Starting a local writing group - 101
December 9, 2018 6:57 PM   Subscribe

I want to start a somewhat social / productive writing group with some friends & acquaintances of mine where I live who are all women. I could use some advice on how to get it started. A bit more information below.

Here are some questions for anyone who has started / participated in / or wanted to join a writing group.

During meetups, how do you spend your time? Is it actually writing? Sharing what you have written? A combination of both?

Is a theme (i.e. a prompt) that members should follow or kind of a mixed bag of things? What formats have worked for a writing group?

How do you decide on a place and time to meet (or cadence)? I live in Dallas and it's a very huge metroplex and I wonder if it would be beneficial to start something virtual first (even though the folks I have in mind to be a part of this are all local, we all have jobs / some with kids / and live very spread out).

Any drama that's occurred and how to avoid it?

I am looking to start something in 2019 and the friends / acquaintances I reached out to were all very interested - all know me but don't really know each other but come from varying backgrounds and lifestyles / ages. I wouldn't mind outsiders either but want to start small. Please tell me all the things you know that works / doesn't work. Thank you.
posted by hillabeans to Society & Culture (4 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I’ve been in a few writing groups. The one I’m currently in has been meeting for ten years, though only two of us were there from the beginning. All the groups I’ve been in have been the kind where we bring our writing and discuss. In the group I’m in now, we submit work in advance. I much prefer that to cold readings. People email their work, sometimes as late as the night before.

We have four people right now. I think it would be ok to add one more, but no more than that. We meet once a month and each brings something to read every time. We limit work to three poems or five pages of prose. People who don’t have anything to share are expected to come anyway because there is a commitment to provide feedback to other members of the group.

We had one person who really didn’t have time to be in a writing group and hardly ever showed up. That was frustrating. I was glad when she moved. Another person got fixated on correcting my punctuation. I’m a professional copy editor, and her “corrections” were wrong. I’d suggest having some kind of policy on correcting punctuation, since some people just do that instead of paying attention to more important things. (I’m not saying it’s not important - I just think it’s a poor use of writing group time.)

I think it’s been helpful that we met at a writers’ conference and all had some experience in workshops. I’ve been in groups with people who didn’t get some things that would be covered in any beginning fiction writing course, and that didn’t work well for me.

I quit one group because one of the members was just very personally invasive and didn’t really separate the writing from the author. I ended up deeply regretting some very personal writing I brought in because I didn’t mean that to lead to open discussion on my life. When I got diagnosed with cancer, I just couldn’t handle the invasiveness anymore.

I think how well a group works depends entirely on the people. One drama-prone person can make it tough on everyone else. I’m not providing examples on the off chance that the person would recognize himself.

My current group is really great, and I’m very glad I’ve continued with it. I’ve had a few poems published, and I’m not sure that would have happened without the group.
posted by FencingGal at 7:31 PM on December 9, 2018 [3 favorites]

How many members are you potentially going to have? That will probably determine a lot of this. My group used to be a lot bigger and had rules that were set for having multiple people submit pieces, but now we have maybe 4-6 regulars and a lot of the time nobody's in the mood to submit, so making sure everyone has time to read everything isn't as much of an issue.

The one I'm in meets twice a month. You submit a piece online up to about a few days before the meeting because you have to give everyone time to read it. There is a word limit you can send in, again, due to everyone's reading time. Everyone critiques.

I was also in a writing group that did prompts, but that wasn't as great of a situation because I live in a small town where the population is really flaky on showing up. I had to go out of town to find a writing group that lasted. You really do need a big city to sustain/attract enough people that will show up to a writing group long term. Sounds like you have that, at least.

I don't personally like writing to prompts myself, but some do. Might be up to your group.

I don't know on virtual vs. real life. I frankly ignore/forget about virtual stuff like online classes. Real life will be hard to get a bunch of women with families together who are spread out, though. I think if you have a potentially large pool of interest you may have people dropping in and out and showing up intermittently, but if you either have a small but dedicated crowd or a large intermittent one, it might work.

As to where to meet: coffeehouses, usually. Try to find one that isn't constantly overrun with studying students so you can get a table. Finding non-food venues to meet at is usually pretty difficult unless someone has connections somewhere. We used to meet at a bookstore for a while and that was nice.

We haven't had much drama in mine, any drama happened outside of meeting like one couple in group getting divorced and leaving.

I think overall you will end up having to gauge your rules and organization by the size of the group. It might be a trial and error sort of thing.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:38 PM on December 9, 2018

I've been in two different writing groups (different cities).

The first was primarily a craft and critique group, with about 10-15 regulars and 5-10 newbies at each meeting. We met once a month for three hours, in the basement of the leader's church (note: it was a very non-churchy space, basically just a giant room that had bathroom access and a wheelchair ramp). The first hour was Craft Chat, which focused on a different aspect of writing (e.g. dialogue, characterization, finding an agent, etc). The quality of this was variable depending on who was running it. Hours 2-3 were critique time. Four members submitted ahead of time and their pieces were emailed out to the group. Each critique got about 30 minutes and was structured into Positive Feedback, Constructive Criticism, and Nitpicks. The organizers were pretty strict about third-person critique ("The author did x" instead of "you did x"), and the author wasn't allowed to speak aside from a brief intro and concluding thoughts at the end of the critique session. I thought it worked well and was mostly drama-free, although there was a clique that went out for drinks after the meeting and bitched about other members -- they invited me along when I was new, I went once, then avoided them for the next two years. Downside was the group was large, so there was a several month waiting list for your piece to get critiqued (you could get to the front of the line one time if you were new), but the upside was that you got 20-30 written critiques on a single piece, which was really helpful.

My current writing group is primarily a timed writing group, part of the Shut Up and Write model. We meet twice a week in a bakery-cafe. There is some mingling time built in, but the main goal is to work on whatever piece you bring. For someone who is quite busy otherwise, I've found it useful to prioritize my writing time for at least 2 hours twice a week. All the critique groups I have been able to find in the area are "Read Your Work Aloud" which I find a lot less helpful.
posted by basalganglia at 5:14 AM on December 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

I set up and ran a genre fiction writing group in my home city. I used Milford style workshopping as the basis, which is common practice in the SF/F world. It's very focused on structured feedback and avoiding a lot of back and forth and 'well, I actually meant...' type discussions.

The advantage of Milford is that it's very structured, very craft-focused and lends itself very well to working through short stories. The disadvantages are that a) you need a pipeline of work for people to read and b) everyone needs to read it and mark up their manuscripts before the meeting and c) you can really only do one (or maybe two short pieces) in a weekly meeting.

It worked pretty well, although when I ran the workshop the main problem we had was sufficient numbers to always have some work in the critique pipeline. I had to give up running it due to work pressures a few years ago and the guy who took it over moved it onto Meetup (I'd been using a website and Google Group to manage it) which seemed to really help its visibility. Before I gave it up, I was thinking of introducing other elements, like more general craft discussion and co-writing sessions.

It was a really rewarding thing to do, but be prepared for a lot of folk who come along to one or two meetings then disappear. Plus sometimes people who say they want direct and honest feedback, but actually want reassurance and praise. When you do get a group of regulars who get the format and are prepared to both give and take useful critique, it can be great. But you will regularly deal with new people who may or may not be a good fit and managing that can be stressful. Some groups solve this problem by becoming 'application' groups, where you need to submit something before you get to come to your first meeting, but I decided not to do this as it felt very exclusionary and likely to lead to a pretty insular group. I'm glad I kept the group open, even if I couldn't run it long term.
posted by Happy Dave at 10:09 AM on December 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

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