miss one can still feel like they’re part of the group.
All work and no play…
You’ve got your shared objectives in mind and you’re all working hard to achieve it/them. But, taking a break from your routine can be beneficial too. Mix things up every now and again by doing something totally different to your usual meeting. Go to a book reading, or a talk from an author, or catch a movie together. Create some writing prompts or have a go at some fun writing exercises with the group. Or maybe arrange to meet up in a completely non-writing-related way, just to get to know everyone better. Often, it’s easier to be honest with people we have a rapport with.
Set the rules – and stick to them
The key to running a successful writing group can really be boiled down to three things:
- Creating a shared group objective,
- Establishing guidelines for participation,
- Following through.
There’s obviously no point in going through the trouble of adhering to the first two steps if you’re not going to stick to them. Everything should be agreed on democratically, but as the founder, you need to take responsibility for steering discussion and ensuring the group is on track to achieving its shared objective.
Starting a writing group may seem daunting, but if you take it one step at a time and make sure to consult on what works for the group, you’ll have an amazing resource that can enhance both your writing and career. Share your writing group tips in the comments, and, for more on getting great criticism, check out Your Complete Guide To Getting Useful Criticism and Everything You Need To Know About Working With Beta Readers, or if you need more convincing, try Why Joining A Writing Group May Be The Best Thing You Do All Year.