Eight Observations on a Writers’ Group

I decided to end our in-person Writers’ Group this week. We’d had a good run. I joined in 2000, and I understood the group had been in operation for the previous five years, so twenty-two years is impressive. I’d thought I would share eight observations on our writers’ group I’ve made over the years. These may be of some help or interest to those of you in a group, or thinking of joining one.

Background

When I joined the group in 2000 there were about eight members meeting every other Thursday in room at the local library. We were a middle-aged group of mostly men, writing fantasy and science fiction, though the group was willing to entertain writing of any kind — fiction, non-fiction, even poetry. There was no membership fee to join, nor did we have to rent the room at the library. Very low barriers to entry, you might say.

Membership varied over the years, growing to as many as ten people, and contracting at times to as few as four. Rules were simple — no submissions over 5,000 words, critiques written on copies distributed by the authors and verbally summarized by group members. Verbal summaries were to be no more than four minutes, and were NOT a discussion. Author rebuttals were held until the end of all critiques for a particular work. The paramount rule was that one critiqued the work, not the author.

One person was responsible for booking the library room, or arranging alternative accommodations should the room not be available — usually we met at a pub in those situations. The same person would send out a reminder email the night before each meeting. To the extent that the group had a leader — that was it.

Five years ago, the booking responsibility fell to me.

Saying goodbye

Over the last year group attendance began to decline, people dropped out, life got in the way, the usual. Things accelerated at the start of 2017. Attempts to attract new members over the past twelve months had poor results. We cancelled several meetings in the first three months of the year because there would only be one or two attendees.

So I couple of weeks ago I pulled the plug. The remaining members were understanding, particularly as I expressed the hope the group would resume in six months or so, giving some of the members time to sort out things that were preventing their participation.

So here are six observations I have made regarding in-person writing groups.

Heavy lifting

There will always be one or two individuals whose critiques are vastly more thorough than those of the rest of the group. Mario was the fellow in our group whose work on each critique often superseded that of the original writer. Many times he put more words on one of my submission pages than I did.  Don’t expect the same level of work from everyone; you’ll be disappointed.

Comprehensive Critique Example, Brant Forseng, @brantforsengSocial outlets

There will be members who treat the group more as a social gathering than one in which real work is to be done. There’s nothing wrong with that, some folks are more productive than others. Just keep in mind that your group will likely have members who submit rarely, if at all. In addition, their critiques are likely to be brief to the point of uselessness, if they critique in the first place.  Sometimes, though,they’ll offer that rare pearl of wisdom you need to make your submission stronger — something everyone else missed.

Things change

People change over time. Those who started writing fantasy may shift to crime. People come and go.  Some may join the group and start out as a “heavy lifter” and gradually scale back the scope of their critiques. I’ve found, however, that it rarely works the other way around. If someone produces produces brief critiques to begin with, they’re unlikely to scale up their efforts.  Consistent members and efforts on the part of each should not be expected.

Other activities

In person groups will stay together longer if they have social meetings outside of submitting and critiquing and writing. Our group usually retired to a pub after each meeting for a drink and general conversation. We also had an annual Christmas dinner out at a restaurant and a yearly “get away” up British Columbia’s sunshine coast. These “extra-curricular” activities acted to bind us together.

Welcoming newbies

Joining a writing groups is intimidating, particularly if it’s an in-person group. Writing is intensely personal, and putting yourself out in front of a group of strangers — to be judged — can be frightening. If you want your group to grow, go out of your way to welcome newcomers and make them feel at home. This is particularly important in groups with long established members as the group can seem very insular to those just joining.

I’m not certain our group did this as well as we could have.

Group type

In my experience, there are two writers group types.

The first is focused more on the social aspect of discussing writing. Members will get together to read portions of their work and then the group talks about it. Submissions are not provided to the rest of the group. Critiques are verbal, and not very comprehensive.

The second type is focused on the idea of getting better as writers. Submissions are provided to group members, critiqued (extensive or not, as mentioned above) and the critiques summarized at the next meeting. Ours was the second type and could seem quite brutal to newcomers who were more interested in the first group type.

Set expectations with newcomers so there are no unpleasant surprises. Or tears.

Looky-loos

Also known as three-timers. These newcomers will appear at your groups exactly three times. The first is to join and to see the group in operation. The second is to submit a piece of writing, and the third is to see what everyone has to say about it. Most will vanish at that point, never to be seen again.

My group’s consensus was that these were people who wanted to be told how great their writing was, and when that didn’t happen they left, probably to plot all of our deaths.

Location, location, location

Meeting physically is challenging because it can be difficult to locate suitable spot. Our group was lucky in that the local library had a room you could book, but even then the location was not really central for everyone. Some of our members spent 90 minutes on public transit to attend. One way.

You can meet in a residence, but that implies that one or more members are willing to entertain and have the room to do so. Not many in our group met both criteria. Location will be the biggest determinant of group membership.

Final thoughts

I hesitate to call the foregoing lessons, although there are a few take-aways — things to keep in mind if you are thinking of joining or starting a writers’ group. I didn’t touch upon a couple things that, thankfully, our group never experienced — personality clashes and people who were just, well, trolls, is the the only way to put it.

Writing groups are hugely beneficial tool. You get perspective on your work, useful criticism, and the opportunity to develop a bit of a thick skin as even the most well-meaning feedback can sting at times. And you’ll need that thick skin if you put your work up on Amazon. 🙂

So what about it, readers, are you in an in-person’s writers’ group? If so, how do you find the experience? Let me know in the comments.

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