Team Up! What Makes Writing Groups Work

Joining a writing group can be a wonderful way to spark your creativity and increase your commitment to writing. But what makes writing groups work? Six writing groups from around the world share their tips to a supportive writing group.


Writing often is a solitary endeavor, one that easily can lead to loneliness. You can spend hours alone at your desk, staring at your computer screen or a blank page, without encountering another human being (and no, tweets and Facebook messages don’t count). While some writers thrive in solitude, others crave the interaction with other writers—members of their own clan who will encourage them, inspire them and support them when the writing road gets rough.

If you’re seeking the companionship of fellow scribes, you needn’t look farther than your own neighborhood or city. Writing groups abound in nearly every town, and if your own neck of the woods doesn’t currently offer one, consider forming one of your own. Here, five writing groups from around the U.S.—and one group from South Africa!—share their top tips for making writing groups work. Their candid answers illuminate the best formats, possible pitfalls and lessons learned, gleaned from years of cultivating an intimate writing community. Use their advice to seek out the best writing group for you—or create a list of “must-haves” for your own group.

Adamastor Writer’s Guild

The Adamastor Writers’ Guild focuses on developing science fiction, fantasy and horror writers based in Cape Town, South Africa, to help members improve their craft.

WRITING FROM: Cape Town, South Africa.

SIZE: Our membership varies, but our meetings generally hover around four to eight participants.

FORMAT: We keep things quite informal and face-to-face, but we do maintain a Facebook group where we can post links. Because we’re a small group, the core members are already quite close friends, so it’s easy to keep in touch via social media, phone and email. Our format is informal. We’ll share good news, talk shop and, if anyone’s brought short stories or chapters, engage in mutual critique and discussion. From time to time we’ll arrange additional focused workshops where we’ll write or do exercises—and usually break into smaller, dedicated working groups based on people’s chosen genres. Sometimes we arrange special guests, like local authors, editors and other industry professionals, so we can have a bit of a panel discussion. These are always fun.

WHAT DIDN’T WORK:  We started out by having monthly critiques via email, but that was a nightmare to coordinate, and people didn’t always complete their assignments, so we did away with that.

MEET UP:  We meet once a month at a Kurdish restaurant in the Cape Town Central Business District or at members’ homes, depending on what we feel like.

BETWEEN MEETINGS:  We keep in touch. The city is small, and many of us are friends, so if a special critique is needed, we have our network to fall back on. Sometimes we have picnics or movie nights.

SUPPORTING ONE ANOTHER:  Knowing that we’re not alone is important. Before this [group], there wasn’t any support for genre fiction authors in the city. There are writing courses, but they’re geared toward literary fiction and they’re often prohibitively expensive.

LESSONS LEARNED:  There’s not any one way that’s the “right” way to get published—especially now with the industry in so much flux. I feel that there are far more opportunities for authors. And having that support base is awesome. We’ve learned that by creating a vibe we can make things happen—as seen by our annual Bloody Parchment reading event held at a local independent bookstore in conjunction with the South African HorrorFest. Our event is always well-supported by guild members, even if they’re just part of the Cupcake Crew who donate eats for the night.

TIPS: Keep meetings fun—[create] a sanctuary for writers to know that they can say what’s on their minds and gain advice when they need it. Writing is a solitary craft, but you needn’t create in a vacuum.

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The Group

An eclectic mix of mid-lifers, we have an ashram escapee, a working private eye, a fly fisherwoman, a bicyclist, a psychic medium, a church pianist, a flight attendant and a high school dropout. We are writing short stories, memoir and novels—mystery, adventure, paranormal and travelogue. We come together with a desire to improve our writing and a willingness to give and receive honest critique without crying (most of the time).

WRITING FROM: St. Augustine, Fla.

SIZE: Six to eight members.

FORMAT: Writers are used to working freely and independently. Group work is different. We email our chapters to each other to print and critique at home. We read in order of arrival at the house of one of our members. Critique moves clockwise, starting with the person on the left of the reader, unless our high school dropout wants to go counterclockwise. Depending on how many of us are there, we may time ourselves. If there are six of us, we each have 30 minutes to use the way we want, whether we read a 2,500-word piece and have only 10 minutes of critiquing, or read less and receive more critiques. The reader doesn’t respond to the ones critiquing until all are finished. And no defending or arguing—if we drag on, our [private eye] says, “Let’s move on.”

MEET UP: We meet weekly. … We start with five or 10 minutes of socializing, until one of us—usually one of the men—says, “OK. Who’s first?” Then we follow our format. We’re serious writers, but we also laugh and tease each other like a family. When one of us begins with, “You know I love you, but …” we know we’ll get a strong suggestion. If someone gets defensive, duct tape is threatened (kidding). We don’t always manage to keep strictly to our guidelines, but we always get helpful suggestions and we always have fun.

