Writing Groups Part 2

In my previous article on writing groups (which you can read here),  I talked about some popular ways writers connect. From online forums like the Mythic Scribes writing forums to community workshops, there’s no shortage of ways writers find each other, and just as many reasons they’re out there searching in the first place. In this follow-up article I’d like to explore some ways to start a writing group, and to keep a good group running by avoiding common pitfalls that lead to trouble.

What’s the Point?

Whether you’ve been searching for an established group and have had zero luck finding the right one, or you’re trying to start a specific group to fill a niche, the first thing to consider when starting a group is the scope—what you’re hoping to get from it. Writing solo can work for years, until one day…it just doesn’t, and it helps to know what you’re looking for in a writers’ group. Motivation, accountability, advice, feedback, critique, support—you name it, there’s a group for it, or at least other folks looking for the same thing.

Are you searching for a relaxed place for people to share their journey as writers? Are you hoping for some mentoring? Looking for intense and useful critique? Interested in collaborating with other published writers in your genre?

Just as important, are there people you would not like to share with or include in your group? I recently joined some local groups and there were people I met that made me extremely uncomfortable and I stopped attending. There are certain pieces of my writing I would not have felt comfortable sharing with them. As the organizer of a group, you will have to consider how to ensure the comfort and safety of your members.

When comparing online and local groups, both have their advantages and disadvantages. Online groups are easier to organize, aren’t reliant on geographical location, and are easier for members to attend because they simply email their work back and forth or log in at their own computer at the designated forum/ Facebook chat time. However, communication takes time to type, emails can get lost, and there is always a certain risk of irresponsibility inherent with internet anonymity.

Online groups may appeal more to people who are shy, introverted, self-conscious of their work, and allow them to gain confidence. Local groups may appeal more to people who like writing in public places, and include food and drink, meet in a park, alternate locations around town, or otherwise incorporate local culture and socializing. Remember, whatever you will find most comfortable and fulfilling, there’s other people who wholeheartedly agree!

What’s Already Out There?

If you’ve never attended one before, established groups can be a great place to start (even if the group isn’t a perfect fit). It’s nice to see up front how a successful group operates, and your community might even be ready for a spinoff group like the one you’re starting and get excited to help you. For example, you may want to establish a group for Steampunk writers in your area, but that doesn’t exist yet and you attend the local Sci-fi/ fantasy group with more than ten regular attendees before you start your own group. You may pull some numbers from that other group but it’s likely there won’t be much in the way of conflict, especially if you select an alternate night of the week. Just be open and respectful. Invite people to check out your new group in they’re interested.

Established groups are sometimes hard to find or not open to new members, but I recently searched for public Meetup groups and it was a wonderful way to try a few different types of groups in a short amount of time (especially since I wasn’t sure exactly what I needed).

There’s plenty of Meetups in my area (and I eventually found the perfect one for me), but that brings up another important point…geography is one of those things you can’t do much about. I live twenty minutes from a major metropolitan area with a respectable art scene. I didn’t always have access like this though. I used to live in a town of a few thousand people.

If you live in a small town it can be frustrating to try to find a community where one simply doesn’t exist. That’s where online groups can be a big help. Looking for other YA Urban Fantasy writers? Ask around on forums and see if anyone wants to start a critique group, or a group that meets once a week to give a quick update on word count, set new weekly goals, and generally establish a bit of support and accountability. Online groups can be flexible to accommodate any lifestyle, schedule, and commitment level.

Plus, online or local, with Google Drive and Dropbox, sharing files is easier than ever. Members can read or listen to files while they’re traveling, commuting, or exercising. Being able to share work easily is one of two essential components to a successful group. Unfortunately, it’s the easier of the two…

What Makes a Group Successful?

Writing groups need two critical components or they quickly fall apart—a reliable way to share documents and distribute information to members, and more importantly, they need to be well organized.

The concept of running a writing group seems pretty simple. “If you build it, they will come”…sort of.

Who is your target audience? That ought to be your first question.

If you post a group meeting at a downtown Starbucks on a Wednesday night 7-9pm, you’ll get different folks than if you post one at the suburban library on Wednesday 1-3pm. I’ve been to both those groups. They’re both good. Different, but good. To build a strong group, consistent attendance is critical. That means keeping a somewhat regular schedule and good communication. If the schedule isn’t consistent, priorities get muddled. The goal is to keep people coming back.

