I’ve been in many a writing group – some helpful, some not so much. One of my best experiences was with a group I started myself. It’s more work, but when you start your own group it can be exactly what you want and need it to be. In my case, I wanted a group of other YA/MG writers who were serious about publishing, and that’s exactly what I got. (One of the women from my group is a recent Pitch Wars mentee and is working with Rachel Lynn Soloman on the very manuscript we work-shopped for her back in its early stages.)
Anyway, without further ado, here are my tips for how to start the writing group of your dreams.
#1 Envision your ideal writing group.
Start by answering the following questions:
a) Are you looking for an online group or an in-person group? If you live in a more rural area, or if you have limited/sporadic free time, an online group may be your best bet. But if an in-person group is feasible for you, I strongly recommend it. Writing is such a lonely, computer-focused task to begin with; getting out of the house to chat face-to-face with other writers might be exactly what you need.
b) Are you looking for a formal or informal group? Are you the type who likes rules and a structured conversation, or would you prefer something more relaxed and free-form? Do you want your group to feel like a class, a business meeting, a get-together with friends, a party — or some combination?
c) Do want your group members to share your same writing goals (and if so, what are your goals)? Some writers want a place to simply share their work and make friends; they aren’t looking for criticism. Other writers want serious, constructive feedback that will help them reach their writing goals. It may also be helpful if everyone in your group is in more or less the same stage of the writing game.
d) Are you looking for a genre-specific writing group? (I strongly recommend this. When everyone is writing different types of things it can be hard to give appropriate feedback.) Think about how you’d narrow down your writing group. Will it be for fiction writers? Novel-writers? Writers of a certain genre (romance, mystery, YA, personal essays, etc.)? I’d recommend something fairly specific, though not so specific you can’t find any members.
e) When, where, and how often do you want to meet?
f) How do you envision a typical meeting going?
g) What do you most want to get out of the group? Helpful feedback? Writer friends? Support and encouragement? Motivation and accountability? People to talk to about your ideas? A group of people to write with?
#2 Check out existing writing groups.
Maybe you don’t have to start your own. Maybe the perfect writing group is already out there, and you just have to find it. If you live in a city with any sort of writing center, start there. For example if you live in…
The DC Area: The Writer’s Center (I teach classes here sometimes!)
Minneapolis: The Loft Literary Center (Their online bulletin board is how I found the members of the super-awesome writing group I started. I moved away from Minneapolis, but they are still meeting!)
Seattle: Hugo House (I took a class here that led to meeting some great writer friends)
Boston: GrubStreet (I’ve heard good things)
NYC: The Center for Fiction (It’s in New York, the land of publishing, so it’s gotta be good, right?)
If I didn’t mention your city, just google “writing center near me” and see what you find. See if the writing center has a bulletin board (either online or in real-life) that is advertising writing groups. Or email the center and ask about writing group resources. And it’s not a bad idea to take a class at one of these centers. The people you meet in your class might be interested in starting a writing group, or know of one you can join.
You can also check the bulletin boards at local libraries, coffee shops, and community colleges. If you write for children, join SCBWI and access their resources for finding a local or online writing group. There are other genre-specific organizations you can join such as the Romance Writers of America and Mystery Writers of America; I assume these organizations also have writing group resources.
If you’re looking for an online writing group, look on writing facebook pages or other online writing communities. If you’re looking for an in-person group, go to a local writing conference, open-mic night, or other writing event, and ask around about writing groups.
Finally, be choosy. Don’t join a group if it doesn’t seem right for you. Because if you can’t find a group you want to join, you can always start your own!
#3 Advertise your writing group.
If you’ve decided to start your own writing group – good for you! You can do it! First write up a brief description then find places to post it:
- library and coffee shop bulletin boards
- the English department at your local community college
- the online or real-life bulletin board of your local writing center
- facebook writing pages and other online writing community pages (see suggestions from #2)
Use the answers you gave in #1 to create a specific description of the type of group you’re hoping to start. For example:
“I’m looking to start an in-person, twice-a-month writing group for unpublished (but hoping to get published) writers in the DC area who are working on a mystery, suspense, or thriller novel. If interested, email me with a short description of yourself and what you’re working on, as well as days/times you’d be available to meet.”
#4 Be selective about your members.
This is your writing group, and you don’t have to accept everyone who wants to join. I realize that sounds harsh, but the goal is to put together a group that supports your needs and goals, and not everyone has the same needs and goals.
When people respond to your ad, ask them follow-up questions to make sure they’d be a good fit. And spend some time at the first meeting talking about expectations – what the group will be like and how it will be run – just to make sure everyone is on the same page (hee hee – writer pun!)
