What do Chuck Palahniuk, Ursula Le Guin and Louisa May Alcott have in common? They all belong (or belonged) to writing groups.
Writing may be a solitary pursuit, but the solidarity of writing in the company of other writers may drive and focus your effort. A reliable, anticipatory audience makes for a great motivator. It may be that the only people who read your recent words are the five with which you meet weekly, but those eyes may be all the reward you need.
Once you’ve refined your craft and gotten that book deal or independently published, these will be the same people who make sure your first book signing isn’t a ghost town. These are the folks that can tell you that selling 500 books really is quite an accomplishment. They’ll be the ones to tell you how you really sounded when you start your NPR interviews. At the very least, they will write beside you and walk with you on your author journey.
A great many writing groups exist. I guarantee writers regularly meet somewhere close to you. Check meetup.com, look at the flyers in your local libraries and writerly cafes. If you can’t find one that’s right for you, start one yourself! That’s what I did with my group, the Seattle Daylight Writers. Five years later, we’re still going strong!
Here are my eleven secrets to building a better writing group.
1.) Pick a day, time and frequency that works for you.
This may seem like a no-brainer, but it is actually very easy to acquiesce to scheduling times that don’t really work with your schedule in order to please the vocal folks that aim for their own convenience. You are the leader and organizer. If the time is difficult for you, you may be able to make it at first, then will struggle, then will skip. Without a consistent leader, the group will falter, weaken and disband. This time won’t work for some people. That’s okay. They can start another group at a time that works for them.
2.) Be consistent.
Once you find a time to meet that works for you, stick to it. The more regular and reliable you are, the more likely your group will go the distance. There will always be weeks some writers will miss. Or there will be the first timer and will take a couple months of canceling before getting the courage to make their first appearance. If you are always there, Fridays at eleven at Caffe Vita on Pike, writers will find their way to you, or back to you, eventually.
3.) Respect every writer.
All writers are equal. Every moment of a writer’s journey is valid and worthy, from those just starting and struggling with basic clarity, to those churning out best-selling literary prose on a daily basis. We were all beginners once.
4.) Decide what you really want out of your group.
Not every writing group is the same. My group gathers to communally ignore each other for 45-minutes of feverous writing. If so moved, we follow this writing period by reading out loud what we just wrote. Perhaps you’re looking for deep critique and your group will share pages beforehand and exchange comments when you meet. Still other groups meet to share prompts, exercises and writing games. Make it whatever you want. There will be other writers seeking the same thing.
5.) Create an online page.
Your group’s webpage will allow you to schedule sessions, provide information and manage and attract members. I love using meetup.com for my writing group. I never advertised. I simply put it up on Meetup and the writers found me. You could also use a Facebook page, a Google+ group, or a custom site.
6.) Personally welcome every person that comes.
With as little as a nod and a “hello”, you can make each writer feel welcomed and at ease in your group. It’s amazing how many people feel great trepidation and insecurity to say they are a “Writer” or to do anything that may bring their writing to light or fear of being rejected by “real” writers. A simple, “Hello. I’m glad you came,” can go a long way to transforming a nervous newbie to an impassioned participant.
7.) Location. Location. Location.
Setting has a tremendous impact on the tone of your writing group. Busy, loud coffee shops may be excellent for inspired writing sessions, but terrible for structured conversations. Quiet libraries work well for editing sessions and one-on-one critiques. Private homes are great for groups of people that already know each other, but uncomfortable for strangers.
8.) Consider parking and transportation ease.
Things like free parking and bus accessibility can be the deciding factor people for many people if they want to make the trek out to writing group today or not. Groups meeting in urban areas may want to share the best parking strategies, or post which bus routes run close by.
9.) Enlist as many co-organizers as possible.
Your instincts may tell you to protect your precious group by keeping control close and limited to your own whims. However, this is the quickest way to kill a group. Imagine that your writing group will last years and years. One day, eventually, you will go on vacation, or suffer an illness, or perhaps even fall out of your writing groove for a bit. With co-organizers, you don't need to worry about the group dying off during your absence. Plus, the more ownership members have, the better the quality of the group.
I should note here that for my own group I retain sole control over finances and the ability to charge dues. I have not passed that on to any one else. However, I have many co-organizers that host more events. Our group meets three times a week, but I only can make it to one.
10.) Set the tone, diffuse, feel free to boot.
You have the power to set the tone of your group. Whether you would like a group heavy on criticism or instead focused on positive encouragement, your words and actions provide the model for other members. Feel free to speak to any writer who damages the experiences of others. (Preferably in private.) It's very rare, but I have even banished a few people from our group. I welcome all kind of crazy, warmly. Our group is the people's group and open to all, regardless of writing ability, psychosis or quirks. The only time I booted people has been when their crazy interferes with other member's ability to have a positive experience.
11.) Show up.
Remember what I said about consistency? I mean it. You are the heart beat of the group you start. If you skip too many times, it will die.
I love all the people that come to my writing group, whether I know them or not. The camaraderie can't be beat. You're all invited to try out my group if you're in Seattle. If you are in another city, perhaps leave a comment letting us know if you are looking for a group, or if you have one to recommend.