So, what keeps people coming back?

Simply? Fulfillment of their needs. Not yours. That’s what keeps you coming back. So, if your need is motivation, say, and some other folks need an opportunity to share their work without criticism, and you can make that work, great! A symbiotic match!

Often what you find with groups that are getting started (or that have a revolving door of membership), without a consistent body that establishes a norm, is that symbiosis is tough to reach. Some of the people will want to learn more about writing, some will want to share their brilliant work with people who will appreciate it, most will be joining a group for the first time, half will have anxiety or depression, one or two will have (and want to share) strong opinions about Game of Thrones, gender equality, or Donald Trump. In general, these people will not have a STFU switch.

Pretty quickly it becomes obvious one person who signs up for every critique night can’t take the smallest criticism without becoming extremely defensive and no one wants to watch them cry again, so every future comment aimed at this person is a garden variety “you have some strong stuff going on here” because there’s no point in the truth anyway. And that takes the wind out of everyone’s sails because they really want to get and give solid feedback.

One writer insists on bringing a non-fiction piece to your novel group. A fellow is giving off a creepy vibe and female members tend to come once or twice and never show up again. The Office becomes reality and you end up with your very own un-self-aware Dwight Schrute, Michael Scott, or Andy Bernard in your group, sucking away the fun and dominating the conversation, making it weird for everyone else (I love that show).

In local groups, I’ve seen every one of these happen, and they still do happen on occasion, but the group I’ve settled on does a great job of warding against it. Here’s how they (and you) can do it:

Fulfilling Expectations

  • Set Boundaries — Start out by saying publicly, “This is what our group does, what we are about, and how we operate.” Don’t be afraid of sounding bossy, being called controlling, or any other nonsense. It’s called leadership, and it’s an essential skill for managing a group. Establishing this mission statement up front will help potential members find your group if they are looking for it and avoid it if it isn’t going to be a good fit. Trust me, you want people who don’t have a STFU switch to know you have a bossy side.
  • Set Expectations — Tell members what you will do and also let them know what you expect from them. After years of great critique trading online, I was really disappointed recently when one of the women in the critique group I joined didn’t “have time” to read my submission. She has had time to do a bunch of other stuff in the month since, but still hasn’t read the chapter for me. The group I now call home is very clear about the quarterly critique sessions. The organizer CLEARLY says, “If you cannot commit to reading 5k words for up to ten people in the next four weeks, do not sign up for this meeting.”
  • Communicate — Whether it’s a Google calendar people can share, or a sign-up sheet or RSVP, by treating your group and attendance as an important thing…it will feel and be more important to members. I’ve turned up and been the only one at meetings before because people got sick or meeting times were changed only on the message board online, and it’s really disappointing. Sure, I wrote and got work done, but still, I felt abandoned in a way. Members deserve respect, so just communicate, and ask everyone else to. Check with members and ask how they want to receive notifications. It may be inconvenient and take you a whole extra minute to text one person who doesn’t get email on their phone, but they will appreciate your effort and feel more included that they got your message and didn’t show up alone when a meeting was cancelled last minute.
  • Mediate — Be prepared, you may have to deal with members’ personality conflicts. The general rule is the greater the number of people involved in a group the greater the incidence of conflict. Most groups tend to stay small and if they get too large, they split off to fulfill a new need for members, for example the same exact mission statement but in a different part of town, or on a weekend rather than weeknight, or a women’s group, etc. or with a slightly different mission statement from the original. Maybe instead of a critique group, members feel the need to share without critique, so they form a separate group. Mediating is much easier if you follow the first three steps by setting boundaries, setting expectations, and communicating from the beginning.

Managing a Group

Things are always changing. What worked yesterday, or last month, or last year perhaps wouldn’t work for you tomorrow, or next month, or next year. So is the case with groups. Dynamics and personalities aside (and I will come back to those), we change as people and writers, and our needs change too, and it’s realistic to admit a group will change or maybe must change in some ways to stay relevant to members.

As with everything else in life, we need to make progress to feel good about ourselves and what we spend our time on. When that stops, we start looking for something new.

Writing groups that add value to a writer’s life either by giving them important information or emotional support are winners. Groups that waste a person’s time and make them feel stressed are…not winners.