Aim to keep the group small. In my opinion, five or six dedicated members is ideal, but I’ve been in groups that work with as many as a dozen writers. It depends on how you want your group to work. Personally, I like getting critiqued on a somewhat regular basis, and if you have a lot of people it might take a long time for everyone to get their turn. A large group may also feel unruly, or people may not put forth as much care or energy because they will assume others will pick up the slack.
#5 Decide on the tone, the “rules,” and the goals of the group
You may want to decide on this yourself, or you may want to wait until the first meeting then lead a discussion in which you all hammer out the details together. Some questions to consider:
a) How often will we meet? When and where? For how long? It’s easiest meet at the same time and place every week (or every other week or every month), but if you have members from different parts of the city, you may want to rotate where you meet. Or rotate when you meet – sometimes on weekends, sometimes on weekdays, for example.
I recommend meeting twice a month for about 2 hours. Anything less than that and your group will be in danger of losing momentum. You can try once a week if your members can handle it, but with jobs and kids and school and other life demands, that might be too difficult to maintain.
b) How many people will share their work at each meeting? How much will they share? (For example, in my writing group, two people shared 10 to 15 pages at each meeting.) Will writers need to bring paper copies for everyone or just send their submissions by email? My suggestions: send by email (save the trees!) and definitely have a page or word count limit on submissions.
c) Will group members read the submissions ahead of time? If so, when will writers need to email their submissions to give everyone enough time to read them before the meeting?
d) Will writers read their submissions out loud to the group? This has its pros and cons. On the one hand, it can be very helpful for writers to hear their own prose out loud, and it means members don’t have read the submission ahead of time. For poetry, reading out loud is basically essentially. However, for prose submissions, reading out loud can take up a lot of time (especially with longer pieces), which means less time to discuss.
e) What sort of feedback will everyone give? How will they give it? Will you give any sort of written feedback? Line edits? For an online group, will there be a web conference in which you all get together at a set time to discuss? Or will you simply email your feedback? I was in an online writing group once in which everyone made comments in a google doc so that you could read the feedback from the other members and piggy-back onto it.
For giving and receiving feedback, I recommend the following guidelines:
-The writer doesn’t speak when others are discussing their work. At the end of the discussion, the writer can ask clarifying questions, but should refrain from explaining or defending (“what I meant was…” “you said it didn’t seem realistic, but that actually happened to me…”)
-Feedback should be constructive. “I didn’t like the story” is not constructive, whereas, “I’m not sure I understand your protagonist’s motivation in this scene,” is constructive.
–Feedback should be honest, yet kind. You want to be honest, but you also want to avoid discouraging writers or hurting their feelings, especially newer writers. Instead of saying something is “bad,” try to pinpoint what’s not working — for example, the pacing is too slow, the character motivation is confusing, or the dialogue doesn’t sound realistic,
-Give a feedback “sandwich.” Start by saying one thing you liked or that you think the writer did well. Then talk about what confused you, or what you think the writer needs to work on. End on a positive note or give another example of something you liked about the submission.
-Feedback should be about major elements of craft and not nitty-gritty grammar edits. Discuss the plot, characterization, pacing, word choice, the dialogue, etc. If there are punctuation, spelling, or other grammatical errors, make notes or line edits for the writer, but those sorts of things are usually not worth a big group discussion.
f) Will there be any other components to the writing group? Will you do any writing at your group meetings? Maybe a warm-up writing exercise that you share with the group? Will you give each other deadlines and hold each other accountable? Will you attend writing conferences or workshops together? Will you follow each other on goodreads or swap book recommendations?
In the writing group I started, we also had a book club element. (I had a lot more time back then.) In addition to meeting twice a month to discuss each other’s writing, we also read one book on craft a month and discussed it. As I recall, our favorites were Writing Irresistible Kidlit by Mary Kole and Steering the Craft by Ursula Le Guin.
#6 Stick with it!
Creating something from scratch is hard. (You know, kind of like that novel you’re writing.) So don’t expect it to come together all at once. It may take you a while to find members. You may have some members drop out and need to recruit more. You may have to alter the way you run your meetings or adjust your rules and expectations. You might have personality clashes among your members that you — as the leader — will have to deal with.
But stick with it. Being a part of a writing group that meets regularly is probably one of the best things you can do for yourself as a writer. Good luck!
For more suggestions, check out the Writing Group Starter Kit from The Writing Center of UNC Chapel Hill.
Do you have experience starting a writing group or being a member of one? What advice do you have for those starting a new group? Let us know in the comments below!