This presentation assumes an audience of people who have little or no writing group experience. It's been a long time since I was in that situation, so if you're just starting out and there are questions or concerns I didn't cover, please let me know. If you're a veteran of writing groups and think there's stuff I left out, I'd love to have that feedback, too. I have a feeling I'll be giving variations on this talk again, and I welcome the chance to improve it.
Feel free to link. Reposting with a link and attribution is okay, too.
Building and Sustaining a Successful Writing Group
Sarah Avery, Ph.D.
* What is a writing group for?
* What challenges are typical in writing group participation?
* How can those challenges be managed, so that the group can serve the needs of its participants?
What Is a Writing Group For?
What do you need in a group? We’ll discuss three different ways to focus a writing group:
* Central goal is to improve writing
* Any given writing project is primarily a means to the end of improving as a writer
* Writing exercises serve this group well—invent your own exercises or raid how-to books
* You write what you read—go to school on the best writers who publish in your genre
* Classroom model or collective model—both are options
* Wealth of resources already out there for this type of group
* Each member has a project or projects, and the central function of the group is to assist each member in completing and improving the projects
* Presumes an existing level of skill—this really isn’t the best way for beginners to begin
* Levels of skill and past achievements of the group members should be roughly equivalent
* High-maintenance type of group—any time a participant completes a project, the group’s personnel may change, necessitating communication about whether the group should continue to exist, and in what form
* Group’s focus is on formulating and committing to goals that further a writing career, helping each other strategize and stay focused
* Do not workshop drafts
* Standard operating procedure: go around the room and report on progress with each of last month’s goals; go around the room a second time and state goals you mean to meet for the next meeting
* Making a commitment out loud before witnesses as an empowering act
* Complementarity of prior skills and accomplishments is more helpful than having members whose expertise in the shared game is all in the same area
* It’s helpful if all the members of a goals group aspire to play at roughly the same level of the game
* It’s crucial that all the members want to play the same game
* It’s totally unimportant whether your aesthetic preferences are the same
* Remember: your goals group is not a literary movement--it helps if you enjoy each other’s work, but it’s more important that you genuinely desire to see one another succeed
What Challenges Are Typical in Writing Group Participation?
At the risk of stating the obvious:
* Your share of human frailty goes with you everywhere, even to meetings of your writing group.
* The same goes for everyone else in your writing group, too.
* Careful selection of groups or group members will not save you from the experience of human frailty.
* If you stay with a group for any length of time, you too will have your turn at being part of the problem sooner or later.
* The dishonesty/discourtesy binary (the erroneous notion that your only options are either to refrain from mentioning flaws in a manuscript in order to be nice, or to engage in ruthless criticism)—specificity in critiquing manuscripts can go a long way toward getting you free of this apparent binary—a problem mainly in skill-centered groups
* Deep friendships breed conflict (along with all the good stuff)—in a long-lived group that fosters or arises from deep friendships, your personal baggage and everybody else’s will sooner or later come into play
* Familiarity breeds laxity—if your group gets into a comfortable groove on an interpersonal level, it’s easy lose focus on the writing-related purpose that drew the group together in the first place
So, how can you keep what you value about having your groupmates as friends, confidants, and allies, without sacrificing the group’s efficacy in helping you with your writing aspirations?
How can those challenges be managed, so that the group can serve the needs of its participants?
* Accept imperfection.
* Expect imperfection.
* Manage imperfection.
Clear and mutually accepted boundaries are extremely helpful in managing imperfection—in particular, boundaries of time, roles, and rules.
* Set aside time for writing group business, and time for writing group socializing. Both are essential. Know which you are doing, and when.
* Know how to end your meetings! Stop when you say you will stop, whether you define that by time or by the completion of a specific task.
* Discuss and choose your ground rules. Then make a good faith effort at sticking to them and giving them a chance to work.
* Periodically, give an entire meeting to just discussing how the group is working or not working, and how well or badly your ground rules are serving the group’s needs. Adapt your practices to suit your needs; remember that the rules are means to ends, not ends in themselves. It is absolutely crucial to devote the whole group’s time and attention to this shared evaluation, with all members present.
* If no one has a specific responsibility to do an unsavory task, the task probably won’t get done.
* Designating and rotating roles so that the unsavory tasks get done allows you to see to it that the group accomplishes its purpose, while protecting people who gravitate toward responsibilities like these from getting stuck in a thankless but necessary habit.
* If authority is an awkward issue for your group, try handling it with humor. (In my longest-running writing group, whoever was serving as facilitator got to wield a hammer-shaped plastic squeaky toy that we called the Hammer of Adjudication. It made a most gratifying noise when banged, gavel-like, on our table at the Corner Confectionary.)
