The other day someone on twitter asked for opinions on writing groups for a seminar she’s teaching MFA students. What a great topic, I thought, to discuss with students before they get out of the MFA workshop environment into the real world. What a great topic, really, for any writer. And since new writers ask me periodically about writing groups, I thought I’d share some of my answers to their questions.
1) How do you find a writing group? These days, anyone with a computer can find a writing group. When I moved to Charleston, I found my current group listed on craigslist. But for new writers, I would recommend a class or a workshop with an instructor to facilitate. Critiquing is a learned skill, and it’s always good to learn with a leader who knows what she’s doing. Once you’ve been in a class for six or eight weeks, you’ll have a good feel for the writers who are on a similar level and have similar sensibilities who might be interested in forming a group. Then it’s just a matter of approaching them and putting it together.
2) How many people should you have in a group? I’ve found that a group of fewer than five sometimes falls apart because it’s hard to keep up the momentum and have enough material to critique if you meet once a week. If all four are prolific, though, it might work fine. On the other hand, a large group can become unwieldy. But always allow for attrition. The group I am in now had eight members, lost one, and is adding another this week.
3) How often should we meet? The groups I’ve been in have all met once a week, but you can meet once a month or as often as everyone wants. The important thing to remember is that you have to have members committed to submitting and attending when it’s scheduled, realizing that of course sometimes life gets in the way. Someone who only attends when he’s being critiqued, though, or who only shows up every fourth meeting, doesn’t belong in your group.
4) How should it be organized? There are lots of books out there on how to run a writing group. The only really important rule, I think, is that the one being critiqued needs to shut up and listen when others are discussing his/ her work. Some groups submit in rotation, some have members submit whenever they have something to submit. I would suggest that you try to allow approximately thirty minutes to discuss each piece. So if you meet for two hours, don’t plan on discussing more than four pieces each meeting.
5) What if someone is rude or just isn’t working out in the group? All I can say there is if it’s not a good fit, get rid of that person. Don’t lose good members because you don’t want to hurt someone else’s feelings or don’t know how to get rid of her. And if you join a group and it’s negative or is mainly a social club and isn’t meeting your needs, don’t waste time – get out.
Whether you’re a new writer, or have been published many times, a writing group can provide much needed insight into your work. And if you’re lucky, like I have been, you’ll also be blessed with cheerleaders and lifelong friends.