How to start a writing group

You probably have this already figured out: for a writer, community is invaluable. You need other people to help keep you accountable and to give you the honest critical feedback you aren’t always capable of giving yourself. And unfortunately, friends, family and significant others are often not the best choices for the job. Margaret Atwood, in talking about the importance of beta readers, counseled never to give your writing to a romantic partner “unless you want to break up”. So how do you go about building a network to support your writing? One way is to start a writing group.

 

Finding members for your group

First step: dig into your existing network. If you are taking a core class with the Collective, that’s a great place to start. Many of our students have formed writing groups over the years to offer each other feedback on work outside of their courses and to meet for writing dates, particularly between terms. These groups often evolve into long-term friendships. One such group of Level IV students kept each other going throughout the pandemic with a Whatsapp group where they shared book recommendations, comics, news, and frustrations.

What if you’re not in a course? You might be surprised how many writers-in-hiding you actually know. Ask your friends. Ask the friends of your friends. Ask your colleagues. Ask Facebook. Even if you turn up only two or three people, that’s good enough to get you started.

 

Defining your goals

Next, talk to your group members and establish your priorities. Do you need dedicated writing time to help you stick to a routine? Do you want to get feedback on pieces you’ve already written? A combination of both? This will help you figure out to structure your time together and how often you want to meet.

If you want to share short pieces, you can suggest everyone bring in their work for each session – but put a page limit on it, so each writer gets their fair share of critique time. If pieces are short enough (two pages or less), you can even consider having writers read their own work out loud. Maybe you want feedback on longer pieces? In that case, you’ll want to alternate and dedicate each session to just one or two people’s work.

You’ll also need to agree on deadlines, unless you intend to share during the session and let people give off-the-cuff reactions, which is tough to manage with longer pieces.
 

Organizing writing meet-ups

If you want to plan in some dedicated writing time, you can either kick-off or wrap your feedback session with 25-minute pomodoro. Or you can schedule sessions just to write together. Having people who are expecting you to show up is a great way to get yourself to the page, even when you may not be feeling particularly inspired. As Isabel Allende said, “Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too.”

To help the muse along, you might consider offering some prompts. Check out our list of exercises for beating writer’s block. And the web is host to many, many more (see: reddit), some admittedly better than others. Just beware of the over-research rabbit hole when searching for the “perfect” writing prompts. If you feel saddled with the task of hunting down prompts, consider sharing the burden with other members of the group. It might be a good idea to alternate who is responsible for providing prompts.

 

Writing group pitfalls

While people are generally pretty gung-ho when the group first kicks off, writing groups are notorious for drop-off. Fact: commitment is hard to sustain! So make sure you give the group time and space to evolve. It may help to be continually on the lookout for new members to keep the momentum going.

Also worth noting: the critiques you get in writing groups tend to skew more “polite” than “honest” unless you make it clear upfront that you are looking for serious critical feedback. And with untrained critiquers, there’s also a higher risk of completely subjective feedback of the unhelpful “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it” variety and of hurt feelings and misunderstandings. You may want to discuss some basic ground rules or guidelines before diving in. Our post on how to give and receive a critique offers some good tips to get you started.

Just keep in mind that while these “known issues” exist, the benefits of a writing group far outweigh the drawbacks.

1 September 2021

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