How to Start a Writing Group

By Mark Nichol

This is the second post on our series about writing groups. The first one is 5 Reasons to Start a Writing Group.

You’ve determined to seriously pursue a writing career, but you feel like you need support and feedback. Although you joined a couple of writing groups, you dropped out of each one because the fit just didn’t feel right. What do you do now? Start your own group, of course.

1. Compose

How many members do you want? What level of experience should they have? Should all members be writing for the same market? It’s best to start small (up to half a dozen people), seek people with similar experience levels (writers with one or more published short stories, for example), and select others writing in the same genre or niche — and working in the same form, whether short stories or novels — as you are. The closer the skills and interests of group members, the more productive it will be. (But be flexible about demographic details such as gender and age.)

2. Propose

Design a simple but informative flyer. Specify the details about ideal group composition you have decided on, pick a day and time for regular meetings (the most frequently recommended meeting duration is two hours), and provide contact information. Print copies and post them, but be discriminating: Target writer habitats such as bookstores (especially those that sell used books), cafes, and schools, and avoid blanketing general-purpose bulletin boards.

3. Screen

Briefly interview people who contact you. Tell them you’ll check back after you’ve lined up the number of people you want to start with. Take notes and, immediately after the call or email exchange, evaluate them with a simple yes, maybe, or no and perhaps a couple of notes to remind you why you assigned that grade (“sincere — asked about my writing”; “insecure? but good fit,” “arrogant”). If a “no” persists in trying to join, tell them, “I’m looking for people who aren’t yet quite at your level” or “I have the number I want, but I’ll keep you in mind if someone drops out.”

4. Form

When you have enough “yes” candidates, consider adding a couple of strong “maybe” prospects in case one or two people drop out; if you have more defections later, you can always recruit others or disband and start again. If three of you work well together but don’t feel comfortable continuing with one or more of the others, break up the group and start over with that cooperative core. But take care to avoid acting like a clique, and be diplomatic.

5. Locate

Choose a setting and stay with it. If you plan to host at your home, stick to that location rather than rotating among everyone’s domiciles. Better yet, meet at a local library (some have small meeting rooms available for just this type of purpose) or a community center, or a quiet cafe.

6. Schedule

Contact and confirm your finalists, and if anyone backs out, keep recruiting from the “maybe” list or from new candidates. Set up the first meeting; if the day and time doesn’t work for someone, jot down their preference and bring it up when the rest of the group convenes for the first time. If the alternate day and time is equally convenient for everybody, consider switching for subsequent meetings. If not, wish the person good luck in finding a group that meets at a better time for them.

7. Assign

Ask members to bring an excerpt from a current project — something that will take five minutes or less to read — so that others will have an immediate grasp of everyone’s skill and style.

Next up: How to conduct writing groups.

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4 Responses to “How to Start a Writing Group”

  • Penny

    Good advice! I haven’t had too much luck with writing groups, but I know that when you can find one that works, it can be amazing.

    Thanks for sharing.

  • Rebecca

    It’s important to have an ‘agenda’ and focus for the writing group. I’ve found that a lot of organizer don’t want the responsibility of ‘leading’ a group. They want to be a ‘facilitator’ and give all members a chance at leading a meeting. This is fine, but it’s important to be up front about this. Most group members join a writing because they think the group has a leader who’s focused and will lead the group.

  • Amazing Blair

    Hi Mark,

    Great series topic! I wish you’d expound a little more on the 3rd step, that of Screening the applicants. What’s the best way to go about it? Should a writing sample be part of this process?

    As background, I formed one writers group several years ago. It had five members who had taken a writing class together. One dropped out; of the four left, one turned out to be a drag on the group because he was a much poorer writer than the other three. We mushed on for a couple of years, and eventually dissolved.

    -Amazing Blair

  • Michael Redmond

    Selecting people who fit in is not the issue, it’s more important to be adaptable and aware that a group consists of individuals. Everyone has an ego, and if a group contains people who you don’t fit in try to focus on the positive attributes of their personality and work, don’t get bogged down with worrying about whether or not things are stimulating enough for you, as being with anyone who shares your passion is a privilege. We’re all in this together aren’t we?

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