A rocking writing group can be the wind beneath your wings, your port in a storm, your Rock of Gibraltar, your Cheers where everybody knows your name, and every other cliché about feeling both safe and inspired. A strong writing group makes you feel like there’s a group of people out there who get you and even when you’re being rejected repeatedly everywhere else, your group believes in you and your worth and is a place where you can count on receiving reliable criticism.
And then there are writing groups here on Earth: Writing groups that devolve into wine tastings. As well as, writing groups that never devolve into wine tastings. Writing groups where one person bugs the hell out of the other writers and no one knows quite how to handle it. Writing groups that get derailed by side conversations.Writing groups that issue bone-crushing criticism, and writing groups that never do. And eventually, most of these writing groups fizzle out.
Here’s my advice on setting up a sustainable writing group:
1. Keep it smallish. Smaller groups fracture less easily and are more likely to possess a common set of goals and values. Also, smaller groups usually mean that you will be sharing your work more often. One of the best aspects of writing groups is the deadlines they offer. Why? Because for most of us, it’s the only way we can get any writing done. The math goes like this: Smaller group = more deadlines = more writing =better writing. And yet, you don’t want your group so small that it feels claustrophobic or like a disaster if someone’s away on vacation one week. You also need a few extra bodies because you will likely lose at least one person either actively (they huff off) or passively (they never write anything and/or hardly ever come and yet won’t quit the group). An ideal number of members would likely be between four and eight.
2. Establish the structure of the meetings ASAP. Do you want to build a social time into the meetings? Do you want it to be strictly business? How should work be distributed and what are the expectations for giving feedback? How often will you meet and where? What are the goals of the individual members? Do you want to designate some of your meeting time for writing? Work toward a consensus on a format that will meet the needs of most of the group. It is especially important to be clear about how feedback will work. Otherwise, um, disaster and bitterness ensues.
3. Avoid bringing in new members and be very, very clear about the mission of the group when a new member is brought in. Your number one goal should be to create a group that satisfies the needs of its initial members so that the need to bring in new members doesn’t come up. New members are often at a disadvantage and feel like the new kid at school in high-water pants for the rest of their time in the group. Also, new members tend to come saddled up with their own expectations that can clash with the group’s, and usually people are so “nice” that this clash doesn’t get dealt with in a direct manner and the group starts to fall apart.
4. Develop a common knowledge base. Writing classes often give birth to great writing groups because the members share a common way of talking about the writing and have read a number of the same books. This shared database can be very helpful in giving meaningful criticism to each other because you can point to examples of how other authors have handled similar difficulties. If your group has not taken a class together, it might be a good idea to start off by reading a few books on writing fiction and/or nonfiction together as well as examples of successful books in the group’s genre(s).
5. Have a rotating facilitator! This is so important that I used an exclamation mark. Most people are well socialized and so won’t say things like, “Shut up about your vacation house. We need to get back to work!” But if you grant someone with this role, they will (hopefully) cattle prod the group around at the needed times and be timekeepers. Facilitators could also be designated to be leaders in the discussion and take more risks in giving opinions as a teacher would do in a classroom setting. Of course, rotating is the keyword here, lest one person become resentful for the extra work or resented for their “upper hand.”
6. Consider scheduling in fun activities for the group. One way to solve the conflict between the group’s need to socialize and their need to get the work done is to schedule in times to get together that are strictly social. Maybe you get together for a potluck dinner or go to a reading or lecture and then out for drinks once every few months.
7. Put a date for a State of the Writing Group Nation Talk on the calendar. Make sure there’s a time every six months or so for members to check in with each other.
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