How to Run a Writing Group: Challenges To The Status Quo

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.

2.19.10 by colemama

2.19.10 by colemama

Once your writer’s group is established and humming along, you may find a new set of challenges to disrupt the harmony.

The first may be having to address accountability.  Though you have stated in your expectations that this is a group for and by writers, occasionally someone may start to slack and appear to only be in it for the social aspects.  This member may cease to bring any new writing to meetings and may even go so far as to cease reviewing and being prepared to discuss other’s work.  While the first aspect may be nothing more than writer’s block, there is no good excuse if things devolve into the second aspect.  To address the first part, it can be helpful, via conversation, to draw out of the blocked writer what it is they are currently working on and help them set a goal for the next meeting.  The accountability part is then revisiting that goal at the next meeting, hopefully with some positive movement.  Since the group exists to support the members, helping each other set goals is a group function.

The second aspect, if the non-writing member is also not providing feedback to others (and this will most always be because they aren’t taking time to read others’ works ahead of time), is best handled one on one since it can be more confrontational in nature.  Reminding the member that the group has expectations should be enough to call attention to the problem.  Again, setting a goal that by the next meeting the member will be better prepared to discuss other’s work is in order.

If the member is just not contributing on any level, they may need to take a break from the group; a hiatus.  I, myself, took a lengthy break from the group when I found myself being pulled in other directions and no longer felt that writing was a priority.  In my case, although I wasn’t writing, I was still reading and providing feedback right up until I decided to take the hiatus.

My group didn’t ask me to take a break; it was self imposed and a hard decision to make.  If a group decides to suggest to a member that perhaps they should take a break to re-focus, it should be made clear that the member is welcome to return when they can meet the expectations of the group.  I only came back when I was ready to contribute new writing each meeting.

If a group member provides valuable insight at each meeting and is contemplating taking a break, the group might feel compelled to try to talk her out of it.  Perhaps the member doesn’t realize that they are viewed as an important piece of the well-oiled machine.  I think it is important not to pressure too greatly, but letting her know is definitely a positive.

A slightly different challenge would be a member that only comes to meetings when they have written; we call them a moocher.  Usually this will be someone who works on longer pieces and is really only looking for the “receiving feedback” portion of the contract.  Granted, they may review other’s works, but only when they attend every couple of months (which always coincides with when they have something to share themselves).

While this is a subtle undermining of the group expectations, it is nonetheless something that your group will need to determine if it is to be addressed.  Again, any action on this is probably best handled one on one.  Suggesting that the member attend more regularly and send out portions of their work for each meeting is a good solution.

So, those challenges I just mentioned are about other members, but what if you are the one that has a challenge?  To meet your group’s expectations, you will need to practice a bit of time management.  In our group’s case, we generally meet every other week on a Sunday and the expectation is that new writing will be posted for review by the Thursday evening prior.  That means that, in general, members will have two full days to read and make notes/observations and prepare their feedback.  I generally set aside 15 minutes per “piece” to read and grab first thoughts.  I will then revisit if I find that I have more to contribute, but at the least, each of the other members of my group gets my full attention for those 15 minutes.

Occasionally, a member will be posting a longer piece that will take more than 15 minutes to read.  Usually, in our group we know ahead of time that this is going to occur and prepare accordingly.  Depending on what I am working on myself, I try really hard to get my writing posted by that Thursday deadline.  Sure, we all slip sometimes, but as long as everyone doesn’t slip the same week, there is plenty of time to do the review.

Now, how much time you spend on your own work is completely up to you, considering any goals that you have and such.  The members of my group that are consistent with their work have said that they stay in the habit of writing each day.  I wish I could count myself in that group, but to date that is not the case.

Occasionally, you may find some divergence occurring.  For example, the group may wish to embark on a collaborative piece and one member is in the midst of the snarls of a rewrite or wishes to devote their focus fully to a writing class.  If the group has enough members, one member diverging for a short time should not pose a problem.  It’s part and parcel of the supportive nature of the writing group to allow members to explore their passions, wherever that may take them.