One of the best things I’ve done to improve my writing is to participate in a Writers’ Group. Just a few benefits of being in a writers’ group are: Getting together routinely with like-minded creative types who “get you;” Receiving constructive and free input on your writing projects; Leaning more about the craft and business of writing from the group members, and; Staying motivated to write more and finish your projects.
There were plenty of writers’ groups in the city but I couldn’t find one in my local area. I knew there had to be other writers living among me so I started one using the Meet Up platform. It took a few months for people to find it, but now, after 2 ½ years, the group has 150 members with about 30 active participants.
People have commented that they like how I’ve structured the group. I’d like to share how we operate for any of you who’d like to start a writers’ group of your own.
Step 1: Get the word out. I used Meet-Up but other outlets like Craigs’ List, community bulletin boards, or social media like Facebook and Twitter can bring in members, too. Although my group has 150 members, including 30 people who attend the meetings on occasion, only 10 or 12 people actually participant each time. This is good! The best sessions are those with only 9 to 12 people. This intimate number of people seems to generate the best discussion. Larger groups mean a larger circle and hearing everyone’s input is difficult, unless you have a private venue.
Step 2: Find a venue. My writers’ group is free. There’s a Wegman’s Café in our community so gathering there for two hours isn’t a problem. The Wegman’s staff allows us to reconfigure the tables and chairs so all our members face each other. A former group I participated in met at Borders but we had to be quiet there. The best locations are free and have room enough for tables, chairs and allow for open discussion.
Step 3: Decide on a regular meeting time. My group meets on Sunday evenings every two weeks (on average). This day had the least amount of conflicts for us. The timeframe you choose might be dictated by the members’ preferences in your group. Find a convenient time that works best for you and everyone. Some groups may prefer a Saturday afternoon, or a Thursday evening. Our group meets for two hours from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. In that time, we critique two submissions.
Step 4: The process is this: Two people volunteer to submit their pieces to the group. We have an internal email list for the writers to whom the writers will send their submissions. An internal list was necessary for my group because I have 150 members. But only 30 of those members routinely attend a session. Because writing is a personal practice, we didn’t feel comfortable emailing our pieces to people who don’t plan to give a critique or attend the session. The writers send (email) their work (limited to 3000 words) to the group, one week before the next meet up. That gives all the members time to read the submitted piece thoroughly and plan to give a thoughtful and constructive critique. Most of us print out the story and make our edits and comments on the paper, to give back to the writer. At the session, although we may have made edits on the paper, we don’t critique grammar at the session. We give input about character development, suggestions on how to make the story better, tell the writer how the characters made us feel, if the pacing of the story makes sense, etc.
Step 5: At the onset of the writers’ group session, we welcome new members and introduce ourselves around the circle. Then we get started. We spend 30 to 40 minutes critiquing each story. It takes longer if more people attend. The writer who’s being critiqued is not allowed to speak until the very end. We found that if the members keep asking the writer questions, it turns into a “defending your thesis” type of session and can become disruptive and leads to tangential discussion. Once the members finish giving their thoughts on the piece, then the writer gets the chance to give insight about his or her story.
Step 6: After both writers receive critiques, we set the date and time for the next meeting. Once we get a good date to meet again, we then ask for two new volunteers who want to submit their stories. We ask for volunteers versus having a set schedule of submissions. It can work either way, but we don’t want to press people who aren’t ready or comfortable about submitting yet. Time permitting, we spend the last 20 minutes doing a “free write.” Someone will throw out a random open-ended phrase, or three un-related words, or any writing prompt at all, and then we’ll all individually write for ten minutes (timed) using that prompt. When the time’s up, we’ll go around the group and read what we’ve written. This is a fun exercise. It’s great to see how 12 different people will write 12 different perspectives using the same phrase.
Please let me know if you start a writers’ group and if this structure works for you!