The assorted authors on this blog belong to a writing group in Phoenix, Arizona, and we thought we would share some of our ideas and experience. This is one in a series of posts we’ve put together on The Care and Feeding of a Writing Group.
So, you’ve gathered a group of like-minded folks eager to share the road and become better writers. You’ve found an understanding cafe or bookshop to put up with your shared insanity. You’ve synchronized everyone’s schedule. Now it’s time to fire up the engine, this is where the rubber meets the road, or some other automotive metaphor.
How exactly do you run your sessions? Some thought and discussion should go into it before you start meeting. A few ideas on format and protocol can prevent awkward shoe staring while everyone figures out how to proceed.
For a brand new group, consider a getting to know you period. If not a full meeting, at least a good chunk to break the ice. Everyone should introduce themselves, describe what type of writing they are interested in, and then answer two important questions. What are their personal goals as writers? What are they looking for from the group?
Some people are better at this than others. It always makes me feel like I’m in grade school, but it’s a known ritual that gets everyone in the collaborative mindset. Anytime a new member joins, this ritual should be repeated.
The format needs to be flexible enough to allow for discussion and debate, but structured enough to cover all the material in the time allotted. If that sounds easy, you haven’t been to very many meetings. I advise against too formal, since that can be intimidating. Even though this isn’t a social club, you are there to support each other and should feel comfortable. Think more of collegial collaboration instead of boardroom meeting.
Our group started small, only four people bringing about a page each. The simple method of taking turns in no particular order covered everything quite nicely. As membership grew along with the output, the meetings had to grow more structured. Not necessarily more formal, but definitely more focused.
We meet at a coffee shop and everyone orders. The ‘how’s it going?’ socializing takes place while the orders are being filled. When the last person gets their drink, socializing ends and the meeting begins.
From there we go in round robin fashion. Each member gets a turn in the hot seat where their work is up for review. Then we move on to the next writer. If you didn’t submit work, you’re not off the hook. You still take a turn and answer for your crimes. We discuss notes and criticisms, talk about what we liked or didn’t like, discuss what-ifs, and ask where the piece is going. This will be part debate since opinions differ, and part question and answer between the writer and the other members.
For the writer this is a gold mine. I think a great way to see the effect of your writing, is to watch two people debate it. You don’t get involved in the debate, merely observe and take notes. You will get a real sense of what people are taking from the piece, and they tend to be more honest with the person they’re debating than they would be with the writer.
The danger here is that unchecked debates can drag on. Discussion without direction will ramble and go off on tangents. That bogs down the flow of the meeting. The responsibility to stay on track is shared by all members, but you are going to need somebody in charge. The person who formed the group might be in charge by default, but it doesn’t have to be them, or even the same person each meeting. In the spirit of collaboration you want a moderator, not a dictator.
The leader’s main duty is keeping the meeting running by keeping it on task. That means turning everyone around when they get on one of those tangents. You can never completely stop the group from going on them, but somebody has to turn them around. A simple ‘we’re getting off track’ should snap everyone out of it.
The other chore on the leader is simple timekeeping. Groups of three or four have more leeway here, but the larger the group, the more you have to keep an eye on the clock. Each writer deserves their fair share, and no one should get short changed.
For most people this isn’t a problem, but there are some time hogs out there. They may ‘discuss’ their work by rambling about it rather than taking feedback from the group. That rambling may roam far afield of the topic at hand. They might even bring the discussion back to them when it’s another writer’s turn for feedback. It’s the leader’s job to spot such behavior and keep it in check. Usually an appeal to time management is sufficient.
Our group has been meeting for a long time in one form or another. Naturally we’ve developed some slang, in jokes, and nicknames. Some are obvious. Slackers and moochers are the same in a writing group as in any other group. Some are more obscure and won’t make sense to outsiders. One term that’s come up for us is simply The Beast.
Writers working on a longer piece, say a screenplay or a novel, might not want to bring it in piecemeal. If they’re still contributing to the discussion, this is fine. However, when that work is done, they’re going to want feedback. Now you’ve got a Beast. It won’t fit into the meeting run time along with other members’ work.
We have what we call a focused session. A whole meeting dedicated to one person’s work. It’s scheduled well in advance, so everyone has a chance to read the Beast. Since it’s focused on one work, the discussion can go into great detail. This is win-win for the group. The writer gets detailed, honest critiques, and members get to practice their editing skills on a long piece.
That format of round robin critique should be the meat of the meetings, but leave a few minutes for new business. If anyone has an idea for a group project, or questions about new tools and resources, go over it now. Get in the habit of reviewing goals and deadlines. Encourage an attitude of contribution and respect for the group’s time and rules. Writing can be a lonely process, but this meeting is where you get to travel with companions, at least for a few hours. Enjoy it!