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Start Your Own Writers’ Group

I recall reading a magazine story years ago about the challenges of working from home as a writer. One of the hidden dangers, the columnist noted, is the tendency to procrastinate. Taking time to eat a brownie, she said, is acceptable. Taking time to bake brownies from scratch … is not.

Did that rule apply to chocolate chip cookies too?

Procrastination is just one of the hurdles faced by writers in their solitary vocation or avocation. (For some fabulous ways to waste time, read Diane Schoemperlen’s humorous novel about a blocked writer, At a Loss for Words. Oh, but what am I saying, you’re probably already an expert. Aren’t we all?) Writing offers up a wealth of opportunities for putting off what has to be done. After all, the lengthy and often anguish-inducing process — author Howard Engel compares it to “trying to roll a half-ton of raw liver uphill” — involves creative thinking and planning at one end, writing in the middle, and revising (experts estimate that revising takes more than twice as much time as the original writing) and proofreading at the other. But if you don’t want to struggle with all this in a vacuum, there is help.

Enter: the writers’ group.

No, it can’t hover over you like a fairy godmother waving a wand as you compose, but it can provide support in numerous other ways. Among the benefits offered by a successful group are structure, encouragement, motivation, inspiration, critical feedback on stories, networking opportunities, recommendations regarding such things as books, writing courses, literary contests, and, last but not least, a fun — it should be fun! — and guilt-free reason to get up from your desk once every few weeks. If there’s one great way to avoid procrastination (and hence the baking of brownies), it’s to feel accountable to people who are expecting to read your work at a specified time.

The easiest way to join a writers’ circle is to connect with one that’s established. Contact your local library to find out if there’s one already meeting in your area, or check out Meetup (search by key word and your postal code). The Toronto Literary Calendar also contains information on selected writers’ groups.

But perhaps there isn’t one nearby, or at least not one that addresses your particular writing needs. The solution? Start your own.

If you already know people who’d like to be involved, you’re more than halfway there. Perhaps they are friends or neighbours or co-workers, or individuals you met in a book club or writing workshop. When I was a teenager, my mother took part in a creative writing group that formed after meeting in an evening course at our nearby college. The group carried on, getting together once a month with much the same members, for several years. Participants in some of my memoir writing workshops have set up similar groups.

Don’t already know others interested in writing? Put the word out. Even if your friends and acquaintances aren’t writers, they may know others who are. Consider tacking up a notice at your local library, or bookstore, or café, or fitness club — anywhere people gather. Place an ad in your newspaper, or on www.craigslist.com. One of my workshop participants, a woman who spends the summers at her cottage on Georgian Bay, took out an ad in the newspaper there and with very little effort formed a group (of 9!) that met weekly over the summer.

Before searching for like-minded writers, ask yourself the following three questions:

How big do you want your group to be? Three to six is a good size to start. More than that can become overwhelming. After all, how many stories or chapters or poems do you feel you, and the others, can read and analyze between get-togethers? And how long do you want your meetings to last? (The more members, the longer the meetings.)

What is the group’s scope and what types of writing will you consider? Will yours be a support group, or a critique group, or a bit of both? Do you want to explore a range of writing formats/genres, or concentrate on one: short fiction, novels, poetry, memoir, science fiction, mystery … (If you’re a poet, will you get much out of meeting regularly with others who are hoping to master the short story?)

What level are your writing skills? If everyone in the circle isn’t at the same general level it can lead to frustration, both for those who may be more advanced and for those who are just getting their ink flowing.

If you have advertised in some way to solicit members, curious individuals will contact you by e-mail or phone. When they do, ask a few questions about their writing background and why they want to join a group. You may want to request a short writing sample. Get a sense of whether they’re right for your group. Once you have the information you need, tell the candidate that you’ll get back to him or her when you have heard from enough people. Remember, it’s easier to screen people now than to eliminate them once the group is established.

When you’ve chosen your members, schedule a first gathering to discuss everyone’s expectations, including the following:

Where will you meet? Many writers groups simply congregate at members’ homes, rotating so that each gets a chance to play host. Alternatively, because your group is not for profit, your local library or community centre or educational facility may allow you to use a room free of charge. Some writers groups meet regularly in a café or restaurant — but be forewarned, such venues offer many, many distractions.

