On Running a Writing Group

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What does a helium balloon have to do with running a writing group? Read on to find out.

You don’t have to be a great writer to run a writers group; you just have to be willing to run a writers group.

I have writing groups on the brain because my friend (and fellow writing group member) Ranee Dillon, just wrote an excellent piece on writing group etiquette. She makes a lot of good points, especially when she recommends that you ask yourself if you are really ready to receive criticism. Some people aren’t, and they don’t do themselves any favors by soliciting feedback they don’t want to hear. I’m proud of her and her piece, and I’m also excited for her since she just signed on with Evolve Publishing and will be my writing group’s first novel publication since we started meeting in November.

And then a few days ago, Tina (another writing group member) made us aware of Nathan Bransford’s piece called The 10 Commandments for Editing Someone’s Work. It was very apropos since it came out at a time when our group could have used such an essay on the front page of our meetup site. For me, Bransford’s Commandment #9: ‘Remember Personal Taste is Personal’ is critical when providing feedback to other writers in a group. When I first became a member of a writing group and started critiquing others’ work, I freely crossed out and replaced any word I personally wouldn’t use. I was a novice and didn’t appreciate the importance of voice and style yet. I wish somebody had pointed me toward these resources earlier on; I just didn’t know any better.

Both essays made me smile, and got me to thinking: what can I contribute on writing groups? Well, I know how to run one. I didn’t start my writing group; I inherited it from the original owner when I proposed moving it to a daytime hour and a public location. I’ve been running it for five months now, so I don’t presume to know all the ins and outs, but I have learned a few things along the way. So I decided to write down some tips based on my own experience.

The Most Important Thing To Know About Running A Writing Group

The first and most important tip for running a writers group is this: You don’t have to be a great writer to run a writers group; you just have to be willing to run a writers group. That means you have to be willing to do all the dirty work like find a location, advertise, coordinate the meetings, and mediate personality conflicts. Yep, I said it. You don’t hear about that last one very often, but if you want people to play in your sandbox, you have to make sure it’s a welcoming place.

Location

Unless your writing group is open only to personal friends, I suggest finding a public location to meet for two reasons: First, it helps draw in members by building community awareness. Public libraries, community centers, and churches all offer their spaces for free or for very cheap, and usually allow you to post fliers advertising your meeting times. Second, and perhaps more importantly, it’s safer than meeting at people’s houses. Yes, hosting the meeting at your house is easier than finding and renting a public space, but what happens if you have a falling out with one of the members? Now they know where you live. Yikes.

Time & Duration

Pick the time that works for you. If you’re the one who has to pick up the key to the community center once a week, or set up the chairs in the church hall beforehand, make sure the time fits into your schedule. And then don’t be late. Before I took on my writing group, we met every other week in the late evening. Half of us couldn’t make it due to other commitments, and the other half routinely showed up late or had to leave early. It just wasn’t working out. Finally, I asked the owner if I could try a weekday meetup and he said sure. Only two of us from the original group could commit to the daytime session I scheduled, but we gained 5 more members who could, so it worked out in the end.

As for frequency and duration, we started out every other week, but after we moved to our daytime slot, the members requested weekly meetings. I was thrilled. Not only did it mean more opportunities to get my work critiqued, but it also meant more fellowship (and food! See below…)

We meet for 2.5 hours and this seems to be just about right. Anything shorter and discussions get truncated; anything longer and people start to get antsy.

Advertise

Thank goodness for the Internet. Facebook and Meetup are probably all you need to start. Be warned, Meetup.com is not free. They charge a fee for their service, but it is a very nice service and allows you to upload submissions, RSVP for events, and hold discussions. We started out on Meetup but now that we have established a good-sized group, we are considering cheaper solutions, such as Google Groups. Facebook is good for a public presence, but doesn’t have all the features you might need, such as document sharing (ie, Doc, PDF, etc).

If you prefer to stay low-tech, you can always post fliers in libraries, coffee shops, and community centers. We’ve never felt the need to do that, since most people just search for writing groups online and find us through Google or Meetup. We did put a (free) ad in our community newsletter, but so far our numbers haven’t changed because of it.

Size

The ideal size of your group really depends on how prolific your members are. If you struggle to get people to submit every week, you might want to recruit more members until you have 3-4 submissions every meeting. If you have active, prolific writers, then I’ve found that five to six core members is perfect. This gives everyone a chance to submit and receive feedback every meeting, without straining the reading limits of your members too much. It also helps prevent awkwardly low numbers if one or two members miss a certain day.

Fellowship

A writing group isn’t just about writing and critiquing; it’s about fellowship with others who share your passion for writing. We encourage this in our group by spending the first twenty minutes or so visiting and catching up with each other over coffee/tea and snacks. We coordinate snacks every week using Signupgenius (free) and so far it’s worked out wonderfully. We’ve had Dunkin’ Donuts, store-bought fruits and breads, home-made quiches and German pancakes, and even mimosas. Dare I say the good eats are my favorite part of the meeting?

