How to Build a Writing Group in Your Community

Illustration by monettenriquez / via Flickr
Illustration by monettenriquez / via Flickr

Note from Jane: The following post by Nathaniel Kressen is the third in a series sponsored by Nook Press, offering tips and advice from authors on writing and publishing. Read earlier sponsored posts from Nook:

Nook Press
This post is sponsored by Nook Press.

Writing for me has been anything but a solitary art form. It takes interacting with other writers to get the juices flowing. As a core member of the Greenpoint Writers Group in Brooklyn, I can experiment and push the boundaries of a story and get feedback in real time. And, perhaps most importantly, I witness the successes and setbacks of others on their journey, just as they witness mine. By uniting together, we drive one another to do our best possible work and also share resources. My work becomes an active and ever-growing part of the world rather than a secret project I hesitate to share.

So how can a writer who is just starting out find such a community?

One method would be entering an MFA writing program, but having come from an expensive undergraduate program myself, I can say it’s not advisable for everyone. A viable alternative is to explore the free or low-cost writing groups in your area, which can provide much of the same format as an MFA program—if set up correctly—but spare you the financial burden.

If you don’t live in a place like New York City where there are innumerable opportunities to find a group that suits your style, you can try establishing one yourself by approaching your local bookstore or library to see if they’d be willing to host meetings. There’s a good chance you’ll meet others in your area who are craving the same experience you are, so you’ll be providing a solution for them as well as yourself.

However, since many writing groups fold within the first few meetings, allow me to demystify the process.

As you start to seek members, you’ll need to consider what kind of group you want to belong to, and advertise for or seek members who want the same thing. Consider:

  • Frequency. Having a deadline compels a writer to produce more material than they might otherwise create if left to their own devices. Too much or too little time in between meetings can reduce the positive impact. In my experience, one week is too short of a turn-around time for a writer to absorb notes or create a body of new material, whereas one month can be too long and undercuts the urgency of the workshop, allowing the writer to procrastinate. Test out whether meeting every two weeks works for you and adjust as you see fit.
  • Group size. The benefit of having a small group is that everyone has the opportunity to participate in the discussion, but limiting the number of writers who can join will only prevent you from receiving fresh perspectives on your work. The good news is that the number of participants will fluctuate meeting by meeting early on, so there should be plenty of opportunities to experience both and decide what works best for the evolution of the group.
  • Structure. In some groups writers read their material aloud, but I’ve found that e-mailing work in the days prior proves more productive. First of all, it gives readers time to think about the material before offering feedback, and second, it presents work in the same way it’ll be seen by editors and agents.
  • Feedback. Some groups elect to have writers sit silently while receiving feedback, but this may limit the constructive dialogue that can happen. The trick is for the writer not to become defensive, and for the readers to stay focused on what the writer is seeking to accomplish rather than what they would do differently themselves. If the dialogue remains honest, open, and patient, it will prove useful to the writer’s process.

Once you’ve found some writers interested in forming a group and you start to figure out the basics referenced above, here are additional issues you’ll want to address.

  • How big will the group be allowed to get and how will you add new members? Fresh perspectives are just as essential to a writer’s development as having colleagues who know and stand behind your work. As the group grows, you’ll find it increasingly difficult to satisfy the needs of both new and longtime members. This is why, with the Greenpoint Writers Group, we started running both closed and open meetings, so that we could tailor the format to the people in attendance. You’ll see this discussed in greater detail below.
  • Will you charge fees to join? I think there’s no swifter way to kill a writer’s enthusiasm than by making them wonder whether or not they’re getting their money’s worth. That said, there are master classes out there taught by established writers that offer direction and inspiration that the average casual gathering might not—but those are more for your own journey as a writer. As the head of a group, I’d recommend keeping money out of the process unless it proves absolutely necessary to keep it going, noting that you don’t need a location that charges rent in order to hold a meeting. Anywhere with a lamp and chairs will do—or, chairs lacking, a floor.
  • Who will oversee the circulation of manuscripts and related critique materials? As the group’s founder you’ll most likely be tasked with managing the logistics, at least early on. In time, the enthusiasm and dedication of your peers will build and they’ll eagerly share the workload with you. However, it’s important from the get-go to make peace with performing modest tasks for the greater good. They will be time-consuming, but they are essential to the group’s survival.  If you’re no fan of administrative work, you’re better off joining an established group than starting one of your own.

The format will evolve based on the needs and recommendations of its members, yet it must always remain a supportive and respectful environment. In short, both flexibility and structure are needed. I adopted this role for the Greenpoint Writers Group in 2010 after having found the group at random. Its founder moved out of the city and asked if I would be interested in taking over as its leader given my prior experience running a group for playwrights within a small theater company. I accepted and quickly encountered challenges.

When I started, there might be two or twelve people at any given meeting, without any way of knowing beforehand how many would show up. Long projects, such as a novel-in-progress, would have to be re-introduced at every meeting for new members, and readers would have to give feedback without having seen the previous material. We would also get writers who showed up to workshop their material only to never return.

We’ve found a way to avoid such situations and have the benefits of both a large and a small group: we run limited duration intensives. Members commit to attending every meeting, thereby creating a reliable and informed audience for everyone’s work. We make the intensive a recurring event and now the Greenpoint Writers Group operates on two levels—a semiannual 12-week Intensive dedicated to a limited group of writers, plus biweekly meetings open to anyone who wishes to attend. Active participants in the biweeklies have the option of applying to the next intensive, and our “core group” of writers has grown ever since we started. Through this format, we aim to encourage and develop the wide network of talent in our area while still providing a creative home for in-depth feedback.

There have been several incarnations of the GWG before we arrived at our current state, and it will surely continue to shift. Building a community takes time and fortitude, and for the dedicated writer, the best thing you can do is involve yourself in an art scene that feeds you creatively, even if you have to create it from scratch.

Nook Press
This post is sponsored by Nook Press.
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