How Writing Groups Can Work for You

by Susan Bearman

Two women reading and smiling at each other

Today’s article is written by regular contributor Susan Bearman.

Writing can be a pretty lonely business. Butt in chair, eyes glued to computer screen or favorite notebook is not the most social activity, but it is the way most of our work gets done.

Joining a writing group can keep you from turning into a total hermit and put you in contact with other people who love writing just as much as you do, people who may be able to help you or who you may be able to help somewhere down the line.

Writing groups come in all shapes and sizes:

The length, meeting frequency, duration, and location of these programs vary widely, but they all have one thing in common: they offer a community of and for writers.

It’s fine to talk to family and friends about your writing, but unless they are writers themselves (or at least avid readers), their eyes will eventually glaze over somewhere between the third and thirtieth revision of your work in progress.

Each of the kinds of writing groups listed above has advantages and disadvantages. Today I’m going to talk about a specific kind of writing workshop, one that meets weekly and has speakers who are professionals in writing.

I’m lucky enough to live near Off Campus Writers’ Workshop (OCWW), the longest continuously running writing workshop in the United States. Our group meets weekly for two-and-a-half hours on Thursday mornings, September through May.

We have speakers from all areas of the writing spectrum covering topics that range from a close investigation of the ending of novels to how to write an effective query letter to how to set up a blog and Facebook page. Some speakers offer critiques, others do not. Each week is like a graduate-level class on some aspect of writing.

If you choose to join a group like OCWW, here are some of the things I’ve learned along the way to make them work for you:

Make a Commitment

Go to every session. This should be your time, an investment you make in your writing and your career. You never know what you might miss if you skip a week. There was a time when I used to pick and choose which sessions I would attend.

One time, I got the dates mixed up and showed up for a speaker who wrote fantasy novels, completely out of my realm. During her presentation, she spoke a lot about the business of writing, showed us actual (redacted) contracts, and helped me better understand how to market myself and my work. Had I followed my inclination, I would have missed all that valuable information.

Being around other writers is always inspiring. As the speaker shares his or her knowledge, I find the synapses in my writer’s brain start firing a lightning speed. If an idea occurs to me during a session, I turn to the back of my notebook and write it there so it’s easy to find later. We frequently have an informal lunch after our sessions. Some people are eager to continue the discussion, but I know just as many who are eager to get home and get writing.

Don’t Judge by Genre

I read a lot about the kind of writing I do. I’ve been studying it and doing it for a long time.Through my writing workshop, I have found I often learn more from writers who work in different formats and venues than I do.

From our poet speakers, I have learned about pacing, rhythm, and economy of words. From the mystery writer, I learned that every page you write — no matter what your genre — should have your reader asking, “I wonder what comes next?” From the food writer and restaurant critic, I learned the importance of setting the mood, identifying the telling detail, and finding words that will make your readers feel as if they are living the experience themselves.

Every single speaker has had something to teach me.

Participate

Most groups offer time to meet and greet before or after the session, or sometimes during a break.

Make the most of these opportunities. Introduce yourself to your neighbor on either side. If possible, try to meet the speaker. If you don’t already have a business card, you can get very inexpensive ones made (100 cards for under $10) or print them yourself. It doesn’t have to be fancy — just your name, title (“writer” will do), and email address. Hand them out and collect other people’s cards to start your writing network.

If there is a discussion or Q&A, by all means, ask your question or offer your opinion. But don’t monopolize the discussion, and always be polite and as positive as possible. When offering a criticism, make sure its constructive.

Take Good Notes

Some people at our workshop bring laptops and type their notes right into their computers. I use the spiral notebooks I buy from Target at the beginning of the school year (10 for a dollar). I’ve seen others use fancy journals and fancier pens, but I like the working attitude of my spiral notebooks. If a session is particularly inspiring or germane to my my writing, I type up my notes at home.

Be sure to note the date and topic, as well as the speaker’s name and any contact information he or she shares. If the speaker invites you to friend him on Facebook or send questions by email, do it. Start that conversation and expand your network, but use common sense. If the speaker offered to answer questions by email, keep yours relevant to the topic of the day. Don’t expect her to be your new best friend or to introduce you to her agent. In other words, don’t be a pain.

Join the Board

Joining the board of a writing group is a great way to beef up your writing street cred. It shows that you are passionate and committed to your craft, and it looks great on a resume or query letter. Most writing groups are run by volunteers. Our board has 15 members, others are much smaller, some even larger.