How often and for how long will you meet? Keep your expectations reasonable; everyone needs enough time to produce some writing between meetings. Try getting together once every two to four weeks. For meetings, two hours is a good length, one that suits most people’s attentions spans — but this may vary depending on the number of members.

Will you assign a different facilitator for each meeting? Doing so gives everyone a chance to lead. The facilitator’s role is to keep the group focused and moving along pleasantly and efficiently so that meetings don’t go on … and on … and on …

What word count will you allow for each work? Set a limit on length of stories. It’s not fair if one person’s is 1,000 words and another’s 4,000. Stipulate that only one piece of writing per person will be critiqued per session. (There’s always some eager beaver who wants to do more!)

How will copies of stories be delivered to members for reading? Will writers bring them to the previous get-together for distribution? Or will they e-mail them, or leave hardcopies at a common point for pickup? Providing copies so that members can read stories — and make notes — ahead of time is more effective than expecting them to provide an off-the-cuff critique after seeing the story (or hearing it read) for the first time at a meeting.

What critique guidelines will you follow? Among other parameters, set a time (say, 5 minutes) for each member to comment on a story. It’s important for the person critiquing to be sensitive and to offer constructive (building up, rather than tearing down) criticism:

  • Start by pointing out a positive about the writing. Tell the writer something you like before moving on to what could be improved.
  • Be specific. Give examples to illustrate your points.
  • Don’t get personal. A critique is not an attack on the writer; it’s an analysis of the writing.
  • Keep your comments concise. Stick to the agreed-upon time limit.

As a writer, you should listen and take notes, and then respond, if necessary, following all input rather than to individual comments.

  • Listen well and take notes.
  • Don’t take comments personally.
  • Answer questions if necessary, but don’t feel you need to defend your work. (Ultimately, it’s your decision whether to incorporate suggestions in your next draft.)

Will your group go beyond critiquing? Perhaps a member each week will suggest a writing exercise, or recommend a book for everyone to read and then discuss. You could agree to set a mutual goal, such as writing for the purpose of submitting to a literary contest, or producing a chapbook or more formal anthology of your group’s work. Consider inviting guest speakers if anyone in the group knows a writer or someone who works in publishing.

How will you handle members who consistently don’t pull their weight? You may discover that you have a member who tends to arrive late, or doesn’t show up at all, or who doesn’t write regularly, or who won’t follow the critique guidelines or other rules of order. As a group, agree on how you will handle such contingencies, including what constitutes conduct deserving of a member being “voted off.”

Always start meetings on time. Set aside 15 minutes or so at the beginning for chat, then get down to business. Provide beverages and simple snacks, but nothing that takes time or effort to serve, or that will tempt members to socialize and lose focus.

Communication among members is important. It may take some time for everyone to settle in and feel comfortable with the process. Be patient. If problems arise between members, try to work them out. Respect differences; diversity will enrich your group. Respect confidentiality; do not discuss writers’ ideas outside the group or show their stories to anyone without their permission.

To continue to meet the needs of members over time your group must be prepared to change and evolve. Be open to suggestions for improvement. Create a suggestion box, or, after a predetermined period (say, every six months), develop a survey through which members can indicate their level of satisfaction with aspects of the group. If a writer moves on, for reasons positive or negative, invite a new member agreed upon by the group. If the group grows, you may need to adapt, for example by considering the work of only half your members at each meeting.

Finally — and most important — take time to celebrate each and every one of your members’ writing accomplishments. Such encouragement is beyond value.

“Writing is a solitary occupation,” wrote American novelist and short story writer Jessamyn West. She went on to add that family, friends, and society are “the natural enemies of the writer,” who must be “alone, uninterrupted, and slightly savage” to succeed.

My guess is that she didn’t belong to a writers’ group.

I wonder how she felt about brownies.

Copyright 2008 Allyson Latta. Published by Words Alive Literary Festival, September 13, 2008.