Specific Roles You Might Take
* Time Keeper—manages the individual meeting’s allocation of time, and is responsible for speaking up to keep the process on track. Everyone else is responsible for paying attention. This role works best if it rotates at every meeting, so all group members feel a sense of ownership about both responsibilities.
* Schedule Keeper—manages negotiations about whose work will be discussed on which dates, at which locations if location changes; provides calendars, email notifications, phone calls, whatever the group agrees upon as the preferred method(s). The schedule keeper is responsible for keeping everyone informed; everybody else’s job is to pay attention. This role works best if it rotates every three to six months, depending on the frequency of the group’s meetings. Nobody should be stuck in this job for as long as a year without a break. Accept that different people may need different methods to get this job done.
* Facilitator—helps the content of the group’s discussion stay focused on the intended topic. The facilitator is responsible for speaking up when digressions threaten to swamp the meeting’s potential for productivity, when interruptions exceed the bounds of friendly banter, when the group members lose a grip on their own agreed upon procedures, etc. Everybody else’s job is to pay attention.
* These jobs should rotate, with the understanding that some people may be more cut out for them than others, and that’s okay.
Related possibilities for division of labor within the group:
* In a project centered group, ask members with particular strengths to focus on particular problem areas in your draft. You may have a dialogue maven, a master of plot, a natural-born detail nitpicker, and so on. Sometimes, especially with long drafts or third+ drafts of re-workshopped material, it can be worthwhile to ask people to concentrate on the aspects of the text that best suit their respective strengths. Dividing labor this way works best if you've been working with the same people for a while, and so know from experience who's best at what.
* In a goals group, members with particular strengths (public readings, writing press kits, developing connections, etc.) can give how-to presentations.
Put Operant Conditioning to Work for You
* Maximize positive reinforcement; mitigate negative reinforcement.
* Meet in a location that’s pleasant for everybody, preferably not a member’s home. Housecleaning is negative reinforcement. Ice cream is positive reinforcement. Allergens are negative reinforcement.
* Build celebration into your routine! Celebrate every victory, even ones that seem small.
* Be willing to fine-tune your ground rules if they become a disincentive to participation. A rule is a means, not an end.
* If the group itself sours and becomes a disincentive to writing and/or publishing, work for change in the group or leave it.
Groups, like rules, are a means to an end. The group may dissolve in practice before it dissolves in name. If your group fizzles out or explodes, then mourn it, learn from it, and move on. Think of it as an opportunity to join or form a new group that better suits your needs and stage of development as you and your writing are now.
A Brief, Idiosyncratic List of Recommended Sources:
Joan Bolker. Writing Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day: A Guide to Starting, Revising, and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesis. Dimensions, 1998.
This slender, easy to read book takes a compassionate, practical approach to the problems of human frailty that make it difficult for people to overcome obstacles to writing. If you are struggling to produce, you will find plenty here that transcends the plights particular to graduate students. As with any other advice manual, raid this book for what it can give you and leave the rest. The deliberately tongue-in-cheek title already tells you one of the things this book can offer to any kind of writer: help in making room for writing in a life full of competing obligations and distractions. Bolker’s thoughtful, practical advice on handling procrastination and anxiety would be useful for anyone who experiences fear as a block to writing. One of Bolker’s unusual contributions is a recognition that what you do with your body from one hour to the next affects your writing output. She goes beyond just acknowledging that writing is an embodied practice, to telling you what you can do about it to write more.
Orson Scott Card’s personal web empire is full of helpful resources on craft and professional development for writers at nearly any stage. You can join online writing groups here, and find aids for critiquing that you can apply elsewhere. If a skill-centered writing group is what you need, this is a good place to start.
Carolyn See. Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers. Random House, 2002.
This book is practical, funny, light in tone, and relentlessly truthful. Carolyn See urges you to do things you’d really rather not (case in point: write a charming note to a different total stranger in the world of writing and publishing every day, five days a week, forever, thanking or praising them for things you genuinely admire). She’ll tell you how to adopt the writing disciplines that are, for her, indispensible to professional productivity and happiness. I am indebted to this book, more than to any other, for fostering my productivity, though I confess, I struggle over the charming notes.
Eviatar Zerubavel. The Clockwork Muse: A Practical Guide to Writing Theses, Dissertations, and Books. Harvard University Press, 1999.
This is another slender, accessible book, written out of compassion by a professor who watched his students struggle to learn how to write long projects under time pressure. If you write long projects and/or write under time pressure, Zerubavel has something to offer you, no matter what your genre or purpose. A sociologist who studies how people divide up their time, Zerubavel concentrates on practical strategies for figuring out when and where you write best, predicting the time it will take you to complete projects, protecting your writing time from the other interests and obligations in your life, and protecting your other interests and obligations from all-consuming deadlines.