WHAT DIDN’T WORK: We began by printing copies of our pieces and passing them out at the meeting, but the quality of the critiques wasn’t as complete or detailed. We also began with anyone reading and critiquing in no specific order, but often the same one or two went first. Also, arguing, defending and yelling at each other didn’t work.

SUPPORTING ONE ANOTHER: We support each other by being respectful and kind, but honest. People like having their work praised, but receiving constructive criticism and suggestions is more helpful. Both are good. We listen to each other. We celebrate one another’s victories.

LESSONS LEARNED:  How to write for people other than just ourselves. We can have different styles and different opinions, and no one is right or wrong. It helps to have a thick skin when listening to a critique. Like a sports team, a writing group benefits from diversity but should have similar goals and understandings.

TIPS:  Size matters. Smaller groups have more time for critiquing. Adhere to a formal structure. Laugh a lot. Respect each other. Be honest and kind. Honor each other’s opinions and writing styles. Don’t take things personally. Commit to attending weekly meetings. And cookies always help.

Journey Into Writing

We meet to write. Using prompts, we dive into the page, coming up only when the timer beeps and only then discovering what we’ve written. It’s a write-first, think-later approach as we explore writing from all angles and all senses.

WRITING FROM: Prairie Village, Kan.

SIZE: Eight members.

FORMAT: Our format is group writing practice with a facilitator as full participant and gentle guide. It’s experimental writing at its best. Together we’ve splatter-painted canvases to Mozart and then written about the experience and about the painting we created. We’ve written to photographs and from still life. We’ve composed poems using handfuls of magnetic words on metal teakettles and cookie sheets. We’ve spun a “Wheel of Fiction” where we dropped the same character into various genres. We’ve smelled substances that evoked surprising associations and memories. We’ve handled moss, leaves, pods, shells and sand striving to describe what we’ve felt. We’ve sketched mind maps and mined our own writings.

MEET UP: We meet once a week in the evening year-round. We write to two or three prompts, and then read and comment as to what we remember or what stays with us about each piece. Switching prompts from words to music to objects to scents to movement keeps things fresh. Switching locations from homes to food courts to museums to parks helps us sop up our surroundings and transfer them to the page. And switching facilitators gives everyone the chance to lead and the chance to follow.

BETWEEN MEETINGS:  We might do short homework assignments, or we might not. We might search for an object or photo for an upcoming prompt potluck or share encouraging quotes, videos and links. We also might shape up what we’ve written and send it out.

SUPPORTING ONE ANOTHER:  The most important way we support each other is by allowing whatever needs to be written to come, be it anger, grief, absurdity, horror, hilarity or tentativeness. It’s all of value in first writings because sometimes it is the first time someone has tapped a particular tree of material and they’ve risked writing about it, or sometimes it’s something that needs to be written out of the way before other writing can emerge. We honor those first writings by carefully listening to what is working and what will affirm each individual writer’s voice and journey.

LESSONS LEARNED:  As we’ve grown as a group, we’ve learned that we can be fearless when we do this writing thing together. We write raw, facilitator included, which keeps us all risking and all learning. It’s like linking arms and shuffling into a spooky mansion en masse. We’ve also grown to try anything because we trust that no one will attack, tear down or undo what we’ve written.

TIPS:  Developing and adhering to group guidelines is the absolute best way of creating and maintaining a successful writing group. When everyone is treated as an artist who is finding their own way with words, everyone feels safe, respected and ready to experiment.

The Park Avenue Authors

The Park Avenue Authors, who range in age from 15 to 85, are diverse in personal and professional backgrounds. We are novelists, radio scriptwriters, journalists and nonfiction book authors, both published and not published yet—but most have professional writing experience of some sort.

WRITING FROM: Albert Lea, Minn.

SIZE: 11 members

FORMAT: Our meeting format is written out and specific so that any member can facilitate a meeting. Predetermined topics initiate discussion for the first hour, at which time the focus turns to each individual. We have not found a need to change our format thus far; however, we are cognizant of the ever-changing needs of our membership and are willing to adapt accordingly.

MEET UP: We set aside one Saturday afternoon a month to get together over coffee and tea. We meet for as long as it takes for everyone to get what they need from the group. We explain our story lines and plots, our characters and their motives; give and receive feedback on readings; share workshop and conference information; discuss promotional and legal aspects; share frustrations; and offer support and encouragement.

