To a writer, long stretches without using our craft is akin to wandering through the desert with no water. Though we’ll always crave the pen and page, with the mundanity of everyday life, it can be easy to lose our motivation and go through periods of dry spells. We try to get ourselves back on track, but a couple of weeks into our new ‘foolproof’ schedule and we’ve already lost all of our motivation. We need to be held accountable and we need to feel like we’re improving, learning, growing…but our friends don’t quite understand the sense of urgency we feel about our writing. What do we do? Possibly the best way to not only push yourself to write more, but to also grow in your craft (without increasing your student loans ten-fold) is by starting a Writers’ Workshop Group. For those writers who want to renew their enthusiasm for the written word, here are some tips on how to start your own writers’ group:
STEP ONE: GET THE WORD OUT
The first step to successfully starting a Writers’ Group is to send out the bat signal to some fellow writers. Community websites like meetup.com or NextDoor are great ways to find local writers who may be interested in joining your group. Also, more obviously, check with any of your friends who are interested in writing. They may know people who would also want to join a potential group in the area. In addition, if you went to college for writing, don’t be afraid to reach back out to some of your old classmates. It may feel like a long shot, but they may be just as starved of a way to consistently practice their craft as you. Prior to reaching out to people, however, make sure you have a clear mission statement or goal for the group– whether it be focusing on a specific genre or improving a specific part of the writing craft. This way, potential group members will know what they’re getting into right away and whether the group is the right fit for them.
STEP TWO: ESTABLISH A LINE OF COMMUNICATION AND MAKE A SCHEDULE
Once you’ve collected a list of people who are interested, you’ll need to create a clear line of communication for the group. Whether that’s by starting a group text or creating a private Facebook group, you’ll need an easy way for everyone to talk to each other, share ideas, schedules, etc. Once you’ve created this and everyone is on the same page, it would probably be smart to gauge their level of availability for the group. For example, if you’re trying to host a group to write short fiction, ask your group how often they’d be able to write a new piece. In addition, ask what their availability would be for meetings. Depending on their responses and how you’re planning to structure your workshop, you will be able to determine how often it would be prudent for the group to meet.
STEP THREE: ESTABLISH A MEETING FORMAT
There are a few different ways you could format a workshop group. The first would be to have everyone bring a piece of writing to each meeting (whether that be a short story, chapter of a book, etc). If you want the group to encompass multiple genres, the type of writing doesn’t need to be specified, but you should put a limit on the relative length of the piece so the critiques don’t take up too much time. For a group working in 1-2 hour increments, pieces should be roughly between 20-30 pages. Have the group break into smaller groups of two or three, passing their work to the person next to them. Give the group a period of 30 minutes to read each other’s work and make notes. Then have them pass the work back to the person who wrote it and give them any critiques or notes they had.
Another possible format would be for the whole group to focus on 1-2 pieces per night. In this format, you’ll have 1-2 of the writers send their pieces to the members of the group a week in advance of the group meeting. The members are expected to prepare a few paragraphs of notes and critiques to present, giving the group more of a round table discussion format for 1-2 hours. We recommend, at least for the beginning, starting with this format simply because when you start a writing group you have no idea what each person’s critiquing style will be. This way, rather than relying on one person to give each writer an unbiased critique, they get the opinions of the whole group. However, with this format, you’ll likely want to meet every 2 weeks instead of once a month; otherwise, it will take a while to get to each person’s work depending on how many members you have.
STEP FOUR: USE FRAMED CRITIQUES
Regardless of which format you choose, there’s one thing that’s absolutely crucial: frame your critiques. What really sets Writing Groups apart from something like a book club is that the author isn’t some famous person who will never hear your opinions…they’re a human being sitting right there in front of you. And, as a writer, you know how personal the art is and how easy it is to be sensitive about your work. Therefore, the best way to critique is to frame each criticism with a positive comment at the beginning and the end. For example, “I loved the characters in this piece, they were really unique and made me laugh a lot. I thought the piece got a bit confusing toward the end, but I liked the narrator as well.” That’s obviously a shortened version of what you’ll be doing. You can get more in-depth into the criticism side of things, just make sure you’re framing it with positive statements. In addition, when you’re voicing a criticism, make sure you’re using ‘I’ statements. For example, saying, “I thought the middle section could be shortened,” instead of, “The middle section should be shortened.” Remember, you’re not the ultimate authority on what each piece should look like so the writer should know that your statements are solely based on your educated opinion– which they can take or leave.
STEP FIVE: MAKE SURE EVERYONE IS HEARD AND STAY ORGANIZED
Similar to Book Clubs, one of the most important aspects of the group is to make sure each and every member is heard. In order to do this, it helps to designate a host for each session. This could be you each time because you are the founder of the group or you could rotate. Either way, make sure the host is asking questions to get the group talking and calling on any members who haven’t made their opinions heard.
As the founder of the group, you’ll likely be the one in charge of staying organized and keeping everyone on task. For example, if you decide to go with the group discussion format, you’ll want to make a clear schedule in terms of a) when each person has a piece due, b) when each person’s piece will be discussed, and c) when each person will be hosting the group discussion. This way each person will know when to bring their critiques for specific pieces, when to prepare discussion questions, and when their own work is due.