As an organizer, your publicly posted mission statement lets every potential member know exactly what you mean to accomplish, what writers who commit to membership can count on and what’s expected of them. Symbiosis, remember, is the goal. However, the reality is that there’s an awful lot of selfish people out there, floating from group to group, hunting for free editing, hoping they can get a hundred people to read their book and give free feedback and advice, or maybe pats on the back. Total time-wasters who will give absolutely zero back to the group and its members. You are in charge of who becomes a member and who floats elsewhere.

If your message is clear, it’s easy to say, “I’m sorry, we aren’t going to read your non-fiction book and give feedback, this is a creative writing group and we are spending this month going over our novel outlines, talking about story structure. Perhaps this isn’t the group for you.” It is your job to protect the interests of your members, those people whose needs are the same or symbiotic with your needs. If you don’t, and your members are uncomfortable and unhappy reading that guy’s “Fat Dad, Skinny Dad Cookbook”…they’ll stop showing up and your group will be just you and Mr. Non-Fiction.

On the other hand, if you are running a group for mostly social reasons, and are less concerned about what kind of writing people bring, then it makes sense to let everyone know. There’s loads of “Shut Up and Write!” groups that encourage busy writers to churn out words one night a week. Obviously that sort of group asks a lot less of participants than a workshop type of group where writers are working on improving their writing skills together.

Just stick to your mission statement and talk to members and get to know what they need and want both now and in the future. If you can build a strong core of members, those bad seeds that float in from time to time won’t get a chance to take root.

The rest of keeping a group strong is just good communication. Book places for meetings well ahead, a month or more if possible. Give as much notice as possible if things are going to change. Try to deviate from the set schedule as little as possible. If a consistent location is important to members, plan for that. If changing locations is part of the group’s appeal, invite members to find restaurants that could accommodate a group of your size and add them to a list. Whatever brought people to you in the first place, remember why you chose to do it that way. Keep an open mind about how you can improve on it, even.

It’s nice to mention people’s accomplishments, birthdays, or other things that solidify the group as friends rather than people who write together but barely know anything about each other. The more invested people are in each other, the more they are invested in the group. The more they’ll do to help out if you need a hand with something. Also, the more likely they are to show up if they have allergies, or a sunburn, or are a little under the weather. And you know, once people start cancelling for any reason, it gets easier to keep cancelling. We all have complex lives, and a little understanding and compassion goes a long way.

So that brings us to personalities. Not everyone is going to get along. Even people who are generally nice can rub each other the wrong way. It’s inevitable to have a little of it present in any group. This is one main difference between an online and local group.

It can be hard to control member interactions in an online group, while at a local meeting you can verbally interrupt a person who is entering uncomfortable territory and ask them to stay on task. Once an email ends up in everyone’s inbox however, that whole one-sided conversation/ rant just happened for everyone, whether they wanted to hear it or not. Local groups are not immune to rants, but as a good organizer you will be able to ensure everyone in the room feels safe and comfortable by speaking up if a conversation is heading in the wrong direction.

People can become hostile or hurtful over “tone” of typed words and mediating over emails is a tedious and frustrating process. Live critique (even when accompanied by typed comments) is often more friendly just because it’s easier to remember there’s a person behind the story when you can see their face.

I don’t want to insinuate that personality conflicts are the major downfall of groups, just that it is a regular issue, something we potentially have to deal with every few meetings. In the group I attend, we have a couple people who derail conversations, take more than their allotted critique time, or otherwise cause small disruptions, and our organizer is 100% professional and on top of it. She’s calm and sweet, but steers the group so we get done what we planned to. It’s one of the reasons I love this group so much more than the ones that felt chaotic and devolved into some weird version of “people who write, hanging out in a library and talking about whatever is on their mind today” which I found very upsetting because I gave up my evenings with my family to be there.

As an organizer, plan ahead for how you will deal with members who are unwittingly disruptive. Allowing the behavior to persist, while easier than speaking up, will eventually wear down the good will and enthusiasm of your members and they will stop showing up. Again, then all you’ll have is you, Mr. Non-Fiction, Ms. Anxious Outbursts, and Mr. Monopolizing Time.

Organizer Secrets

Here’s a few of my best tips, whether you are joining an already established group or starting your own, or have been organizer of a group for some time. Secret tips that will help everyone around you feel more at ease and more connected. After all, the reason we’re in groups is to connect, and that only happens when we relax and feel accepted.

