Thursday, April 16, 2009

Nine things to consider when forming a writers' group

Today I had my first writers' group meeting. Oh, man....I wish I'd done this years ago. (OK - actually, I did do this years ago, but everyone in my group left France - yet another hazard of being an expat freelancer.) It felt so good to break away from my computer and actually talk to other struggling freelancers face to face. Within the first twenty minutes, I learned of three new English-language magazines in France, got several more ideas for relevant blog posts, and felt generally cheered by the fact I was in a circle of people who understood what I'm up against - being a mom, wanting to write, wanting to earn money, living in a foreign country. I really hope it works out. Not all writers’ groups do.

What does it take to form a successful writers’ group? My last writers’ group was great. But we were only four people and friends beforehand, which made a huge difference in how we communicated and the degree of trust we had in one another – key elements, I think, to having a successful group. We also knew what each of us wanted to gain from the group, and were equally comfortable discussing fiction and non-fiction. At the outset, we discussed some basic guidelines for how we wanted the sessions to be structured and how to handle critiques, but it was nothing formal (I know that many writers groups write down their rules).

This new writers' group will be quite different. I’d never met any of the women before and it’s almost twice the size of my previous group. We seem to be on the same page regarding what we wanted from the group, the type of work we wanted to do, and how often we wanted to meet. But, as I was walking home, it occurred to me that there are still some issues that are worth reflecting on at future sessions. Take a look below – these considerations are not particular to our group and will be useful for any freelancer wanting to form a successful writers’ group.

1. What is the ideal size of the group? Personally, I feel that a group of 7-10 would be an ideal size. Conversations are easier if the group isn’t too large, plus you can better understand each person’s writing objective, writing style, and weak spots. All of this will make for more thoughtful critiques. Today we were six people, although more than six expressed an interest in joining. We'll need to think about at what point we'll need to cut people off.

2. How long are most of the members sticking around? A key question for us expat freelancers. I was completely bereft when my previous writers’ group broke up because all the other members left France. My productivity plummeted and I really floundered for awhile. I would advise that a core number of your group will be around for at least 1-2 years. (Of course, if you're all leaving around the same time that would work too!)

3. What is the primary goal of the group? Is it a group that focuses mainly on critiquing work? Or will it be primarily about how to develop your freelancing career? Our group seemed to be more interested in the latter at this point, but it could change as our meetings become more regular. I, for one, would like a mixture of both.

4. How often will the group meet? For me, it is important to meet in person and in a perfect world, I'd love to meet twice a month. But I know that for most of us, myself included, that will be pretty much impossible. We're all moms and live in different parts of Paris, so it's really tough to find a time that's convenient for all of us. And how much work could realistically get done in the two intervening weeks? Not much. I think it'll be once a month for us, hopefully not much longer than that. We'll see...

5. How should each meeting be structured? We discussed having one person to lead each meeting and each meeting having a different theme. We didn't discuss how we'd work critiquing into this, but I supposed we could allot a certain amount of time for discussion of the theme, and then have the rest of the time be for critiquing. This is something we'll have to talk about further.

6. How should the group establish rules regarding the confidentiality of our work? No writers' group can be successful if its members fear having their work stolen or shown to/discussed with people outside of the group. It must be made clear at the outset that the work seen within the writers' group must stay within the writers' group. We agreed that confidentiality was important, but we should probably be explicit about what that means.

7. What kind of rules should the group have for the critiquing of work? (Both for the person offering a critique and the person receiving the critique). Again, the success of a writers' group depends upon the level of trust among its members. For some groups, no-holds-barred critiques may be welcomed. Other groups may insist upon a light touch. Before the first critique session, the group should discuss how the critiquing process should go -- both for the people giving the critique and the person receiving (after all, undue sensitivity and defensiveness will help no-one!)

8. Is there a place for between-meeting support? Maybe having an email list will suffice for some writers' groups, but I started a "Google Group" for ours. I've never belonged to one of these groups before, but I imagine that it's an easy way to keep in touch, immediately post relevant articles or leads, and discuss group-related things without cluttering up everyone's in-box. You can form groups with 'Yahoo' as well - I didn't use Google for any particular reason.

9. Do the rules of the group need to be written down? Seems like most serious writers groups put their rules and objectives in writing. But is that really necessary? At first, I thought it seemed too anal and extreme. But upon further reflection, I decided that it's probably a good thing. Having the rules decided and written at the outset can stave off potential in-fighting and disappointment. (Even though nobody likes to think of discord at the beginning of a relationship, the lawyer in me knows that we all probably should.) In addition, written rules would also be helpful for new or potential members. If they feel they can't adhere to the rules, they can bow out early before anyone's time is wasted.

So, those are my thoughts on this topic -- what are yours? Feel free to add comments in the box below!

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