Learn how to start and lead a successful writers group. In this post, John Peragine shares 6 writing group best practices, including limiting your group size, how to effectively share work, and more.
Three years ago, at the first Writer's Digest Novel Writers Conference in Los Angeles, I arrived with a mission. I wanted to meet and connect with as many of my fellow writers as possible and make lasting connections. In my post, 10 Tips for Effective Networking at a Writer's Conference, I wrote about the strategies I use for networking. I succeeded in developing some great relationships from that conference, but I felt like these connections could be so much more.
I sent out a message to my newly found friends asking if they would like to form an online writers group. Twelve people responded. I created a Facebook group and we began to share ideas with one another, but still I was craving something more. We decided that we would meet one night a week through a Zoom video call. That was the beginning of what we still call our Wednesday night group.
Everyone from that first group has either published or is in the process of publishing a book. I believe the group has all of us to get across the finish line.
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6 Writing Group Best Practices
I share with you now the six lessons we have learned along that way that could help others start these kinds of groups. There was a definite learning curve to begin with, but we have pushed through the challenges and to this day we still look forward to our Wednesday night group.
Best Practice #1: Limit Your Group Size
We began the group on Facebook. We set the privacy setting as public and once enough members showed, we turned the group to private. One of the foundations of success is that once we had the core members, we did not keep it open to new members. We tried to open the group to new members once or twice, but they often did not fit.
A small group becomes an entity. People begin to feel comfortable with one another, and this synergy happens. We did add one member that a couple of the other members already knew and so she was able to tap into that synergy much easier.
Keeping the group small also has definite advantages. We try to limit our calls to about an hour, but often it goes a little over. Four to five people is the perfect size to allow everyone to talk about what they are working on, and it also allows everyone a chance to comment without anyone feeling left out.
Setting a limit on the number of participants adds a layer of accountability. You can't hide and remain a wallflower in a small group. It will be noticed. Once people spend some time in the group, everyone wants to participate.
Best Practice #2: Make Decisions by Majority
When we decided we wanted a weekly call, everyone looked at their calendars and gave the top three times they could meet. Everyone had day jobs, so it had to be at night after work. The other challenge was that there were three different time zones to consider.
We agreed the time would be set according to when the most people could make it. Two things happened simultaneously. One group of people just could not make it at the set time and left the group. The few who had conflicts but wanted to make the call worked out their conflicts such as dinner and someone to watch the kids. We ended with five members.
When there have been changes in times and dates, we vote with majority rules. If you are leading the group for the first time, don't be afraid to hurt people's feelings when making decisions. It just cannot work out for everyone, and that is fine. Just make the final decision and stick to it.
Best Practice #3: Have a Plan, and Then Let It Go
I had this vision for the group and had this agenda and format I believed the group should follow. That lasted about a month, and then, I had to let it go. My agenda was not the agenda of the group. I had a plan based upon action and doing. Each week, each participant would report what they had accomplished using a particular format.
A group synergy occurred, and we became an organic collective. It is like writing a book—you might set out writing about one thing, but then it becomes something totally different, something wonderful.
The group kept the habit of reporting what they had accomplished in the past week, although in a much less formal way. The part that was missing was connection with other humans who shared our passion. Writing is often a solitary act, and writers often crave just talking to other people who 'get them.' Our spouses, friends, and family often don't totally understand the process and frustration we go through in order to write a book. The group became a tribe, and we wanted to share our fears, frustrations, and triumphs with others who could appreciate us at a level we might not find in our everyday life.
I don't lead the group anymore. Instead, the leadership shifts from person to person as they speak. I can relax and just be a participant and learn and share like everyone else. At some point, you must trust that the group will function with all the members leading collectively.
Best Practice #4: Share Your Work and Feedback
A challenge early on was members sharing what they were working on. They wanted it to be perfect before sharing what they had. What each of us realized is that everyone else in the group felt the same exact way.
Be willing to share your work, your struggles with the inner fraud police, and be prepared for people to give you constructive feedback. How else does one improve their craft without asking for feedback and applying it to their work?
Sharing is not always about your own work; it is also sharing your feedback with others about their ideas and work. Sometimes that can be even harder than sharing your own work. We don't want to hurt anyone's feelings. I recommend that a new group go slow until trust and rapport is built.
Those who haven't published a book often feel they are unqualified to provide feedback to others concerning writing a book or publishing. Even if you are a new author, you are already an expert reader. You know what you like, and what works for you in a plotline or a character. This is invaluable to authors, as we cannot know how our books read through another person's eyes.
It is amazing how much more confident the members of the group are. Not only are they writing more and getting published, but they are also now teaching others what they have learned.
Best Practice #5: Commit Yourself to the Group
It has been impossible for everyone to show up at every meeting. Life happens. Any time someone cannot make it, they post a message that they cannot attend. By doing this, we are accountable to the group. If there are not enough people who can attend in a particular week, those left can decide to jump on a quick call or cancel.
Holidays are always a challenge. Often the group decides not to meet the last few weeks in December and that the New Year is a great time to re-commit to writing projects.
You get out what you put in. When people show up and are vulnerable enough to share their work, their concerns, and their ideas, mini-miracles occur. Books get done. Contracts get signed. Royalties flow.
Without the commitment, the group doesn't work. I tried two other groups, and the members could not commit to showing up and were stuck on their WIIFM. (What’s In It For Me). You give in a writers group, and the gift is returned when you listen to feedback of others.
Best Practice #6: Have Fun
At this point in my career and life, I am all about having fun. Anything else is boring, and not worth the time and effort. We like to joke around a lot. We even do some sessions while relaxing with a cool adult beverage. We love to laugh. We love to celebrate each other's success. There have been a number of times I might be having a bad day or a rough spot in my writing and leave the group smiling and re-energized. You must build in the fun in writing. It is a playful art that is not meant to be all business and scrambling to get published. It is meant to be joyful and fulfilling.
I foresee continuing to participate in writing groups for as long as I write and maybe even beyond. If you are thinking of starting a writers group, it begins with an ask. Put the word out, and see what happens. Don't get discouraged if it does not work the first time around. It takes the right mix of people with enthusiasm and dedication to make it come together. When it does, you will make writing friends and colleagues for a lifetime.