I’ve been helping to run WLWG for a little over a year and a half, and there are a few lessons I’ve learnt that I thought I’d share. There’s not much to starting your own writing group: get a few of your writing friends together or advertise locally, and arrange to meet and that’s it. But if you want to have a constructive writing group that lasts and provides you with encouragement and well-rounded critique on your writing, or otherwise, an appropriate meeting to sit down and write for a couple of hours, well, that is a whole different ball game.
There are two main types of writing group. The first is a critique based writing group, where members read their work and are critiqued (this article is mainly focused on this type of group). The second is a writing group where everyone sits together and writes for a set duration when the group meets, feeding off the discipline and creative energy. There are also amalgamations of the two.
Why start a writing group at all?
This is a good question and one to fully consider before launching yourself into organising your own writing group. Most likely, there are many local writing groups available. If nothing has turned up in your google search, try a local library (if it still exists) or a literary/ art / performance-art cafe, as these often have listings. It can take time to find a group that suits you, don’t give up after the first try.
If there is no local group or you can’t find one that suits your needs, there are a few things to consider.
Things to Consider before starting a writing group
Time Commitment: Organising any event, no matter how low maintenance, takes time and effort, consider running it with a one or more friends to share the load.
Type of Group: There are lots of different types of writing, and therefore a lot of different types of writing group. Whether or not the group should have a particular focus should be a consideration. For example, someone focused entirely on poetry might not have much to say about how best to write a non-fiction book about nuclear physics, and vice versa. However, the more specialised a group, the more difficult it might be to recruit writers.
Venue: There is often a romantic notion of hosting a writing group at people’s houses on a rotating basis. This is fine if all the members know each other or are friends of friends, but if you are reaching out to a wider circle, there are safety considerations. Also, there can be some pressures involved in hosting writing groups in people’s homes. Some may be uncomfortable with the idea and want to be excluded from the hosting circle or may live in an inconvenient location, some may want to play the host and provide food and drink (with others wanting to better the last person’s wares and some not wanting to provide anything at all). This can all result in resentment and infighting. I would recommend trying to find an external venue. This will forgo the aforementioned problems and also be a consistent venue so that members don’t have to double check the venue every session.
Fee: This ties in with the venue. If the venue requires payment for its use, it may be an idea to have members pay a fee. Consider whether the fee should be yearly, monthly or on a session by session basis. It might be hard to get members to fork out for a year in advance. This issue can be a little delicate, especially as the typical writer is not someone with a lot of spare cash to throw around. Also, if it is a critiquing writing group, there can only be a limited number of readers per session, and you may want to think about readers and non-readers paying different amounts to account for this. Alternatively, find a venue where the proprietors are happy with the group paying for food and drinks in return for consistent custom, and explain this purchase agreement as a policy to all members.
Frequency: How often will the writing group meet? Every week might suit some, monthly might suit others. WLWG meets fortnightly, and this has been a good frequency for us.
Time of Meeting: Although weekends might seem like a good time to meet, it can be hard to get a commitment from people for their weekends or Friday evenings. Unless all the members are students or are otherwise free during the day, I would recommend a weekday evening.
Open or Closed Group: This question is entirely about how you want the group to be run. An open group means that anyone can ask to attend, and it can go on a first come first serve basis or just have an en masse attendance. This sort of group can have a very high turnaround and be very admin heavy as it may require sorting through attendance lists and waiting lists every session and emailing confirmations. WLWG is a closed group, which means we have a set number of members, and occasionally open the group to new members when old members leave. The pros of this is that we all get to know each others’ work, and don’t have continual questions about backstory. A commeraderie develops, as well as a trust in each other’s critiques. There are definite pros to always having a new audience, but without knowing someone’s background, it’s hard to trust in the quality of a critique. The cons of a closed group is that it can be really good to have new blood and a fresh set of eyes on a piece.
Size of Group: Either way, open or closed, some consideration should be given to the number of members. Writing groups operate differently, you might be aiming for an intimate gathering or a large network. WLWG have 5/6 readers of an evening, and we aim for a quorum of about 10 people. Obviously, we have more than 10 members, bearing in mind absences. For WLWG, the quorum of 10 people is a balancing act between the largest number of people we can have and still have a good critique where everyone has the opportunity to speak, and enough people to create good custom for the publican who provides us with the venue to meet.
Guidelines: Essential to any forum is a set of guidelines, members should be given an idea of word count and how much time each reader is allocated, how many readers there will be in an evening, how it will work if there is not enough time for someone who wants to read, as well as the estimated end time. Some groups require the readers to send their work to each other to read beforehand – this requires additional organisation and some people can be a little touchy sending out copies of their work. Also, we all know how difficult it can be to share your work as it can be very personal, so setting a tone of mutual respect for each others’ work and giving a considered outline of how best to give constructive criticism might be beneficial (e.g. always say what is good about the piece before launching into a point that doesn’t work). This is so that everyone will be singing from the same hymn sheet.
Hosting an Evening: If it is a critiquing session, organise how many people will be attending beforehand, as well as how many people will be reading (it might be an idea to have reserve readers). Ask the people who are reading to bring enough copies of their work for everyone attending. Be clear about how the evening is going to run and be strict with timings – having a stopwatch is a good idea. And don’t forget to have fun!