Writing can be a lonely business

Writing is a lonely occupation. It is wonderous to think that all we are doing when we sit down and write is for other people. What would our writing be for if not the world? So if you happen to have friends who share your passion you should consider to form a writers group.

What is a writers’ group?

Let’s start by saying what writers groups are not. A writers group is not a circle of critics. Everybody’s ticket to the group is to stick their head out, present their material to the world and let the others in the group get a very first glimpse of what world they are inventing, what characters they are giving birth to and what happens then.

A writers group is built on trust. You want to have first reactions to what you have written. This is a moment of great vulnerability, for everyone, even after years in the profession.

A writers group is also not a pitch fest. Sure, you will want to let the others in on what your story is about, and you might gleen some secret satisfaction from telling them all about your world and your main character, except that one little secret the revelation of which will shatter the world you have just invented and make it come apart at the seams.

But your fellow writers are no agents or publishers. 

They are your very first audience, your first readers. What you want to know from them is their immediate, visceral reaction. Did they like your character? Did they hate her? Did they feet at home in your world? Did they feel like intruders peeking through a keyhole into a reality they didn’t even know existed? That is the most valuable material you can take away from such a group. It is a treasure that you need to hold dear and close. 

How to set up a writers’ group?

You need to be at least three people and at the most seven (you included). The group needs to agree on a frequency for their meetings. Depending on the number of people the length of each meeting should be between 90 min and 2 and a half hours. More is not advisable because members need to be focused and alert and 150 min is a long time.

A good frequency for meetings is two times a month. Consider that apart from the time of the meeting itself everyone needs to be able to put in time to write and to read material from their fellow writers, which can easily be some additional two to three hours.

Once you have agreed on a frequency you should elect an organizer for the first two meetings. The organizer (you can also decide for two people to share the role) should make sure everyone who promised to do so delivers their work at the agreed point in time. Depending on the amount of material, you should give your fellow writers 2-3 days to read. Once the material is in, the organizer should send it out to everyone, including a reminder of the agreed time and place(or, if your group is virtual, the link to the meeting room).

How does a writers’ group work?

There are different ways to deal with the material of the members.

I personally prefer the table read. When I was in writers’ groups the moment when my material was read or I read it was invaluable. Often only the expression on my fellow writers’ faces while listening or reading my material told me so much about where I was, what worked and what had gone totally wrong. 

When what you are writing is a screenplay, you can consider assigning roles to your fellow writers, and if there are more roles than members, give each one a bunch of roles.

When instead you are writing a novel or are still in the stage of outline or treatment of your material, you can either choose to read it yourself or have someone else read your material. Again, I prefer the latter because it is so interesting to hear where someone else puts an emphasis or which part your fellow writer hurries through because they want to be done with this boring stuff.

If you plan (and you should) to discuss more than one person’s material, the organizer should keep track of the time, be it for the reading, be it for each member’s feedback.

HOW DOES Feedback WORK? 

This is the most important part of the entire operation. As already mentioned, your feedback should be immediate and honest. You are not there to evaluate the sellability of your colleagues book or script, and your are not the envoy from the New York Times Review of Books desk who is asked to put what you just heard in a socio-political context. You are there to be surprised, angered, moved to tears, appalled, thrilled, bored. Whatever it is you feel, say it when it is your turn.

One or two things about expressing your feelings: Do it with respect. This can be hard, I know, especially if a story is engaging and you are invested in one way or the other in the story, the characters, the world. Try to not curtail your passion but refrain for example from telling your fellow writer what she should do and especially from what she should not do. The most important, and I dare say, maybe the only rule in a writers’ group should be that there are no “Nos”. If you have an idea how the story you just heard could veer into an unexpected direction, feel free to share it. But if you think that what you just heard should not be the way it is, keep this thought, hold off on saying it out loud. Go instead of back to your feelings, interrogate your guts, ask yourself what caused this strong reaction and express this, possibly in terms of personal feelings, maybe connected to experiences that you recalled when listening to that part of the material.

At the end of the day a writers’ group has to work for those who are in it. A lot of trial and error is involved and it needs some true grit to stick to it, show up at each appointment and endure what your fellow writers have to share about your treasured material.

From my own experience I can say that I had some of the saddest but also some of the happiest moments of my writer life in writers’ groups. And as much as it is real fun when it works, a writers’ group is the best tool I know of to help writers put their best foot forward, stick to their stories and work their way to the end.

Come back here to read things to do in a writers’ group to boost each others creativity and inventiveness!

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