How to Start and Maintain a Writing Group
Originally published on emilyfisk.com.
There's a romanticized caricature of writers: mysterious loners, observing outsiders, wounded brooders who compulsively put pen to paper and spew out genius. Writing, according to this old idea, is a solitary activity that with only too much whiskey and/or a slight nagging mental illness as companionship. The Hemingways, the Fitzgeralds—the tortured artists—are probably partially to blame for how long this idea has survived, but we writers might perpetuate it for fun, too. It sure makes the reality of plunking away at a keyboard, scrolling social media, and staring out windows seem more impressive.
But writing, at its best, isn't solitary. Every part of the writing process could—and sometimes does—include other people, whether through feedback, brainstorming, critiquing, instructing, or editing. Writing is collaborative, and writers should quit pretending otherwise.
I learned this reality in college, and that's where a classmate of mine asked me a fantastic question: "If I started a 'wine and whining' group to talk about writing, would you join it?" Um, yes. My classmate, Tasha, spearheaded the effort and called our first meeting.
Two and a half years later, Writing Rainbow (or Words With Friends—take your pick, we've got more) is still meeting, writing, wine-ing and whining. We've adapted over the past two years, and I've been consistently inspired, challenged, and pushed by this incredible group of writers. They're a mainstay in my writing process, and I'm not sure that I'd be writing as regularly or dreaming as big as I am now if it weren't for them.
Starting and Maintaining a Writing Group
If you're a writer, you should start a writing group yesterday. And here's how you can do it.
1. Invite Writers and Set Some Guidelines
A writing group is a fairly fluid concept, and could involve as few as two writers—it all depends on your end goals. For our group, 5-7 has seemed to be the sweet spot. We've only lost two members over the past years, both because they moved away (and we miss them).
At our first meeting, we set some basic guidelines and haven't deviated far from them. When we have changed any guidelines, we've democratically decided with everyone's suggestions considered. Here's a loose explanation of how our structure works.
- Roles: We all assume a role every time we meet. At each meeting, two people are the writers who submit a piece for feedback, one person is the discussion leader who keeps us on task and watches the time, one person serves as host and welcomes us to their house, and the remaining members bring snacks and drinks. We rotate these roles based on individual availability and a complex rubric we like to call what-the-hell-who-did-it-last-time? It works like a charm. We used to keep a spreadsheet for rotation, but since life happens and plans are fluid, this eventually gave way to simply keeping track of who did what each week and collaboratively planning upcoming weeks.
- Frequency: We meet every two weeks, with breaks as needed for holidays, summer, and school commitments.
- Leadership: Our group has the leadership structure of a hippie drum circle, which works perfectly for us since every member is invested, responsible, and reasonable (and varying levels of hippie). If you don't have invested, responsible, and reasonable writers to work with, join a different writing group.
- Submissions: Writers in our group have submitted everything from 300-word free-writes to 50,000-word manuscripts. Of course, it's not entirely fair to ask members to review a book-length piece over a two-week period, so we stay flexible. For instance, we reviewed one member's manuscript over one-month Christmas break period and discussed it at the following January meeting. For regular meetings, we're able to typically discuss two smaller pieces in one sitting. Writers usually submit their pieces a few days ahead of the meeting—with exceptions for longer pieces.
- Feedback and criticism: There isn't a set structure for feedback, but we generally follow a natural flow of allowing the writer to first give a statement about their piece and then discussing it as a group. We've never had a problem with disrespectful or harsh feedback; if you have this problem, join a different writing group.
With that overview in mind, your group could look however you want it to. Here are some questions we asked in our first meeting that helped us set the groundwork.
- What are our individual goals as writers, and how can this group help us accomplish them?
- How large or small would we like this group to be?
- How will feedback work?
- How often will writers submit work?
- Who's in charge?
- How often will we meet?
- What is everyone's preferred feedback style? Are there any ground rules for giving feedback?
2. Show Up
Now that you have a tidy list of guidelines and a group of fantastic writers to work with, it's time to do the real work: show up. Our group has worked entirely because of the commitment of the writers involved. We're still flexible, and we all understand that life happens: people have busy times at work, have babies, go on vacations, and take breaks from writing. We've been able to accommodate all of these things in different members' lives while demonstrating a commitment to the group.
3. Host and Attend Events
A few times a year, our group goes on a "field trip" instead of holding a regular meeting. We've listened to lectures at our local university (like Margaret Atwood) and attended readings. We also host our own group-only readings of old material to poke fun at ourselves and see how far we've come as writers. These events keep us learning, break up the routine a little, and work well during times when we're all too busy to submit anything.
4. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
Whether you're scheduling meetings or venting about that writing life, communication tools are important to have locked in. We use Trello and Slack for submitting writing and giving electronic feedback, and we use a Facebook group to communicate between meetings. Find and use whatever tools work for everyone in your group.
5. Have Fun and Be Flexible
Finally, a piece of advice that every writer (including me) needs to hear regularly: don't take yourself too seriously. We're all committed to our writing: between our group members, we have books, blogs, manuscripts, published essays, articles, and ambitious future projects. But we also know that if we're not having fun, we're doing something wrong.