In addition to light food and drink, we try to start each meeting with announcements like upcoming contests, poetry readings, and other community events that our members might be interested in. This helps to foster a connection with the community and motivate ourselves to participate in writing activities outside of our comfort zones.

What’s in a Name?

Some might argue that you should name your group before you start meeting, but I think you should wait to see what personalities and inside jokes emerge after a few meetings before you settle on a name. Until then, use a generic name like “Springfield Writing Group” so that new writers can find you easily. Once you have a sense of the group’s personality, tap into that creativity to choose a new name that reflects the goals and ideals of your specific group.

Submission Rules and Guidelines

This is important. Try to get your submission guidelines clearly posted early on, reiterate them for all new members, and enforce them. Nothing will poison a group faster than somebody who routinely pushes boundaries and disregards the groups conventions. Here are the ones that work for us:

  • No helium balloons. Ever.
  • RSVP for each event so we can plan on enough food or cancel if numbers are too low
  • Upload 4 days prior to meeting, or else we can’t guarantee that yours will be read (this one gets bent alot, but it comes in handy for prioritizing who gets critiqued first)
  • Formatting should be double-spaced, 12 pt font, ten pages or less. Name/Title on page 1, and page numbers on every page
  • Files should be uploaded as PDF and named using the following convention
    • 2012-MM-DD Descriptive name.pdf
  • Feedback will be tailored to the author’s needs (eg, is it a rough draft or nearly final revision?), and constructive criticism will be directed toward the words on the page, never the author
  • Any member may comment on posted submissions, but only members who have attended at least 2 meetings may upload submissions for review

That last bullet is important. You may not be able to do that for your first few meetings, but once you’ve established your core members, you will want to put that rule in place. It discourages random people signing up for one session just to get their stuff reviewed, and then disappearing forever. It also prepares new members for the kind of feedback they will receive on their own work once they are able to submit.

The first bullet is important, too. Our community center expressly forbids them and I could lose my $50 deposit if somebody brought in a helium balloon, so I take that stuff seriously. Your mileage may vary on that one.

How to handle personality conflicts

Unfortunately, this is part and parcel of having an open writing group. You hope for compatible personalities to walk through that door, but occasionally you may get someone who just doesn’t fit in. I’m not talking about the odd bird who is a little off but generally harmless. That’s me. I’m talking about the one person everybody else complains to you about individually because they said something inappropriate, made them feel uncomfortable, or repeatedly disregarded the rules. The problem person may not realize it, or they may just not care that they ruffle people’s feathers, but either way the issue must be addressed. As the writing group leader, this is your job.

It may mean pulling aside the problem member(s) for a little pep talk, or sending a discreet email with a carefully worded message that educates rather than attacks. I know this is not enjoyable and personally, I hate playing mediator, but it must be done for the health of your writing group.

This doesn’t mean everything will be fine afterwards, either. Feelings can get hurt, people can be embarrassed; it’s almost certain somebody will come out of it feeling miffed. But it’s almost always preferable to clear the air rather than let bad feelings fester. I’d rather hurt a new member’s feelings with a gentle chiding than lose my dedicated core members because they felt uncomfortable around that new member.

If the problem member adjusts their behavior, then problem solved. If the problem member quits, well it’s unfortunate, but problem solved. My personal feeling is that an open group should never ban a member, or as we say, “Give them a Golden Balloon” (see what I did there?), but neither should they tolerate members who consistently bend/break rules, hurt others’ feelings, or make discriminatory comments (even in a joking manner). It’s not always pretty handling such issues, but it is necessary to keep the whole group healthy and moving forward.

FUN

It’s not all work! Sometimes we meet outside of the normal meeting venue to keep things fresh. Now that our group is established and we all know each other, we have met at each others’ houses and restaurants. The new environment almost always results in a more giddy atmosphere, but sometimes it’s good to have a fun, light-hearted meeting to help open up members and get to know them in a way you might not have within the normal meeting space.

I can’t say enough good things about my writing group. It’s been my pleasure and privilege to get to know its members, and I count all of them as my friends. Not only has my writing improved, but I’ve made several good friends in the process. We all share the same goal of seeking publication and I have no doubt that we will all achieve that goal. Personally, I can’t wait to see where this group takes us.

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9 thoughts on “On Running a Writing Group

  1. paulrobo- Yes, I know that. But THEY don’t know that I know that, and I’d like to keep it that way, dig? *evil grin*

    Besides, this is the kinder, gentler Bryn who doesn’t threaten physical violence when she loses her temper. I’ve even managed to get the reputation of being diplomatic and restrained around here. (So don’t go spoiling it for me, MFer, or I will f*cking reach through this screen and break your effing typing fingers one by one with a ball peen hammer. Try editing a magazine like THAT!!)

    But seriously…. Great job on issue 3! Just finished “The Science of a Gunshot Wound.” Very informative!

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