If you have a particular affinity for numbers, you might want to volunteer to be the group’s treasurer. I’m currently the communications chair for OCWW, because even in my volunteer activities, I like to be writing. It keeps my skills sharp and pushes me to stay current on social networking. Our programming chairs often extol the value of the contacts they have made while booking speakers for our sessions. Use your vocation or avocation and find a way to make a difference in your group.

Writing groups can be a great way to expand your knowledge, meet other writers, and develop a valuable network. Like anything else, the more you give, the more you get. The Writer magazine maintains a list of writing groups. In the UK, check out the National Association of Writers’ Groups. Or do an Internet search using “writing groups” and your location.

Editor’s note: Are you part of a writing group? What are your best tips for making the most of group experiences?


{ 19 comments }

Karen Gray-Keeler January 13, 2012 at 7:53 am

Great post, Susan! I second your comments about becoming a committed, active member of a writing group. When I first joined OCWW I was picky about which sessions I attended. I sat in the back of the room by myself and left as soon as the session ended. I changed my approach, started attending as often as possible, and joined the Board. In addition to learning more about writing, I added a wonderful group of people to my life.

Susan @ 2KoP January 13, 2012 at 11:20 am

Thanks, Karen. You were a great inspiration as OCWW president.
Read Susan @ 2KoP´s last article ..Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear

Cindy Brown January 14, 2012 at 4:45 am

We joined a writers group a few years back in our old town before we moved. I had read a book written by a man who attended our church and thought, “If he can do that, I can too! I can write that well!” Soon after, he started the writers group and when he and his wife stepped down two years later, my husband and I took the group over and ran it for another two years until we moved away – to a town with no writers group anywhere near us :(

I’m sad to not be part of a group, but one of the things we implemented in that group was to have one person be the note-taker and put the note in e-mail form to be sent out to participants who couldn’t make it that month. I still receive these recaps of the meetings and it reminds me to keep on plugging away at my craft.

One thing we really liked doing in our writers group was to pick a subject and give every member fifteen minutes to write about that subject and then we’d all share what we wrote – we called these writing exercises. It was such a neat experience to see how 10 people could come up with completely different stories based on the same subject. It helped us keep our improvisation and creative juices flowing.

We also had guest speakers come and talk about certain aspects of writing or publishing occasionally. I even spoke about my “flog” which was a term I coined for a Facebook group I ran. I sent messages in blog post form regarding the subject matter and that is what eventually led to my wanting to start the blog I currently have.

I highly recommend joining a group. Just having like-minded people around you is very beneficial.
Read Cindy Brown´s last article ..I Eat Chocolate Behind My Kids’ Back (and other guilty pleasures)

Susan @ 2KoP January 14, 2012 at 5:54 am

Thanks for sharing your writing group experiences, Cindy. Sounds like it’s time to start a group in your new community. It’s wonderful that you and your husband ran the group together. I hope you find (or start) a new group soon.
Read Susan @ 2KoP´s last article ..Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear

Rose Byrd January 14, 2012 at 7:14 am

I have found in younger years a great deal of practical help from overnight workshops. These days, I am getting unbelievable levels of inspiration and practical pointers from my online poetry community. I must be doing something right, because almost all of my followers(gaining 2-3 new ones almost every day!) beg me for each new installment in my current adult fairytale series!
Read Rose Byrd´s last article ..LISTENING FOR FOOTSTEPS LEAVING NO PRINTS

Susan @ 2KoP January 14, 2012 at 8:13 am

Congratulations on your following, Rose. I also find my online friends to be incredibly supportive. The Internet provides amazing opportunities for creating community.
Read Susan @ 2KoP´s last article ..Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear

Rebecca Burgener January 14, 2012 at 10:38 am

No groups close to me to my knowledge. But starting one is on my list for the future!
Read Rebecca Burgener´s last article ..My Name Is Stegasaurus – #Blessings365

Susan Bearman January 15, 2012 at 7:14 am

Rebecca, keep us posted. I’d love to hear about creating a group from scratch.
Read Susan Bearman´s last article ..Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear

Britton Minor January 15, 2012 at 1:46 am

I have recently joined a photography group and can confirm the value in stepping out of the comfort of my own assumptions and into the edginess and reality-check of being with others who have a passion for a world of creativity as vast as writing. The other members of the group–rather than offering ONE way of doing things, offer me their experience-what has worked, what hasn’t, etc. then, I find that I have more to share than I thought-tidbits about my own creative journey that inspire someone else. In the end, I realize that I AM walking the walk of an artist-and have finally left behind the illusory thought of, “someday I’m going to…,” replacing it with my unapologetic passion for what wants to be expressed TODAY!

