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?


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