Compliments — I knew a lady who had an amazing way of saying something wonderfully positive about someone. It once brightened my day as a young woman with very low self-esteem. Now I’m a grown woman with low self-esteem and occasional social anxiety. Any time you feel anxious, don’t know what to say, or sense something not quite right with a member in your group, pick something positive and say it with a smile. You don’t really even have to mean the thing, but if you do, it will sound more sincere.

Stay away from people’s looks. It’s just asking for trouble. I don’t mind someone saying something about my hair (since it’s purple), but I’d really recommend not focusing on looks unless it’s a general “You always look so happy” or similar. More often, I’d recommend, “I love your: working title, backpack, boots, clever filing system, advice on POV, fuzzy pen, doodles.” Those are all safe, will make someone smile, and feel personal. If you can, pick something that’s real and not a lie. This is my go-to anxiety cure, whether I’m anxious or the other person is.

Questions — Ask members periodically what their goals are and whether they’d like any help reaching them. Take notes if it helps. The goals of your members should be your goal too, in addition to your own personal goal. No, you do not need to take responsibility for the goals themselves, but by helping a person stay on track toward their goal, you are helping them make progress, which is fundamentally what brought them to your group. If the group is a waste of their time and a distraction from their goal, they won’t participate. So once in a while (or regularly) have members set a goal and ask how they can accomplish it. Maybe it makes sense to set up a workshop or retreat if it would greatly help all members make progress on their respective goals.

Respect — I am so fortunate to be a stay at home mom. I have flexibility to get things done on my own schedule. Some days I can clear my schedule and write all day if I want. All it takes is driving to the library so I’m not tempted to prep dinner or fold laundry or something that can wait till kids get home. It’s important to remember everyone in the group has different circumstances, different financial means, different everything. We have a great group that meets weekday afternoons, so it’s mostly moms and a couple students and a few retirees, but it’s not feasible for most people who work. We meet twice a month on weekend afternoons too, but the organizer purposefully scheduled the group this way because she was tired of all the other groups that met weeknights when she has to cook and wants to spend time with her family. I’ve got the same problem, so this has been perfect for me! However, week after week, new people join us and complain about how this meeting was on their day off but they won’t be able to make the next one because it’s a Monday afternoon, could we meet in the evenings?

Nope. The answer she gives is that there are lots of weeknight groups and she started this one so that there was another option for people who have family time weekday evenings. Still, the visitors act as though we are somehow being unfair or inconsiderate of their job schedules. Respect is an important part of a group. In this case, our chosen schedule has caused some upset, but there are people who learn the reason and respect the organizer’s choice and decide to join us when they can, and others who only care about their own needs. Let those people go. You don’t need them in your group.

Respect within the group needs to also be maintained. Especially if there is critique or sharing of work. Again, guidelines up front, easy method of sharing, these all make it easier and promote success. Still, on occasion you’ll have a member who is a bull in a china shop (all groups seem to have one), and when dealing with this person it’s best to use clear language and your best parent voice. Say how the behavior is making you feel, and then ask for what you need, and let that be the end of it. “Thank you for reading Hannah’s work, Mary, and sharing your insight as a person who also lost a friend to cancer. Everyone’s experience is unique though, and Hannah isn’t going to feel very good about sharing if we dismiss her experience.” It sounds disrespectful when it’s coming out of your mouth, I know, but it’s very important you step up to defend your vulnerable members against the ones who are not careful and not self-aware. If you don’t, no one will feel comfortable sharing ever again. If you show your group that you have their back, they will have confidence in you and themselves.

Starting a writing group can be extremely rewarding. Search out the opportunity that feels right for you. Perhaps there’s a local group that is large and needs a co-organizer. Or maybe it’s time for a group you are currently or used to attend to split into two different groups based on members’ current needs. Or maybe it’s time to go it alone and create the group that your community needs. I hope this article encouraged you to try to meet your needs in 2020. Make this the year you finally get the support you’ve been looking for!

For Further Thought

Online or local? What makes a group appealing? Any insights you’d like to share about your successful writing group?

Looking for a group? What are you searching for in a writing group?

Follow A. Howitt’s journey as a fantasy writer on her Facebook page.

A. Howitt