My new novel, Kitten on a Fatberg, is a comedy in email form about an eccentric writers’ group. Just about everything happens that you would hope never to see in a writers’ group in real life, including feuds, cheating, jealousy, covert surveillance and some very, very bad verse.
In real life, however, I and my writing pals Martin and Alex are actually very happy members of a group that’s been running successfully for about five years. Between us, we’ve been members of several others too. So here are our top tips for starting a writers’ group and keeping it running smoothly:
Start with a Core
The typical way writers’ groups start is when a small group of like-minded friends with a shared interest in improving their creative writing decide to get together more formally. There may only be a couple of you to start with, but you will probably have a few ideas of other people to approach, and once the word is out, it quickly spreads – there are writers tucked away, working quietly, everywhere! To generate more interest, you could put up a flyer in your local library or post something on local online forums. Local writers are ideal, as you want people who can practically attend on a regular basis.
Work Out Who You Are and What You Do
When the group is very small at the outset, it’s a good time to establish what kind of group you want to be and how you will operate. Are you beginner writers looking to get your first work finished or more established writers looking for feedback and motivation? Will you be meeting to read and discuss each other’s work or will you set each other writing prompts and creative exercises each time? Or again, do you want to create a space where writers can discuss their process more informally? These are all quite different remits, and all can work very well, but knowing your desired group style up front can help you recruit people who will be a good fit and manage the expectations of new members.
Be Realistic About Group Size
Our group has a core of about five writers, with any of another five or six who join when they can. In practice, we will have between four and seven people per session. This is about as much as we can take, as with more people, there wouldn’t be time for everyone to read and hear some feedback on their own. Some writers’ groups go bigger, but the danger is that only certain people get to read, and newer or less confident writers may not get the supportive framework they need.
Decide on Frequency
How often do you want to meet? We meet every fortnight, because our group is made up of committed writers, often working on novels and other long pieces. This frequency helps us all keep writing, but it needs a core of people to commit to it in order for it to work. This is especially true for people reading out sections of a novel, as they need people to keep track of the story with them. For writers who are getting started or have less time, monthly is often a better frequency to start with.
Decide on Venue(s)
Many writers’ groups start off meeting in a public space such as a library, café or pub. This can be convenient as a meeting place, but it’s not always easy to find somewhere where you are not disturbed and where people don’t feel self-conscious reading out. Meeting in people’s homes is a better option where possible, because it’s a much more intimate and comfortable environment for what you’re doing. Some groups rotate between homes, while others always meet in one particular home.
Have a Process for Introducing Newcomers
It’s important for groups to have some new input, because this helps keep things fresh, and different people bring different creative perspectives. At the same time, you need a certain basic level of security if you are introducing newcomers into your home. In our group, a member can vouch for a newcomer, but if a potential new member finds us via one of our occasional community ads, one of us will have a phone call and perhaps a public meet-up first so both parties can be happy that the group is potentially a good fit for them.
Establish Some Ground Rules
Having a few basic ‘rules’ can help pre-empt all sorts of tensions and disagreements that can otherwise arise in any group dynamic. Here are a few from our group:
- Work can be in any form or format so long as it’s original and all yours.
- Feedback should be constructive and supportive. Comment on the work on its own terms, on what you actually heard rather than what you wished had been written.
- Keep to a roughly similar amount of reading time per member.
- Try to rotate the order of people reading out and feeding back.
We’ve never written any of these rules down, but if I was starting a new group, I would find it useful to put together a brief summary about the group, and its purpose and principles.
You Do Need a Leader
Every group needs a leader or facilitator. You need someone who keeps the meeting schedule on track, who gets the readings started when the small talk is getting out of hand, who makes sure contributions don’t run over, and who just makes sure everyone is generally happy with how things are running. Some of these roles can be shared, and often, the leader will actually be quite hard to spot. But, occasionally, there may be a real need for them to step in if, for example, someone is unhappy about some feedback they’ve received or there is a clash of personalities in the group.