"The first thing I would suggest is to find another writer, a group of writers or even two groups of writers if possible – with which to share your work. There is, in my opinion, nothing more valuable than having someone give constructive criticism on your work and the more feedback you can get the better" - Isabel Galleymore, Charles Causley Poet in Residence 2016
Writing groups can be a great source of support, critical guidance and friendship. Lots of published writers have joined one at some time or another – and remain members long after their works are selling in Waterstones. To paraphrase a movie trailer, in a world where writing advice seems to be everywhere, and some of it is expensive, writing groups remain a friendly and fine place for support and encouragement – and mostly free!
There are many established groups in our region, and you should be able to find out about the nearest at your local library, or from online listings like The National Association of Writers’ Groups. There might be one in your area, and if not, you could consider starting one!
The best writing groups, new and longstanding, have clear rules about what to expect from the group, and agreed administration to keep the practical stuff on point. None of it might be written down formally – and it’s important to keep flexibility and informality – but it will be in place somehow in a group that’s working well.
So. if you’re looking to start a group, or weighing up joining one, here are a few of our thoughts …
Unless the group is a very tight friendship collective, writing groups are easier to run, and attend, in public places like your local library or arts centre.
Health and safety hasn’t gone mad – it’s just simply that when you invite people publicly to take part in an activity, you’re responsible for both of these things, and by extension, someone needs to be looking out for you. Working in collaboration with an established public venue will help here and the experience for everyone should be safe and straightforward.
As an added bonus, they might not charge for the room, or will charge only a little.
Think about genres at the very beginning – whether joining or starting a group. In our experience, this can sometimes be a source of disappointment in a writing group. Although there is a lot to learn from each other, some genres need different things from the group experience – poets and novelists, for example, might need different chunks of time.
Equally some genres can benefit from a specific group totally dedicated in one direction. It might sound obvious, but a tight group of Space Opera novelists might not be the best place to air your latest series of nature sonnets. It might be, but nonetheless …
What kind of group are you joining or setting up? Is it for ‘beginners’ or published writers, or those with a completed manuscript looking for an agent?
Groups with members at all points of the compass can work well (we can all learn from each other) but they can go wrong if people feel out of their depth, whether they’re in the shallow end, or leaping off the board with people in armbands in the way! Different people want different things from a group, and the best group environments are usually where everyone is more or less on the same page.
Informal with a drink of wine in the bar after, or heads down and dead serious at all times? Friends and fun, or intense critical editing? Make sure you’re in with the right crowd.
Writing groups need an agreed system for keeping in touch – whether it’s email, Facebook, whatever. Cancellations, changes of venue and so on need announcement, and if there’s a fee for your venue, say, that needs collection. With luck, someone will volunteer, but it’s more time consuming than it seems, and some groups share the responsibility one month to the next. But, one way or another, make sure the system is in place, so that all the news gets passed on.
When groups become more established, they might begin to think about constitutions, bank accounts and the like, but on the other hand, don’t burden the group until it’s really necessary to move up a gear.
What does a typical meeting look like? How many people can join, and how can they join? Who can join? Is there a selection process? What happens when the meeting takes place?
The ground rules for all this and more are best sorted and agreed early.
Some more examples: does everyone read for a set amount of minutes? Does the group’s commentary also last a certain time? These are tricky issues, because unresolved, a meeting can either last a very long time, or people leave disappointed with the time allotted to their writing. Some groups might have a Chair, to keep things moving and ticking.
We often hear that a group is hogged by one particular person, or how another never has time for Fantasy, or how so and so “goes into endless detail about other writing but never says a peep about mine”, and so on. Future-proof by having a frank discussion at the very beginning of a new group, or when a new member joins an existing bunch. When new writers join, it’s useful to be sure the ways of the group are re-established.
There aren’t stock one size fits all answers for these things either, so the rules need to come from the individual members of the group, and may shift slightly with time and new people.
Sometimes, people will write about difficult stuff and will want to take it along the group and ask you to hear it.
Maybe they need a view on a tricky section in their novel where there’s a zombie disembowelment. Or it’s a crime novel, and we’re on the detailed forensics. Maybe they’re struggling with a graphic Premier Inn tryst. Whatever. But, the key here is to establish your group’s feeling on this sort of thing from the get-go; some members may be more sensitive than others. It can often be a genre issue that could have done with earlier clarity (see above!). Some groups are open to everything, while others are more cautious – perhaps setting content rules, or having a red flag agreement so that people can nip out and make a cup of tea.
More seriously, people may want to share particularly personal writing, and you need to make sure your group is the right, most supportive environment for this. Again, a collective decision on how best to support this needs to be taken early rather than “when it comes up”. It can be difficult for group members to find appropriate responses, and upsetting for the person sharing the work if the discussion goes badly. Writing group members speak of being unsure whether to comment on the writing or try to offer their support for the member in their experience. Afterwards, they may worry they achieved neither. Sometimes, writers find it hard to comment on the technical quality of the writing in these circumstances without seeming insensitive to the subject matter.
There is no easy answer to any of the above, so discussing it early, and agreeing how the group handles these situations is the very best start. Again, it’s really important to brief new members on what to expect.
Criticism can be difficult – to find the words to share it, and to take it.
Positive, supportive and useful criticism is what we’re after. If something doesn’t quite work, it can be really great to take it to the group, and ask for some insight into where it’s going wrong, or technical solutions. As Stephen King says, eventually you need to write with the door open.
But, mean spirited, excessive or inexpert technical criticism are killers, no matter how thick our hides. Equally, some groups find themselves swept away in a constant river of well-meaning mutual high praise, so that no one gets home really knowing whether their work is much cop or not. It’s a very tricky balance, so talking early as a group about this is worthwhile.
Finally, as a prospective group member, if you’re not sure that even constructive criticism is for you in a public group context – and there’s nothing at all wrong with that; you’d be far from alone – maybe more one-to-one forms of support will be better, like mentoring.
Remember, a writing group should be basically enjoyable! If you attend one that leaves you depressed for a fortnight after each meet, think about giving it up, and finding another one. It may be that you need a different kind of outlet – a creative writing course, maybe? There’s no shame in admitting a group isn’t working for you.
Chances are, others feel the same way.
Writing groups sometimes have an allotted time on earth. They are made up of a complex dynamic of different individuals with different demands and ambitions that coalesce at different times in their lives. We often hear of groups just outgrowing themselves. There’s nothing at all wrong with this.
Make sure the group stays a positive experience – there’s no need to keep struggling to maintain a group if it has outlived its use and good days! Re-invent!
Writing Groups are great for helping with the direction of travel, for making chums and for testing and finishing work. When it’s going well like this, have a think about a shared project, like a publication or public reading to work towards. With one caveat – don’t let it take over from the good stuff, and make sure there are ground rules for the celebration too! Ironically, we’ve seen groups that previously worked really well come unstuck the minute a publication broke the surface!
There are sources of funding for literature activity, whether Arts Council England’s Grants for the Arts (if your project is over £1000) or our own Annual Fund for smaller activity. Like others, we don’t fund actual publications, but can support visiting writers, and events.