I am convinced that if you want to get serious about writing, joining a writers’ group is the single most important thing you can do. It gives you deadlines, other people to hold you accountable to meeting said deadlines, free (at least in terms of money) editors, and material to improve your editing skills.
Getting involved with a group, as the professor of my undergraduate fiction workshop advised, is not something to take lightly. Having started my own group a few years ago (which disbanded once too many people moved away) and now being a sort of replacement member in an already established group, I feel qualified to offer some experience-based tips on getting off on the right foot.
1. The most important qualification for a prospective group member is how committed s/he is to the group. Our group comprises writers of adult fiction, young adult fiction, and nonfiction personal essays. Some of us have worked in publishing; most have not. One has an MFA; others have no formal training in writing. What we have in common is that we prioritize submitting our pieces on time and responding to others’ submissions at our meetings (or via email later, if we can’t attend the meeting). Though a group of all fiction writers or all young adult writers would be great, too, for us, the diversity in where we come from and what we write makes the group richer.
2. Meet often. We meet every two or three weeks. It might seem like a lot, but it keeps us in touch with each other and always moving forward. We have a large enough group that there’s enough time between submissions for each individual to make use of her notes before bringing something else—new or revised—to the group.
3. Consider your numbers. Our group is eight, which is as large as I’d want to see a group go. Because it’s hard to schedule with that many people (some prefer weekends, other prefer weeknights), we’ll often have one or two members missing. Even then, there are enough people to keep things moving, so there isn’t too too much pressure to make every single meeting no matter what. Though this may seem to contradict #1, we all have young kids, so this is reality right now. We’re all committed, but we also understand when family takes precedence.
On the other hand, I wouldn’t want fewer than five in a group. The discussion is so important to build off of each other and see more than we did in our own private read-throughs.
4. Stick to a format. Our group begins each discussion by going around the room and having each person say something they liked and something they think needs improvement in the piece. This balance keeps the criticism constructive, and usually helps us pinpoint which issues need to be delved into more deeply in our discussion.
In both of the groups I’ve been in, we’ve used a traditional format, in which the author of the piece does not speak until the conversation among the rest of the group has ended. Then the author has a chance to ask questions or explain things that were vague. It can be hard to keep your mouth shut sometimes, but the beauty of the group is that you hear what other people frankly think of your writing. Plus, sometimes it can be really funny to see where they think your piece is going—or really inspiring!
5. Watch the time. We’re all busy people, and as much as the group can be a nice escape from the rest of life, we all do have lives to get back to. Everyone in my group is a mother (we meet post-bedtime), so none of us can stay too late, as we have little ones, if not full-time jobs as well, to carry on with. Our meetings are generally one and a half to two hours. It’s good to have that expectation, and even better to stick to it.
What else might you advise for someone looking to start a new writers’ group or improve an existing one?