Inspiring post. Thanks for this.
Read Britton Minor´s last article ..What Begins with the Letter “Bee”

Susan Bearman January 16, 2012 at 5:25 am

Britton, that’s exactly what I have found about writing. The more I immerse myself in it and surround myself with passionate, creative people, the more inspired I am. Good luck to you in all your creative efforts.
Read Susan Bearman´s last article ..Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear

Sarah Baughman January 16, 2012 at 8:06 am

Great points, Susan. I do participate in a writing group, and find that it’s a great motivator– just the extra push I need to finish or polish a piece rather than letting it sit in limbo. I like what you said about not judging by genre– there’s a mix of genres in my group, and we learn from each other nevertheless. Many of the principles of imaginative language and theme carry over multiple genres.
Read Sarah Baughman´s last article ..Routine: Beauty and Beast

Susan Bearman January 16, 2012 at 9:08 am

Glad you have found a group that works for you, Sarah. I’m learning more and more from different genres every day.

becca January 20, 2012 at 3:11 pm

I recently joined a very casual weekly writing group. We started as a “write-in” during NaNoWriMo. During those meetings we all just sat together, worked on our novels and even challenged each other to word wars or other games to get the creativity going. We clicked as a group so we kept on meeting. We all work on different things, but we have each other there to ask questions, offer advice share tips. I’ve been infinitely more productive since meeting this group. It’s not formal or structured, but it works. I also belong to a monthly critique group for work-shopping near-finished or stuck pieces.
Read becca´s last article ..Etsy Shop of the Week: Olivia Royale

Susan @ 2KoP January 24, 2012 at 3:35 pm

Becca, productivity can be a great side-benefit of writing groups. I know I have always worked to get something done for my critique group so I don’t miss the opportunity to share. I’m also always inspired to write after my regular writing group with speakers. Thanks for sharing your experience.
Read Susan @ 2KoP´s last article ..Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear

Suzannah Windsor Freeman January 21, 2012 at 10:29 am

Hi Susan, and sorry it’s taken me so long to comment! It’s great that you mention how you’ve learned a lot from writers of other genres. I have a friend who writes romance, whereas I tend more toward literary fiction. Although we acknowledge the differences between our work, it’s been great getting a chance to read each other’s writing and provide perspectives that perhaps people who write in the same genre might not have. Thanks for some great tips!
Read Suzannah Windsor Freeman´s last article ..4 Writing Routines You Can Live With

Susan @ 2KoP January 24, 2012 at 3:36 pm

Thank you, Suzannah. I think the more we open ourselves up to learning from other writers, the better.
Read Susan @ 2KoP´s last article ..Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear

missy April 22, 2012 at 5:43 pm

Hi, I shave a question…if you are writing a novel, would you share your work with your writer’s group?

Susan Bearman April 23, 2012 at 1:56 am

Hi, Missy. I think it depends on what stage you’re at in your writing and what kind of writing group you have. We were just discussing this at my writing group (which is not a critique group, but speakers will occasionally critique excepts). The consensus was that you should be far enough along in your story that you won’t be swayed by every comment or confused by other visions.

If you feel you are ready to start getting some feedback, most of our group suggested asking one or two trusted beta readers. Don’t pick friends or family members unless they are writers. Be clear about what kind of feedback you want. Give a few guidelines, like: In this read through I’m primarily interested in feedback on plot. Does everything make sense? Are there any holes? Was the plot too obvious? Did it flow well?

Or you could ask about character development or subplots or general writing. But it usually works best if you ask your readers/critiquers to concentrate on one area at a time.

I hope this helps. Best of luck.
Read Susan Bearman´s last article ..Wordless Wednesday #6: James Paradiso

Theresa Jewel Pinkston December 28, 2012 at 11:03 am

I searched for a writers’ group for about a year before starting my own. This piece gives me several ideas on how to improve Owensboro Writers Group. Do you have any suggestions on how to find published writers that are willing to talk to my group without paying them much, if any, money?

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