BETWEEN MEETINGS: [We] critique each other’s work more in depth and in its entirety, meet one-on-one for something specific, research information, prepare for our next meeting and pursue our own writing.

SUPPORTING ONE ANOTHER: [We support one another through] mutual respect and appreciation for the different styles and objectives. The personal experiences and professional backgrounds of our members offer additional expertise and insight that mutually benefits us all, such as technical support or marketing ideas.

LESSONS LEARNED: Individuals have limits. A group has none! Sometimes you need someone to yank you out of your perspective in order to grow. As one of our members put it, writers are a different duck. Sometimes it just feels good to be with your own flock.

TIPS: Be clear and consistent in what you offer members. The Park Avenue Authors has a written mission statement, which is included in every welcome packet issued to every new member. … [The packet] also includes written goals and objectives, a schedule with the dates, times and topics for the current year, and a personalized membership card. This keeps us all on the same page.

Sandpoint Chapter of the Idaho Writer’s League

The Sandpoint Writers’ League is made up of writers promoting the joy of writing and helping each other take the next step in their improvement.

WRITING FROM:  Sandpoint, Idaho.

SIZE: 25 members.

FORMAT: We set up the meetings so writers can get feedback for their work. The format changes occasionally when we have speakers come in, and when we have our Ides of March bash … (togas optional; watch your back). For that, we invite the community at large to bring in their own writing and give five-minute readings.

MEET UP: We meet on the first and third Saturdays of the month. We have “brags” in which the writer deposits a quarter if he or she has a brag, usually something published. Next comes book reviews when our members talk about works they recommend. Then writers offer their own writing for critique and feedback. Often this has already been emailed to members during the week. On most third Saturdays, we have a guest speaker talk about areas of interest to writers.

BETWEEN MEETINGS: We run two weekly critique groups in which writers offer their writing for more intense and detailed feedback.

SUPPORTING ONE ANOTHER: We offer feedback, make mentors available for beginners [and] hold workshops on all aspects of writing.

LESSONS LEARNED: We have become stronger writers [who are] more familiar with a variety of writing. [We] continually learn about the changing world of publishing and marketing. The best thing we learn, however, is about friendship, the bond between writers helping writers.

TIPS: Continually bring in new people to rejuvenate the membership, and work to develop successful writers. Run workshops and invite the community; involve your group with the community [by] taking part in county fairs and running contests for younger and older writers alike.

Write Loudly

We help bring out each other’s writing strengths, and we help one another stay strong as women. We celebrate our accomplishments and rally support for our crises. We are more than a group—we are family.

WRITING FROM: Western Massachusetts.

SIZE: 12 members. We also have honorary members who drop in when they can.

FORMAT: The writing group leader, Sera Rivers, creates writing prompts and lesson plans that will work for everyone. That can be challenging, especially since everyone writes different genres: historical fiction, short stories, personal essays, science fiction, horror, young adult and children’s books. Sera designs each eight-week writing session around a theme (such as characterization) or a specific project (such as writing for a story slam).

MEET UP:  We’ve been meeting for the past seven years. We meet every Thursday night from 7:00–8:30. Most meetups comprise three parts: a lesson on the craft or business of writing, writing time and a read-aloud with member feedback. If we’re working on longer projects, we help brainstorm ideas or troubleshoot problem areas if people are struggling. Once 8:30 hits, we break out the wine and hors d’oeuvres and catch up on the latest happenings since the previous week.

WHAT DIDN’T WORK:  Sticking to one format for a long period of time. Sera alternates between working on long-term and short-term projects, and lesson plans and writing prompts. This helps members break out of their comfort zones, stay creatively fresh and feel accomplished when they write shorter pieces or enter contests (and win!).

BETWEEN MEETINGS:  We get together for informal brainstorming and writing sessions, go to our favorite author readings/talks/signings and flock to writing conferences (sometimes four to a hotel room). We have helped each other prepare applications for MFA programs and write résumés/cover letters for jobs.

LESSONS LEARNED:  Before Write Loudly, feedback could be frustrating because it came from non-writers who gave rave reviews but couldn’t really help because they didn’t understand the writing process. The ladies of Write Loudly give each other a place where both writer and story get equal measure of support. Our group provides a wonderful environment where everyone feels comfortable sharing her work—even if it’s personal and painful. Everyone has a story to tell, and listening to each other enriches our own writing and our lives.

TIPS:  Finding the right group is just like dating. It’s OK to try out different groups until you find a good match. For some, Write Loudly wasn’t a good fit, and they’ve moved on. For others, it took a few bad “dates” to find our group. And for the lucky few, Write Loudly was love at first sight.

 

Editors note: This article previously appeared in the July/August 2014 issue of Writer’s Digest.

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